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August 13, 2019

Positive Psychology and the Power of Prayer

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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When I was a teenager growing up in Shoubra, a middle-class suburb of Cairo, I would ask my mother every time I sat for an exam to pray that I'd do well. None of my six siblings did the same.

It wasn’t that I considered myself unusually religious, but because I found her prayers helped me a lot; I was always at the top of my class. Of course, I studied hard to deserve my ranking and to ensure her prayers were answered!

This habit continued throughout the 25 or so years of my formal education, including my successful PhD work in Canada. To me, the practice of prayer was an evidence-based process that resulted in happiness and success, so I applied it to other aspects of my life besides academics. My mother was only too happy to help.

But when she passed away 30 years ago, I started asking family members and friends to pray for me every time I faced a challenge (I always prefer to call these events “challenges,” rather than “problems”).

At the same time, I formed a personal habit of offering prayers on behalf of others, even when they did not request them, or seemed not to believe in the power of prayer. And no one ever outright rejected my offer to pray for them, regardless of what they may or may not have believed.

So, prayer became an integral part of my life – something that can help heal all things, perhaps even “cure” some as well.

Yet I never thought to pose or answer one fundamental question:

Why does the seemingly simple act of praying have such a huge positive impact on one’s well-being and that of others for whom we pray?

That is, until I recently began reading the excellent 727-page book Managing Your Mind: The Mental Fitness Guide by Gillian Butler, Ph.D., Nick Grey, DC in Psych, and Tony Hope, MD (Oxford University Press, Third Edition, 2018).

The three authors with their over 100 years experience and expertise note:

“It is over 20 years since the first edition … and 10 years since the second edition. The emphasis now (in this third edition) is as much on how we can all thrive and flourish, as it is on overcoming the difficulties we all face. It draws on the increase in research in positive psychology while still being firmly grounded in evidence-based treatments for specific problems.”

“Over the last 20 years, a new field of psychological research has emerged, known as ‘positive psychology’. This developed as a reaction to the much greater attention that had been given by researchers to ‘negative’ emotion and feelings such as depression and anxiety, compared with ‘positive’ emotions such as happiness.”

Although Managing Your Mind does not discuss the power of prayer and its positive impact, it provides milestones on the road to achieving genuine happiness and success.

Based on this book’s research results and insights, here is my analysis of why prayer has always helped me and how it can help others.

First, before formulating a prayer it is essential to clearly identify the specific challenge: Is it passing an exam, or succeeding in an interview? Is it coping with the loss of a loved one, losing a job, financial hardship? Is it about serious or even terminal illness affecting yourself, a spouse, a family member, a friend, etc.?

Admittedly, this is often very difficult to do under the stress of the moment. But it is worth the effort, in order to overcome the challenge proactively – and preferably just one challenge at a time, please.

Second, you must accept that challenge. This is not a time to blame God, yourself, or anyone else; blame is always counterproductive.

Third, you must plan and do whatever you can to overcome the challenge. If it is an exam or an interview, prepare ahead, get a good night’s sleep, and remember, it is not “the end of the world” if you don’t succeed as well as you’d like. If you’re facing a contentious situation, such as a divorce, or child custody, always negotiate in good faith and don’t let emotion rule your judgment. If you are grieving the death of a loved one, there is nothing you can do to bring them back, but you can do more than you might imagine to proactively help yourself and others impacted by that loss.

Finally, discern and concentrate on the specifics of your prayer.

In some faith traditions, these are called “petitions,” and they help in articulating a prayer realistically. For example, when a loved one dies, it is not realistic or helpful to pray that they be brought back from death. But a prayer that their journey may end in Paradise and a petition that you may one day meet them again in the Hereafter can bring welcome calm and peace.

All four steps, in that order, can help a great deal in meeting difficult life-challenges head-on and avoiding many of their negative impacts.

If your prayer is answered (and there are myriad ways in which God responds) it is a bonus for which one can be grateful.

If it does not seem to have made any difference – or you are not yet able to notice any change – the four-step process still leaves you a stronger person, and much better equipped to cope with or resolve your challenge. Next time you face a difficulty, trust in the process and travel through the same four steps.

The authors of Managing Your Mind also observe that “one of the problems that all psychologists face is that their work involves trying to understand how different systems interact, and it is difficult to disentangle the numerous ways in which they influence each other ... mind and body, brain and behavior, thoughts and feelings and how they work together to keep us functioning well.”

They continue by noting that “The five-part model, developed by Christine Padesky, provides us with a simplified way of understanding these interactions that has been of great value to psychotherapists, and especially to those using cognitive behavioral methods.”

The authors illustrated this concept using a diagram with four icons: Feelings, Physical Reactions, Thoughts, and Behavior, where all four are fully interconnected and where each is influenced by, or is influencing, the other three. At the same time, all four are influenced by, or enveloped in, what they term an “Environment.”

“Of course, these four systems have a context,” they add. “They occur in someone who belongs to a particular environment which is made up of their history, culture, age, and experience, by their relationships with others, and by the actions of those around them … Feelings cover what might be termed moods, emotions, or feelings, including, for example, fear, sadness, anger, guilt, shame, and joy. Physical reactions include bodily symptoms and sensations, such as palpitations, pain, nausea, and sleepiness. The term Thoughts does not refer only to the explicit verbal thoughts that go through our minds. It also includes images, and the meanings and beliefs we may take from situations that are not as clear cut initially as a ‘thought going through your mind’.”

Although Managing Your Mind refers briefly to teachings of the Jewish Kabbalah and some principles of Buddhism, it does not offer an in-depth discussion about the impact of faith or prayers on a person's environment and the four systems that function within it.

However, I see great potential for bringing the practices of prayer into the big picture of “positive psychology.” I hope the authors will explore this powerful topic in their fourth edition.

* * * *

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry is professor of Computer Engineering at the University of Waterloo. He is the author of Spiritual Fitness For Life.

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