It Really is All About Attitude

Last year I received an invitation to speak at a conference for professionals in the caring professions. The conference was attended by doctors, nurses, counsellors, psychologists, psychiatrists, dentists, hospital and army chaplains, missionaries, marriage and family therapists, surgeons and students. The topic that the conference organizers had asked me to speak on was “Gratitude During Times of Suffering” and my marching orders were simple: explain how it’s possible to remain thankful in the midst of suffering.

Now I’ve never been particularly good at being thankful when things are going wrong. If I have trouble sleeping, I grumble the next day. If I don’t have enough money to buy something I want, I whine and complain to whoever will listen. If I have a physical injury, everyone in my circle of friends is sure to know about it. So expecting me to give a talk on how to be grateful during times of suffering is kind of like asking ask John Wayne to dance Swan Lake, or asking Justin Bieber to sing the part for Count Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro. 

To put it bluntly, I found my assignment daunting. How could I teach other professionals a lesson I had not even mastered myself?

In the end I decided to study the people who had learned to be grateful in the midst of suffering. Specifically, I decided to look at those who survived the Nazi holocaust or who had endured torture in communist prisons and yet somehow maintained a positive attitude throughout it all. Remarkably, there are people who lived through the worst horrors of the twentieth-century and still maintained an optimistic and thankful approach to life. What was their secret? And could the techniques they used for remaining positive in the midst of so much pain and misery help us better to cope with the mild inconveniences we face every day?

It turns out that their secret isn’t complicated at all. It all comes down to attitude.

I know, I know. You’ve probably heard a million times that you need to maintain a positive attitude. The self-help sections of the bookstores are filled with books essentially saying the same thing: just be positive! Everywhere we’re told to maintain a positive attitude as if it’s easy, as if there is a switch we can suddenly turn on to “have the right attitude.”

While reviewing the twentieth-century prison literature, I began to see that part of the problem is that we’ve come to think about positive attitudes in the wrong way. Those who managed to remain grateful in the midst of Nazi and Stalinist death camps understood a secret that few of us living in comfort and ease have been able to approach.

Their secret, what I call the “happiness formula”, is this: the things we can control in our internal environment are more fundamental to our happiness, wellbeing and peace of mind than the things we can’t control in our external environment.

When I talk about our “internal environment” I’m referring to things like our mindset, our values and our core spiritual convictions. By contrast, things in our external environment that we can’t control would be how other people treat us, what opportunities we have or what is happening around us.

Most of the time we get this backward. Even if we haven’t consciously thought about it, we instinctively assume that a positive attitude is the result of things working out for us in the realm of what we can’t control. For example, I often think, if only I had this, then I could have a good attitude. If only this-or-that would happen to me, then I could be happy.

The problem, of course, is that by making our happiness contingent on what is out there, we set ourselves up for perpetual frustration and misery. This perspective puts our happiness into the hands of others, or events beyond our control.

In days gone-by, people didn’t need much of a reminder that most of what happened in the external world was outside their control. The survival of our ancestors often depended on outside factors like having the right weather or having access to sufficient food sources. The irony is that as we’ve come to exercise more control over the external world, we’ve surrendered control of our internal realm, supposing that our emotional, psychological and spiritual survival also depends on what is happening around us. Amidst so many technological advances that enable us to manipulate the external world, it’s sometimes easy to forget that the things that matter most in life — the ingredients that go into happiness and wellbeing — are completely independent of what is happening outside of us. Rather, happiness and wellbeing are the results of our internal disposition. (“Internal disposition” is an intellectual way of referring to attitude.)

Recent research shows that having everything work out for us in the external world can actually block us from achieving true happiness. The psychologist Dan Gilbert spent much of his career researching happiness and doing clinical experiments on the ingredients that go into a fulfilled life. In his Ted Talk on Happiness, Gilbert makes a distinction between what he calls “natural happiness” and “synthetic happiness.” Natural happiness is the sort of happiness you receive when you get what you want. For example, you want a new car, your dream job, or a soul-mate, and when you manage to obtain the object of your desires you feel happy. But what Gilbert calls “synthetic happiness” is the type of happiness you make for yourself when you don’t get what you want, when your needs aren’t being met and yet your attitude is still one of thankfulness, joy and peace. Now the really interesting part of Gilbert’s research is that sometimes it takes deprivation in the realm of natural happiness (i.e., not having one’s needs and desires met) to propel a person to produce “synthetic happiness” (a type of happiness rooted purely in attitude).

I personally don’t like Gilbert’s terminology, as “synthetic happiness” sounds rather artificial, which it is certainly not. But his basic point coheres with what I discovered when studying the victims of the Nazis and Communists. Again and again the prison literature shows that when a person’s external world becomes unusually restricted, it forces a person to realize resources that are available within their own hearts. Often it is great personal tragedy that enables a person to tap into deeper meaning and realize that what is truly important in life is more lasting and important than what is happening around us. The things inside us that we can control (things like our attitude, values, and deepest spiritual convictions) are more important than the things in the world that we cannot control (how other people treat us, what opportunities we have, what is happening in our external environment).

In a follow-up post I will share more specific details about what I learned from the prison literature I studied.

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