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Chew on Life's Big Questions

Prayer vs. Positive Thought

On Facebook, the compromise of religious pluralism is alive and well in—what else?—status updates.  “Please send prayers for my mom who is having surgery today."  Or “I need good thoughts for my job interview tomorrow.” I've done it myself.  In fact, we've come to accept that what some people call "prayers," others call "good thoughts," "good energy," or "positive vibes." 

But is this substitution really valid? 

Positive thinking has been getting a bum rap recently—mistress of the exposé, Barbara Ehrenreich, took on the positive thinking culture after a recent turn with cancer. In characteristic style, Ehrenreich confronts the "positive thinking" culture in America and finds it, in her opinion, fraudulent and harmful. She’s not one to mince words—her book is called Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.

While some have viewed Ehrenreich as the Grinch who stole Nirvana, it turns out that, scientifically speaking, she may have a point.

A new study demonstrates that prayer increases forgiveness in those who pray for the ones who have harmed them. What's interesting about the study is not so much that prayer has a positive effect on people (that’s hardly news) but that the controls in the experiments were people who simply "thought positive thoughts" but didn't specifically "pray.” 

The thinking? That if “positive thoughts” and "good vibes" are equally effective, valid substitutions for each other, then there would be similar results in both groups. There weren’t. In fact, the researchers found that the praying group experienced a more profound decrease in negative emotions and vengeful intentions. 

It was a two-part study: In the first part of the study, one group prayed for their romantic partners, while the other group simply described the romantic partner into a tape recorder. That’s when things got interesting: In the second part of the study, people prayed for a close friend every day for four weeks, while the control group simply reflected on the friendship and thought "positive thoughts.” Using measures of "selfless concern for others," the praying group experienced increased selfless concern for others and an expanded capacity for forgiveness, not just concerning the relationship in question but for people in general

It reminds me of the movie Shadowlands. Anthony Hopkins plays the writer C.S. Lewis, and while his wife is dying in a hospital bed, one of his friends sheepishly encourages him to keep praying. He tells him half-heartedly that God will answer his prayers. Lewis replies: “That's not why I pray, Harry. I pray because I can't help myself. I pray because I'm helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn't change God; it changes me.”

Are prayer and positive thought the same thing? What is it about prayer specifically that seems to have the power to change people? 

:: Jennifer Pierce

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