So far, I have offered the advice that we benefit from moving attention away from ourselves and our problems. Then I suggested that we distract ourselves from intense feelings, and postpone our worrying to a specifically allocated time. By now it must seem that professor of psychiatry Charles Goodstein has a point in his suggestion that positive psychology is “the psychology of the superficial”. According to Goodstein, positive psychology takes “an approach that suggests that people are relatively simple”, a notion he considers inaccurate. Further, he points out that psychiatrists and psychologists work toward freeing their patients from unconscious hindrances that potentially suppress their positive qualities.1 Goodstein does have a point. However, putting positive psychology into practice is definitely not a superficial undertaking. It requires courage, sincerity and application as we seek to establish new habits and overcome old ways of thinking and being. Altogether it is a path of personal growth and transformation; a little sniff at it won’t do it. Martin Seligman, Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and foremost theorist and ambassador of positive psychology, argues that removing the disabling conditions is by no means the same as “building the enabling conditions of life”. According to Seligman, misery must be minimised, however, in order to enjoy psychological wellbeing, people must also have the skills to build up the ingredients that create it.2
There is a reason why I began this blog with trying to turn the focus away from our problems, misery and ourselves. It is because downtrodden people are often strongly focused on their troubles. Could this be true of you? Guess how positive psychology fights unhappiness? By creating moments of happiness! Yes, it provides us with the opportunity to go after the very thing we are missing. And as Barbara Frederickson points out, those little moments of positive emotions can eventually tip the balance.3 This approach does not make psychologists and psychiatrist redundant, however. Anyone facing a personal crisis, ongoing or inherited mental health problems, issues resulting from traumatic childhood experiences, separation from or loss of a loved one; anyone who is a victim of crime, abuse, neglect, or trauma, or suffering from diagnosed anxiety or depression, potentially needs professional care. I cannot stress this enough: to beat, heal or overcome psychological or mental health challenges, we need all the help we can get. If you were a general, how would you try to overcome a powerful enemy? Would you try to surround him, come at him from all sides? That is the approach I am suggesting. A counsellor or psychologist for the deep psychological healing, a doctor or psychiatrist to stay safe, and positive psychology to help build positive emotions and relationships, meaning, achievement, and engagement with life.
But today I want to focus on meaning. Why do we keep our children’s scribbly drawings? Why do we look after our ageing parents? Why do we return to places, cherish anniversaries? Because they carry meaning for us. According to Seligman, meaning is an elementary aspect of life and psychological wellbeing.4 Ideally, our lives are pregnant with significance, memory, and expression of our beliefs. For example, Frank enjoys his first cup of coffee (meaning it’s a new day) in the cup his daughter gave him for father’s day (which stands for unconditional love and devotion). He drives to work in his 4-wheel drive (meaning he’s made it, adventure, deserted beaches) to work (meaning he is using his strengths, applying himself, achieving) to meet the boss (who stands for ‘life is a bitch’). If you asked Frank, he might say that he believes the meaning of life is to make life worthwhile.
When life gets tough, however, our fundamental beliefs and assumptions about the world can be rattled. According to Park and Folkman, our enduring beliefs and valued goals make up our global meaning. Then there is situational meaning, which is keeping track of life’s ‘transactions’, i.e. the circumstances we find ourselves in. Our global and situational meanings at times need to be re-negotiated.4 Lerner writes that people in Western cultures tend to hold on to the just world belief: an assumed rather than articulated belief that “people eventually, if not immediately, get what they deserve”. Yet there is plenty of evidence of undeserved suffering in our world where, as a matter of fact, bad things happen to good people.5 Thus it happens that situational meaning often cannot be found when life has dealt us a blow (for example, the death of a loved one, being victim of a brutal crime, our partner running off with someone else). Seligman explains that the first module in the US Army post-traumatic growth training teaches soldiers that a traumatic experience can shatter our beliefs in ourselves, in others, as well as the future. This, he writes, is a normal response to trauma and does not mean that we are weak.6
It is a hard place to be though, because nothing makes sense anymore. Yet those who can heal this gap in meaning have much better prospects to adjust and recover. Particularly, finding positive meaning in suffering will strengthen our ability to cope and enjoy life again down the track.7 This is also called finding the silver lining.
One of the practices I highly recommend for achieving a renewed belief in life or ourselves is the Morning pages as described by Julia Cameron. According to Cameron, the morning pages are three pages of longhand, stream-of-consciousness writing completed first thing in the morning. They require about half an hour. One of the morning pages’ main functions is to act as a brain drain, which means one should simply write whatever comes to mind. The pages need to be completely uncensored, and we must allow ourselves to be sad, whiny, childish, rude, silly, negative, self-pitying, weird, stupid, boring, repetitive, angry or whatever. It is crucial not to let any part of our mind stop us from putting something down because ‘it is a terrible thing to write’. Order, grammar, punctuation, political correctness or emotional alliances don’t matter. We must write unrestrained and freely. Two rules apply, however: Firstly, the pages must be done every day. Secondly, the pages are strictly for our eyes only; you must hide them well or otherwise destroy them. Cameron writes:
Morning pages do get us to the other side: the other side of our fear, of our negativity, of our moods. … It is impossible to write morning pages for any extended period of time without coming into contact with an unexpected inner power.8
I promised I would tell you how I overcame depression. The practice of writing morning pages every day for three years played a crucial part.
© Natalie Lydia Barker 2015