About ten years old, positive psychology studies how individuals and communities can thrive. A reaction against psychology as the study of mental illness, it aims to redress the imbalance in understanding human nature and what makes us happy and healthy and peaceful individually and socially.
This reminds me of a book I read years ago: The Psychology of the Female Body by Jane Ussher. What she noticed while looking at studes on pms was that subjects were asked only about negative symptoms around their periods. She repeated the study with a change: she asked as many questions about positive symptoms as negative ones. To my surprise, she found that as many women were energized as more tired before their periods, as many were happier as angrier, as many felt more enthusiastic as felt depressed.
The questions we ask open doors to possibilities.
My one concern about positive psychology is that it can add to the American frenzied preoccupation with happiness. And in my browsing around the web, I found that websites on positive psychology do have that scent of buy now! Find the secret to everlasting happiness! Be better, prettier, more successful in five easy steps! The secret is yours for only $19.99! They never use those words exactly, but they tend to have that glossy, breezy feel to them, the sound bite rather than the thoughtful lesson.
I can tell you from personal experience that it is just as hard, if not harder, to meditate, have an open heart, be hopeful, remember what really matters, be mindful and enjoy the present moment as it is to face pain, work through traumatic memories, and express anger. Both are necessary to healing and making a better life and a better world. And I also believe that we have a collective responsibility to do something about poverty, environmental destruction and violence.
One thing I like about the short videos by Tal Ben-Shahar, a professor of positive psychology at Harvard, is that, although their brevity leads inexorably to cliches, he speaks frankly and sincerely of the fact that life includes pain. He says that the only people who don’t experience painful feelings are psychopaths and the dead. So take heart! If you are sad, anxious, angry, upset–you are alive and you are not a psycho.
This is what I think we need: the balance of accepting pain and sorrow, while also being mindful and making space for the good. There is so little of that in our society. On the one hand, we are bombarded with fear mongering news stories. On the other hand we are bombarded with the notion that success and beauty are in our hands and with them we will be happy; if not we are ignorant, lazy or otherwise lacking. (And if you tune in to channel X at 4:00 pm you’ll learn the secret; or for $19.99 you can buy it.)
I think that this incongruity comes from a simple fact: media is all about making money and you can’t make money by giving away the truth. No you have to scare the crap out of people first and then offer to sell them the crap cure.
Yet the truth sounds cliched because it’s so straightforward that there isn’t much of a buck to be made out of it. These are the notes I took from several of Ben-Shahar’s videos:
- keep a gratitude journal
- spend time with friends and family while not multitasking
- exercise 30-40 min 3x a week
- simplify: turning off phone, have email-free time
- ptsd is real and requires healing, but so is post traumatic growth: look for meaning and share experiences rather than shutting down
- recovering from a tragedy takes time and has to run its course
- learn to fail or fail to learn; through failure become resilient and have deep learning: Thomas Edison patented 1093 inventions more than any other scientist and has also failed the most times, his attitude was that he wasn’t failing he was succeeding in finding what didn’t work
I think that deep down, or sometimes not even so deep, most people know all of this and more. They know what makes them peaceful people and good neighbours.
I just have to look at my children. Their behaviour lets me know when our home is in good order. It’s no surprise that hanging out with me and my husband, having a solid routine with enough sleep and good food, learning, exercise, fresh air, a smattering of new experiences, drawing and painting, time to play create an atmosphere of good will and amicability.
Are my kids pinching each other? Whining? “Mommy she did, no she did…liar!” Sometimes it’s just a passing mood. But often enough chances are that mom and dad are distracted and preoccupied and something has gone off balance.
Although I haven’t been to synagogue in ages, and my spirituality consists of daily meditation and talking to the light, we light candles on Friday night, say a blessing, and have a Shabbat meal with juice and wine. We look around the table, consider the atmosphere, and my husband imitates the bad angel, face scrunched up, who reluctantly has to say, “May every Shabbat be like this!” Once in a while, the good angel looks around at angry, resentful faces, and my husband’s face sadly falls as he says, “May every Shabbat be like this.”
We are blessed that mostly it’s the bad angel who has to stamp his foot in frustration and give in to the peace of our home after the candles are lit.
It doesn’t cost $19.99. It does cost effort and we all know that it isn’t easy, but it is simple.
Peace slips away but we can always come back to it. All we have to do is take a breath. And another breath. And another, until love settles again into our heart, and compassion causes us to reach out our hands to hold each other’s.
h/t The Situationist