God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.
Amazing in its simplicity, yet all encompassing in its implications, the Prayer has achieved near-iconic status and has been adopted by such major organizations as Alcoholics Anonymous.
But while it can act as a simple, if not pleasing exhortation, in its initial statement it is difficult to gauge its actual usefulness for a client in the context of any given programmatic therapeutic treatment mode. And yet the thoughts contained in the Prayer have an undeniable suggestive power.
The status of the Prayer in the armamentarium of therapists and counselors could be greatly enhanced if it were shown that there is, in fact, scientific and practice evidence which directly support it. The evidence is there, and the Prayer well deserves much more serious consideration by practitioners and researchers.
Where is the evidence for these assertions? It is readily available in the technical and professional literature. However, no one source has presented this information in an organized, consistent, and accessible format. (I recently conducted such a project and now has published the results of that project in the book Mastering Your Self, Mastering Your World: Living by the Serenity Prayer. John Hunt Publishing, UK; 2015.)
The Core of the Serenity Prayer: Control and Events
A casual reading of the Prayer shows that, at its core, it is concerned with the reader’s personal control, or lack of it, in dealing with “things.” Closer analysis shows that there are two main lines of thought mixed together here:
Control. It turns out that one of the most dominant and enduring research topics in all of psychological research and clinical practice is personal control, variously called “perceived control,” “self-efficacy,” locus of control,” personal mastery,” competence, and others.
Many thousands of studies (by various estimates) have been conducted on this topic in the past 50 years, and they continue to appear regularly. The traditional meaning of the term relates to having the expectancy that one can achieve desirable experiences and avoid undesirable experiences.
With impressive consistency, studies on this concept all point to the power of personal control to enhance mental and physical health, while a perceived lack of it relates to poor adjustment. One aim of clinical practice is to help the clients gain in their capacity to bring the world into line with their needs and desires or, conversely, to bring their self into line with their world (to paraphrase one of the key contributions to this literature) . This thought is entirely congruent with the intent of the Serenity Prayer, and it suggests a way that the Prayer can be made real and functionally useful for therapists and clients alike.
“Things.” The other line of thought expressed in the Prayer involves the ambiguous word “things” (“…to accept the things…” and, “courage to change the things”…). On the face of it, that vague term is not particularly helpful in a therapeutic setting. But the research literature is quite clear in making specific reference to the daily events and major life-changing events that all people experience and have to deal with throughout the course of their lives.
The term “thing” is defined as, “a particular event, occurrence, or situation,” and these are the core of the presenting symptoms that the client brings to the counseling setting. For example, chronic depression, serious illness, divorce, addiction, getting married, having a child, getting a promotion—while greatly different from each other—are all nevertheless better thought of as actual “events,” rather than just “things.” They have a beginning and a time course.
But some are duke to our own efforts—we are causal agents, while some arise outside of our personal control. Research has shown that experiencing a higher level of uncontrollable events is related to poorer adjustment, while reporting higher levels of belief that one can control the events of one’s life is related to more positive mental and physical health. Looking at events from a controllability perspective provides a platform upon which concrete therapeutic insights can be applied and made personally effective for clients.
Progress in therapy is made possible by helping the person strengthen their emotional, cognitive, and behavioral repertoire to the events of their lives—a great improvement on the vague term “things.”
One more critical and yet obvious distinction about events is important to consider. This property of events involves their emotional or evaluative nature; they are desirable or undesirable, positive or negative (and some more or less neutral). “Having a child succeed” or “achieving a success at work” are desirable events, and represent major goals to which a person might orient their style of living. On the other hand, “having a child become ill” or “being fired at work” are both negative, undesirable events, and they represent major obstacles to one’s happiness and they are ones which we strive to avoid. Seeing the person as living in an environment of events with definable properties helps the counseling situation employ a more systematic, research-based approach.
Using the Serenity Prayer in Your Practice
So the key employing a reconstituted Serenity Prayer is to examine (1) the nature of the client’s personal control beliefs, and perceptions in the context of (2) examining the dynamics of the events in that person’s life, optimizing the interactions of beliefs, and events’ properties.
The key is to help parse the client’s life into those desirable and undesirable events that are personally controllable and those that are personally uncontrollable. This double distinction creates a highly useful template for helping the person develop a new understanding for optimizing the individual own’s context of living.
In total, the bottom line of these studies is that personal control is teachable. Our lives are in many ways under our own personal control, and the Serenity Prayer, seemingly simple, is in fact a highly powerful way of improving the lives of clients.
Dr. Reich’s book, “Mastering Your Self, Mastering Your World: Living by The Serenity Prayer,” (John Hunt Publishing 2015) presents a template for teaching the underlying principles of personal control and the controllability and desirable/undesirable evaluative properties of our daily events, and includes an overview of the 12 major experimental tests of successful techniques for enhancing personal mastery that have been reported in the literature.
1. Rothbaum, F, Weisz, J. R., & Snyder, S. S. (1984). Changing the world and changing the self: A two-process model of perceived control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 5-37.
Photo courtesy of frankie leon on flickr