Psychological Immune System

Activate your psychological immune system

Our brains have built-in processes that help us make meaning of adversity, and find ways to pick up and keep going after a shock, injury, or disappointment.  Psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson have been researching our abilities to “weather the storms” of life, and figure out how to make the best of bad situations.

Gilbert and Wilson have found that people tend to overestimate how strong their negative emotions will be when thinking about a possible failure or disaster in their future.  In addition, they underestimate how long the feelings of shock, sadness, injury or disappointment will last.  Because we have trained our minds to look for the positive, and self-soothe, the results of experiments show that people actually take in stride more difficulties than they think they can.

Calling this the “psychological immune system”, Gilbert and Wilson comment that our skills in putting negative events in a positive light function as a buffer, allowing us to cast off potential ill effects in much the same way that our physical immune system overcomes viruses and other threats to health.

We are not advocating a kind of “instant” positivity, where a person in difficulty is pressured from the outside to “find the positive”.  In some cases, the best way forward is to work on moving from negative feelings to a more neutral zone, where we can examine the circumstances and our emotional reaction to them to get to a place of acceptance of what’s really going on.  From there, we are in a position to consider how this fits in our overall journey towards our own purpose.

We have commented before on how well we train our minds to “serenity” or accepting what can’t be changed, but that this training may well come at the expense of training our courage to make changes.  Gilbert and Wilson have found that the belief that negative emotions will be stronger or longer-lasting than, in reality, they are causes people to avoid risks and therefore to lose out on the potentially higher payoffs of risk-taking.  Nurturing a strong psychological immune system works to stave off anxiety and depression, or make their effects less debilitating, as we move through a complex and uncertain world where risk-taking is often necessary to move towards increased well-being.

Another name for this process is “resilience”, which, as we have noted before, is not an inborn characteristic, but a skill set that we learn through practice as we mature.  Wherever you are in life, there are steps you can take to become healthier and more purposeful in your living.


We don’t know our own strength. American Psychological Association Monitor. October 2001.

The psychological immune system.  The Guardian. August 2023.