As the nation steps forward with newly inaugurated President Donald Trump—who comes into office with a controversial recent history of denying truths and casting aspersions on religious, ethnic and other groups—local psychotherapists offer hope in the form of positive action.
As one of our past presidents, Teddy Roosevelt, said long ago, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”
“Isn’t that great?” says counselor Elizabeth Driscoll Jorgensen, director of Insight Counseling in Ridgefield, pointing to this famous quote. “It says that action is the antidote to fear. A tenet of positive psychology is that you can’t just sit in a corner and meditate [a problem away]. You have to do kind things, find an activity that gives you happiness, that gives you flow. Everyone can follow Teddy Roosevelt’s words.”
In so doing, we all practice positive psychology.
What is Positive Psychology?
Positive psychology, which splashed on the psychotherapy scene over a decade ago, is a branch of cognitive behavioral therapy that focuses on the strengths that enable people and communities to thrive. It’s not the psychology that picks apart what is wrong and talks about problems. Instead, positive psychology shifts the focus to what is right and how to use strengths. The field is based on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.
Dr. Martin Seligman, director of the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) Positive Psychology Center, is the founder of positive psychology. He discovered that you can create depression by “learned helplessness,” Jorgensen says. Seligman is expanding the practice to education, health and neuroscience, and has already applied his research to teachers and students, U.S. Army personnel, athletes and others.
Whether you’re a conservative or liberal, whether you voted for Trump or not, he is now the U.S. president and we all must accept it, the experts say. Like all challenges in life, once we accept “what is,” we can then start moving toward creating a happier reality.
“The shock will diminish in time and a reconnection to one’s personal power will resume if we allow it,” explains Sharon Diaz, a therapist and author in Shelton. “Pain is often a catalyst for change and it can foster individual and collective revolution and evolution.”
For example, if we view Trump as someone unwilling to recognize his own faults or be self-reflective, then it can trigger us to look at ourselves in the mirror to consider our own dysfunctional thoughts or behaviors and our own sense of entitlement. “It is a call to action on many levels. His role and purpose in life is just as important as our own individual role and purpose,” Diaz says. “We can’t experience happiness by being a victim of life. We must take charge of who we are, how we cope, what we give, how we receive, and our willingness to open to others and take action.”
When people practice positive psychology, they search for meaning or purpose in life and creating a sense of happiness and contentment. “It’s not a ‘Pollyanna’ approach to life,” Diaz says. “Nor is it grandiosity. It’s not about the denial of the reality of our own and others’ dysfunction, but a challenge to be in the right, loving relationship to ourselves and others.”
Diaz adds that humans need each other in addition to plants, animals, insects and the Earth and its atmosphere. “Without relating, we only exist and cannot flourish or grow,” she says.
And people can learn and practice certain tools that can allow them to see more opportunity, says Megan McDonough, CEO of WholeBeing Institute in Massachusetts. The educational organization trains practitioners in using positive psychology in their coaching and therapy practices, or as consultants for business. “As we cultivate the good, we’re able to see more opportunities and it increases our creativity; it increases our positivity and our problem solving,” McDonough explains.
Incorporating Positive Goals
There are some core skills of positive psychology that can work for every day. This is not a disease model, for example, in which we talk about what is wrong. Positive psychology is about a healthy model, focusing on human strengths and confidence. It’s not about reinforcing negative thoughts, or continuing to feel like a victim, but acting and being thoughtful about what actions we take. Exercise can support this; it actually builds brain cells in the area that helps boost mood and cognition, Jorgensen adds.
Accepting What is Happening
What is our experience in the present moment? “Most inner turmoil comes from resistance to how your life is right now,” Diaz says. “We fight rather than surrender to the truth of the moment.”
So we should honor our emotions, she declares. “If we are sad, we need to allow ourselves to grieve because of what we no longer have in our life. If we are angry, we need to set a boundary for ourselves or with others. If we are afraid, we must protect ourselves or flee the situation. And if we are happy, share the joy.”
We must also acknowledge the “ugly” parts we sometimes don’t know we have, Diaz continues. In order to change for the better, we must recognize thoughts and behaviors that interfere with our ability to cope with whatever life condition we are facing.
She adds that people must distinguish between “made-up” and “true-life” dangers, such as pollution, limited earth resources or the extinction of species. For example, one of her clients became a beekeeper to help repopulate the honeybee population, given the recent years of collapse. “It brought her much pleasure and happiness, especially when she shared the delicious honey with others,” Diaz explains.
Staying in the moment is a key element to any happy life. For example, Jorgensen sometimes takes her patients—some of whom are addicted to drugs—on hikes in the woods or overnight camping trips. “It’s a mindful hike where you focus on being where your feet are,” she says. “It would be so easy to think about your day, and—what you have to do. There is no cell phone. There is no technology. And we take them on a semi-challenging hike; if you don’t stay where your feet are, you’re going to slip and you’re going to fall.”
Jorgensen forces them to observe their surroundings by asking questions, such as the different tree species they are seeing on the hike or the different bird calls they are hearing. It keeps them mindful and open to another world.
“I can have a media-addicted pasty kid who has never been in the outdoors and teach him mindfulness, to listen to the sounds of nature,” she explains. “I’m pretty biased, but if people are in nature with a kindly guide, they get in touch with something that is innate.”
Character Strengths and Virtues
Honesty, integrity and doing for others is important. “Happiness is the byproduct of right living,” the Greek philosopher Socrates once said. Jorgensen cautions that pleasure, which is fleeting, is not the same as happiness, which doesn’t leave. Character can be in the form of treating others the way you want to be treated, or the golden rule. And a tenet of being happy—whether you have a lot of money or not—is giving to others, such as an old coat, guidance or encouraging words. “The happy people with money give their money away or watch others experience the joy with that money,” she says.
“Part of unhappiness is the prison of ourselves,” Jorgensen says. “When we are inside ourselves and lack any other feedback or experience, we don’t experience wisdom or joy; we tend to become negative.”
Diaz adds that, as a giver, we must also accept receiving; otherwise feelings of resentment may bubble over. “Life satisfaction wanes when we aren’t being replenished,” she says. “I learned my greatest lesson in receiving from complete strangers, simply because I asked.”
Resilience is the key ability of each individual to bounce back-to regain equilibrium-when the going gets difficult, as it naturally will at points during the course of a lifetime.
“People are born with varied levels of natural resilience,” Jorgensen explains. If someone is struggling with a past traumatic experience, or just fearful over what the future holds, it’s vital to look back to a time when the person was struggling with a problem and did overcome it.
“You have to bring them back to a point in life where they did have resilience,” she says. “Suffering comes to all of us. If you haven’t given up yet, you are resilient.”
It’s doing anything that absorbs our thoughts. Human beings are most happy when they are active and working or playing to their potential. It can be sports, music, coloring or just doing a tough crossword puzzle. “This is a proven truth. People are not happy when they have tons of leisure time and tons of money and do nothing with it,” Jorgensen adds.
SPIRE Gives Roots and Wings
At the Wellbeing Institute, McDonough says, practitioners learn how to coach others to be their best selves by what’s called SPIRE. Similar to the positive psychology tenets, the acronym stands for:
Spiritual, or having meaning and purpose in life;
Physical, or taking care of our bodies and understanding the mind-body connection;
Intellectual, or engaging curiosity and being open to experiences;
Relational, or cultivating solid relationships with people we love and who love us back; and
Emotional well-being, or making choices that elevate our positivity and build resiliency.
Using SPIRE, a coach elicits a past time when a patient was at his or her best; they then use that approach to engage the person to better approach daily challenges. It’s a fundamental shift in how to work with people. Instead of facing every day with a list of problems and things to do, we need to be grateful for what we do have. Counting our blessings instead of burdens is evidence-based, McDonough states.
When we look at our relationships with others, consider where we focus our attention. If the focus is on what’s wrong with our partner, then that aspect gets bigger, McDonough explains. “It’s learning how to use the lens of our focus or attention.”
McDonough suggests people take the VIA Survey of Character Strengths. It’s a self-assessment that provides information to help people to understand their core characteristics. Most personality tests focus on negative and neutral traits, but the VIA survey focuses on best qualities.
Pessimism comes with three facets: pervasive, permanent and personal. “Many people are feeling sad, left out and disenfranchised by what’s happening in government,”
McDonough says. “When we look with that pessimistic view, it doesn’t help us. We not only want to help our clients and students, but ourselves—that we can lift ourselves where we become constructive advocates aiming for our highest and best selves.”
“Without hope, we have no belief that something can be achieved,” Diaz concludes. “Close to half the population believe that Trump will be a good president. The other half does not believe it. We can’t place hope in what we don’t believe, so we can either change the belief or place a desire and hope toward something else to achieve what we do believe.”