“It’s not things but how we think of things that makes us happy.” — Epictetus (Greek Philosopher, 50-135 AD)
Let’s suppose you are struggling with a significant life challenge. Perhaps you’re thinking about finishing your college degree and going back to school, are in the grips of an addiction and contemplating getting help for your recovery or you’re seeking to lessen your life-long depression by getting counseling. You are at crossroad in your life. Let’s say you run into your life-long friend Joe and you let him in on your dilemma. Joe initially supports your intention but because he has known you all your life he reminds you of the many times in the past that you’ve set out to change your life in one way or the other. He humors you with funny stories of your failed efforts and tells you he will always be your friend no matter what. He jokes about the terrible family background you come from and sees the difficulty in expecting more for yourself. You temporarily enjoy the humor in his remarks and are glad that Joe is there for you, although you aren’t sure if he has been helpful to you.
The next day you run into another friend, Mike. Mike is Mr. Positive. He always has a kind word for everybody and knows how to turn adversity into success. You may be distrustful of Mike as a new friend and wonder what he wants from you. He is a little too good to believe. Nevertheless you decide to take a risk and share with Mike some of your personal struggles. Mike really doesn’t want to focus on your past failings but shares how much he respects your intentions to have a better life. He mentions how determined you were when you replaced the transmission in your car last year even when you didn’t completely know what you were doing. He said he saw a “can do” attitude in you that he would never want to bet against. He asks you what your next step is in getting help and shares having to face his own struggles. You’d like to believe that Mike really cares about you but you’re aware that Joe has known you longer than Mike has. So, in comparing these two friends, who do you feel more supported by: Joe or Mike?
This example suggests that more can be gained by focusing on our strengths, our connection to an encouraging person and having a specific plan for facing problems in our present life. Indeed, perhaps too much time is spent on dwelling on our past distress and not getting on with our lives. Indeed, misery may love company but risk-taking with support may bring us to greener pastures. This is the thinking of a relatively new field of psychology developed in the last twenty years that is showing a lot of promise and is supported by research. It’s called positive psychology. It’s a very hands-on, action-oriented psychotherapy whose focus is present day help for mood improvement and personal well-being. It does not ignore the miseries of our past life experiences but is a truly authentic methodology that focuses on the present and what can be done to be happy and fulfilled. It doesn’t deny the past but attempts to deal with the past in how it appears in our present life. It’s the epitome of a “can do” mentality. Its optimism is not naïve but is truly authentic. Best of all, research tells that it works!
This more hopeful modality emphasizes the profound importance of the therapeutic alliance between helper and helpee. Resistance to change is seen as worthwhile since it addresses what the hold-up in a person’s life is about. In this style, the client is the expert on himself and the helper is the catalyst for change, often by observing existing strengths in the helpee and suggesting specific suggestions that empower the client and enable the helpee to truly own his or her competency. In this methodology the client practices making corrections in his or her own life by first doing it with the helper and then outside the relationship with others. Often this type of therapy has a profound effect on the helper as well as the client. This method of change can be incorporated with other forms of professional help such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, somatic trauma therapy and psychodynamic therapy.
I like this change methodology because, based on the example above, I might enjoy seeing an old friend like Joe but would very much more prefer to get the help of someone like Mike who nudges me to get on with my life. As the old saying goes, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” This mentality is even more relevant today in our often-powerless pandemic age.
What research says about looking on the bright side
The benefits of positive psychology are actually quite remarkable even when you have lived through difficult life experiences. Being the starry-eyed optimist is a lot more life-saving than you would imagine. Clearly such views need to be authentic and based on real life personal victories. Research says that happier people live on average ten years longer than less happy people. Possibly this is due to the fact that happier people have stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure and better heart health, and they have more successful marriages and favorable work experiences. Optimistic people also tend to focus less on their negative experiences and more on a feeling of gratitude for what they have in life. Even people with significant depression and trauma can lessen their symptoms more quickly by focusing on gratitude, personal forgiveness, self-compassion and a willingness to do small acts of kindness for others. Doing such behaviors changes our brain chemistry, helps us relax, improves our capacity to separate the past from the present and helps us grieve and live more in the present without judgment. We focus better when we are not living in our past.
“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not but rejoices for that which he has.” EpictetusLooking on the bright side is not the same as sugar-coating, which denies our past. No amount of sugar coating or denial of our past will sustain a happy life. Staying on the bright side means having an awareness of our darker life suffering but living less in that world. Oddly enough, having positive life experiences in the present actually facilitates our grief over past suffering and allows us to put such pain to rest. Brain studies verify many of these assertions. Good books to read on this subject are Why Good Things Happen to Good People (Broadway Books, 2007) by Stephen Post, Ph. D. and Jill Neimark and Hardwiring Happiness (Penguin Books, 2013) by Rick Hanson. We may not need research to tell us these things. Any one of us who has had an encouraging friend knows that miracles happen through the loving kindness of someone who truly accepts and cares for us.
Positive psychology skills
What the client sees as the problem is the starting point of help. In this modality, the client’s expertise on what helps is respected and gets aided by the helper’s suggestions in the collaborative relationship. Often these suggestions include building positive psychology skills whose efficacy is based on research. These skills may include: Body awareness and mindfulness, developing an attitude of gratitude, practicing acts of kindness, seeing the bigger picture, developing compassion for self and others, enabling personal forgiveness, recognizing a life purpose, witnessing strengths in self and others, cultivating trustworthy intimate relationships, and having a spiritual sense. Any one of these skills has been shown to increase serenity, relaxation, self-confidence and a resilient, positive mood. These benefits result from a change in brain chemistry and are long-lasting. Such positive results also allow us to process, grieve and resolve past suffering while dwelling less on past emotional wounds. The power of positivity in the hands of a skilled helper truly can facilitate miracles.
Social context of looking on the bright side
We are living in very grim times due to the COVID-19 pandemic, political strife and economic hardship. Our news media has no idea of TMI — “too much information.” We are constantly exposed to the grim parts of life 24-7. You can only imagine how much anxiety our children feel when they are exposed to strife that is beyond their maturity level to handle. Especially when so many adults have become cynical and socially distrustful. So, what better time to learn how to look for the better side of things?!
The dark side of ourselves – such as distrust, disdain, stereotyping, blame, and lack of trust we have in others – is more about ourselves than somebody else. The reason we do that is that we don’t want to look at ourselves.Well I can tell you that one of the best kept secrets of life is that most people are very trustworthy. Nine out of ten are capable of real compassion. The ten percent of those who aren’t, are there to keep us on our toes, to protect ourselves, and be more forgiving. Most of us bring the better part of ourselves to others. If we keep our eyes open, we will sense the well-being that is all around us, even in these dire times. Most of us are naturally driven to lead fulfilling and meaningful lives in families. We are all capable of bringing the better parts of ourselves to others (at least for the most part).
The dark side of ourselves – such as distrust, disdain, stereotyping, blame, and lack of trust we have in others – is more about ourselves than somebody else. The reason we do that is that we don’t want to look at ourselves. We have little faith to handle such truths. We find it easier to make excuses, become prejudiced and write people off. Sadly, all of us have a dark side, which we can learn to keep under check. That’s what makes us human.
Concrete first steps to practice positive psychology
A good place to start is learning more about your personal character strengths. I can recommend the VSI (Values and Strength Inventory). Most of us are more prone to be critical of ourselves and focus on our shortcomings. Often our view of ourselves is inaccurate, dismissive or defeatist. It’s best to start with some accurate awareness of our good qualities, either through the VSI or asking trusted friends what they see as our assets. For now it is better to avoid making a list of your shortcomings and instead focus on your strengths and doing practical strategies to promote your well-being.
I recommend learning about the science of happiness. Two excellent, research-based resources on the science of happiness to start with are Authentic Happiness by Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D. (Simon & Schuster, 2002) and the authentic happiness website with its inventories to assess your level of happiness. I can also recommend The Myths of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D. (Penguin Books, 2013). Her website is an excellent, researched study of what does and does not a make us happy. Her results are quite startling and illuminating. Should you want to get professional help with a positive psychologist you would be well-advised to visit www.psychologytoday.com and enter your zip code under “Finding a positive psychologist in your area.” You will find a number of profiles of reputable, licensed helpers specific to your area.
If you are looking for concrete strategies that should rather quickly brighten your mood today let me suggest three:
- Do one small act of kindness each day for a week.
- Write a letter of gratitude and send it in regular mail to one person who has made a positive difference to in your life.
- Google Dr. Elvis Francois, a surgeon at Mayo Clinic, and listen to his podcast of him singing “Lean on Me” to his patients during the exhausting and dangerous work of COVID-19 medical care in the ICU. Not only is this a testimony of human generosity but his voice is out of this world.
If you do any of these activities, you will likely notice a change in your brain chemistry and your mood will be much brighter and stay that way for some time. Good luck with your efforts!
John H. Driggs, LICSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.