On The Efficacy of Happy Thoughts

We’ve all gotten the message from a well-meaning coworker or friend: they’ve heard of some misfortune or illness you’ve suffered and they tell you that you’re “in their thoughts” or that they are “sending you positive feelings.” You’re left wanting to thank them but wondering just what, exactly, such a sentiment actually means.

The power of positive thinking is undeniable. People who are forever preoccupied with failure are extremely good at avoiding risk, and consequently, success. People who think big and have an indomitable spirit see obstacles as nothing more than rungs on the ladder of achievement and tend to accomplish big things. They may trip along the way, but they make forward progress (even if by falling) and thus realize the fruits of their efforts.

Positive thinking is also helpful for those fighting a grave illness or injury. Stories abound about people fighting for their life against this condition or that, and those with the strongest will to live often cheat the odds and tip the balance toward living in the fight between life and death. A recent study even indicates that a positive attitude and sense of humor may actually extend our longevity. In my mind, there’s very little doubt that mind over matter…matters.

But if thinking positively can have such a profound effect on your own life, what of thinking positively on behalf of others? I’m not talking about offering a person going through a crisis good advice, or rousing your team with an inspired pep-talk; I’m speaking of the mental exercise of sending “good vibes” in the direction of someone experiencing hard times. To me, this sounds a great deal like what many people call prayer. Only not. It’s directed from person-to-person, rather than from person-to-God-to-person. As such, I can’t help but wonder why a person would skip the God step in this equation unless they either:

a.)    Don’t believe in Him

b.)    Are afraid that others might be offended if they were to admit that they do believe.

Option “b” may not be particularly courageous, but it is, at least, understandable. Option “a,” though? To not believe in God but offer to do something that looks very much like praying just doesn’t make any sense.

If a person has no faith in God and ergo, no confidence in the power of prayer, what possible belief could they have in the efficacy of “good thoughts?” What would their ontological explanation be for the delivery method of said thoughts, vibes, or feelings? How would these be transmitted through the other toward a person in need? And would this ontology admit the possibility of sending bad thoughts, vibes, and feelings to some ill-effect? Is this some sort of magical power, a variation on spell-casting, or a form of extra-sensory perception? Or is it merely a form of rather lazy wishful thinking – the idea that one can affect the condition of another through sheer force of will without actually doing anything?

To an unbelieving world, prayer is controversial, its power is in dispute, and even amongst its most devoted practitioners its results vary widely. All the same, it strikes me as the more intellectually honest option, even for the not-so-faithful. The saying that there are “no atheists in foxholes” seems to apply here. Believing that there is a higher power in the universe that can be called upon to right wrongs, heal the sick, and help those in need may seem like childish mysticism to the skeptic, but it makes far more sense than merely thinking or wishing that something will change and actually expecting to see an observable outcome. If that sort of thing worked, nobody would ever get a speeding ticket or watch their football team lose a game.

And if those sending “good thoughts” in lieu of saying “I’ll pray for you” don’t really believe that platitudes about good thoughts have the power to do anything, it’d be far less insulting for them to say “I hope things get better for you,” or perhaps to simply say nothing at all. Otherwise, all they’re really saying is “I feel sorry for you, so here’s a trite expression of my pity that I know will be ineffectual in any way except by possibly giving you the feeling that I care about you.” Put that in a Facebook status and see how it goes over.

Our society values niceties over virtues. We embrace being crass while doing everything in our power not to offend. We tolerate everything but believe in nothing. And when these paradoxical forces converge, they cancel each other out and create a potent strain of mediocrity that dilutes the meaning of all human interaction.

If you believe in God and the power of prayer, show true compassion, and don’t be afraid to let people know that you’re praying for them. They’ll likely appreciate your sincerity, even if they don’t share your beliefs. And if you don’t believe in anything, it’s probably best not to patronize. Offer comforting words, sound advice, or solidarity. Squinting your eyes and wishing for the best, while well-intentioned, won’t get you very far.


Steve Skojec serves as the Director of Community Relations for a professional association. He is a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, where he earned a BA in Communications and Theology. His passions include writing, photography, social media, and an avid appreciation of science fiction. Steve lives in Northern Virginia with his wife Jamie and their five children.

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  • Thanks for ably tackling a peeve of mine, Steve. I think you fail to appreciate, though, how many people DO think that their “good thoughts” have some kind of mystical efficacy. Having rejected religion but unwilling to embrace the bleakness of materialism, they settle for vague superstition. Objectively speaking I can’t see why this Fairy Land mentality requires any less faith than belief in a personal God (indeed it would seem to require more), but on the other hand it doesn’t make any moral demands, so…

  • You’re asking for clear thinking, for an “ontological” explanation for the actions of dumb, modern people steeped in nebulous New Agey fuzz-think? Seriously?

  • hombre111

    Good work, Steve.  I will keep you in my good thoughts, tied to the wings of a prayer.

  • Gomer

    It’s the same people who say, “I’m not religious. I’m spiritual.” C.S. Lewis thinks the greatest achievement of Satan is the materialist-magician, someone who has forsaken God and the supernatural, yet grabs hold of the superstitious and “mystical”.

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  • Christina Burtis

     “Our society values niceties over virtues. We embrace being crass while
    doing everything in our power not to offend. We tolerate everything but
    believe in nothing. And when these paradoxical forces converge, they
    cancel each other out and create a potent strain of mediocrity that
    dilutes the meaning of all human interaction.” Very true.

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  • Joan

    I know many people who truly believe in this “New Thought” religion, formerly called “New Age” or “Aquarianism.” There are scores of books available that explain it with perfect logic (?). Louise Hay might be one of the most famous advocates, Deepak Chopra is another. Their motto is “Energy follows thought,” and they really believe it. Whatever you think, and it could be healing another, creating wealth for yourself, or finding a lover, or even curing yourself of cancer, hold that thought and it will actually “manifest in the universe”. God has nothing to do with it. The “power comes from within.” Because this is not a formal religion with a leader and dogma, anyone can believe anything, but typically the advocates of this viewpoint are politically liberal and against “repressive, patriarchal” institutions such as our society and the Church.