Positive Psychology – Part 1

It seems more and more of my health coach colleagues have pursued further certification in the field of Positive Psychology. One of them has developed a guided journal – The Book of Extraordinary Things – based on the principles of Positive Psychology. It is designed to encourage self-awareness, positivity and well-being. And I recently facilitated a program about resiliency and one of the key skills to helping build resilience is the ability to harness positive emotions – to find the silver lining in even the most challenging circumstances. All of these factors prompted me to learn a little more about Positive Psychology and how it can help individuals maximize their health and well-being.

What is Positive Psychology?

Martin Seligman, Director of the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center, is a leading authority in the fields of Positive Psychology and resilience. He has written several books about it including his recent one, Flourish. He describes Positive Psychology as “the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive.” It is grounded in the belief that people want to lead meaningful lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play. In other words, it helps us move beyond just surviving to thriving, or even flourishing.

Traditionally, psychology has often focused on dysfunction – what is wrong with you – and how to treat it. Positive Psychology moves the focus to what is right with you (such as your character strengths) and is built on Dr. Seligman’s PERMA™ theory of well-being, which includes Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment. In recent years, Emiliya Zhivotovskaya, a graduate of the Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania, modified the theory and added Vitality – a focus on healthy habits such as eating well, moving regularly and getting enough sleep.

PERMA-V

Let’s take a brief look at each of the components of PERMA-V and how they can help you flourish and achieve “the good life.”

Positive Emotions: Focusing on positive emotions is about more than just being happy. It is the ability to remain optimistic despite life’s ups and downs. Keeping a positive outlook can help in your personal relationships as well as your work. You can increase positive emotions about the past by cultivating gratitude and forgiveness. You can savor the present by practicing mindfulness. And you can relish the future by building hope. Do more of the things that make you happy and bring enjoyment into your daily routine.

Interestingly, Seligman notes that this building block of well-being is limited by how much an individual can experience positive emotions – which is partly linked to biology/genetics as well as the fact that our emotions tend to fluctuate within a range. Due to this limitation, the other components may play an even more important role in our ability to thrive.

Engagement: Engagement is experienced when you are fully absorbed in a task or activity in which self-awareness disappears and time seems to stop or fly by quickly. You may recall this concept of “flow” put forth by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, when the experience is so gratifying that you are willing to do it for its own sake, rather than for what you will get out of it. The activity is its own reward. Achieving this state of flow or total engagement is natural, especially when you are involved in creative activities you enjoy and are good at. Pursue hobbies that interest you, develop your skills, and consider professional work that is linked to your passion(s).

Relationships: Humans are social creatures, and we rely on connections with others to truly flourish. Connections to others can give life purpose and meaning. Positive relationships with your family members, friends, peers, and colleagues is a key source of joy. Support from and connection with others can also help you navigate through difficult times that require resilience. Having deep, meaningful relationships with others is vital to your well-being. Reflect on the quality (and perhaps quantity) of your relationships with friends, family, and other significant people in your life.

Meaning: A sense of purpose can be derived from belonging to and serving something bigger than the self. Religion and spirituality provide many people with meaning, as can family, professional pursuits, and volunteering for social causes that are important to you. Having an answer to that million-dollar question – “Why am I here?”- is a key ingredient to finding fulfillment. Seek out meaning, whether it be through your work, personal hobbies or leisure activities, or serving others in your community.

Accomplishment: People pursue achievement, mastery, and success for its own sake, whether in the workplace or in personal pursuits and activities. We all thrive when we are succeeding, achieving our goals, and bettering ourselves. Setting goals and putting in the necessary effort to achieve them are important to well-being and happiness. Achievement helps to build self-esteem and provides a sense of accomplishment. Keep your focus on achieving your goals, but also remember to keep your ambition in balance with all of the other important things in life.

Vitality: As you may have noticed yourself, the original PERMA building blocks of well-being tend to be very head-centered or “above the neck,” as some people like to refer to it. This was one reason why Emiliya Zhivotovskaya decided to add this component with an emphasis on the mind-body connection as well as healthy habits around sleep, food, and exercise. It addresses the need to take a more holistic look at well-being, including the inseparable connection between mind and body when it comes to flourishing. Eat healthy foods to fuel the body, move your body every day and develop good sleep habits that allow you to wake feeling rested.

This is clearly just a high-level view of Positive Psychology but if it has sparked your curiosity, I encourage you to learn more through some of the books, speakers and websites cited in my post.

The Book of Extraordinary Things

As I mentioned earlier, a coaching colleague has created a guided journal to help explore the principles of Positive Psychology. I ordered one to support my continuous journey to optimal health and well-being. I plan to use it to focus more on the good things in my life and the strengths that I bring to the table in both my professional pursuits and my personal life. I am just starting to explore my journal so stay tuned for Part 2 of this post where I will share my experience with it. (And if you think you’d like to order a copy, you can do so here.)

PERMA-V-Poster
Source: https://www.stac.school.nz/why-stac/well-being-at-stac/perma-v/

ACEs and Resilience

This spring, I had the opportunity to attend a screening of the documentary “Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope” at my daughter’s high school. It was co-sponsored by Public Schools First NC, a statewide nonpartisan, nonprofit organization focused solely on pre-K – 12 public education issues. The documentary addresses the link between toxic stress caused by Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and the increased risk it puts children at for chronic disease, homelessness, prison time, and even early death.

I was somewhat familiar with the topic of ACEs before I watched the film, but I have to admit the data and information shared was eye-opening and thought-provoking. For those not familiar, Adverse Childhood Experiences can include:

  • Physical abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Physical neglect
  • Emotional neglect
  • Mother treated violently
  • Substance abuse
  • Mental illness
  • Parental separation/divorce
  • Incarcerated relative

The more ACEs a child experiences, the more likely he or she is to suffer from things like heart disease, diabetes, poor academic achievement and substance abuse later in life. Children who experience four or more ACEs are at greatest risk for these negative health outcomes. Experiencing multiple ACEs can cause what is known as toxic stress, or excessive activation of the body’s stress-response system. This can lead to long-term wear and tear on the body and brain. One way to think about it is as if you were to rev a car engine for days or weeks at a time. Imagine what that would do to your engine.

When children experience this toxic stress, they are essentially in survival mode. Self-protection becomes the priority, thereby affecting their social skills and their ability to learn. This can lead to difficulties in school. In addition, the increase in stress hormones can suppress the immune system, leaving children susceptible to illness and poor health in general.

Although exposure to ACEs is harmful, the good news is that the damage is not irreparable – and there are ways to reduce the effects of ACEs and toxic stress. Obviously, the primary approach should be to reduce the sources of stress in children’s lives, by meeting their basic needs or providing services in the community to help avoid exposure to these adverse experiences. However, for children who have already been exposed, strategies such as professional counseling, meditation, physical exercise, and spending time in nature have been shown to counteract the effects of ACEs. In addition, studies have shown that building resilience helps reduce the effects as well. Resilience is the ability to adjust or bounce back when bad things happen, and it is a skill that can be learned – by children and adults.

I have to admit that my interest in this topic and the documentary is really two-fold: understanding how ACEs can affect youth in my community but also how they may play a role in the lives of the adult clients whom I coach. Many of the clients I work with are often overweight or obese and may also have chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes. Oftentimes, these adults are struggling with anxiety and/or depression as well. It is highly possible that these physical and mental health conditions are a result of ACEs that these individuals endured in their youth.

My experience watching this documentary and learning more about ACEs has prompted me to think about how I can possibly address this topic in my work as a coach. To be honest, helping individuals heal from the trauma of ACEs and toxic stress is really more appropriate for therapy or counseling, which is outside my scope of practice. In addition, coaching differs from counseling in that it is more focused on exploring the present and the future (e.g., through goals and action steps) rather than investigating and healing the past. However, as a coach, I think it would be helpful to know if a client did experience one or more ACEs in the past. It could open the door to introducing evidence-based practices such as mindfulness and meditation, which are helpful tools for behavior change as well as building resilience. It could be a win-win for the client – helping them heal from trauma in their past while also moving them forward in the direction of their vision and goals for optimal health and wellbeing.

I plan to explore ways that I can broach this topic if a client shares information that leads me to believe they may have experienced toxic stress due to ACEs. Sometimes clients offer this information outright. Others may drop more subtle hints about their past, allowing me to test the waters for further exploration with a gentle inquiry to share more if they are willing and able. Clients may or may not wish to elaborate, but if they do, I now feel more prepared to explore the connection between ACES and current health concerns – as well as strategies to counteract the damage that may have already been done.

If you are interested in learning more about ACEs, below are some resources that may be helpful:

CDC website about ACEs

Infographic: The Truth about ACEs

Finding Your ACE Score

Gratitude: Every Cloud has a Silver Lining

I recently facilitated a stress management program and one of the sessions was about resilience, the ability to bounce back in the face of adversity. We discussed the ABCDE tool, which is helpful in shifting one’s perspective about an event or situation that would typically prompt a negative response or reaction. The equation is simple: A + B = C (+ D = E), which is based on Albert Ellis’ model:

The “C” (consequences, typically negative emotions) stem not directly from the “A” (adversity or activating event) but from the “B” (one’s beliefs about the adversity or event). The key is to “D” (dispute the initial beliefs or thoughts) to therefore generate “E” (a new energy or more positive outcome or consequence). One of the suggestions for disputing the initial belief or thought is to find something to be grateful for about the adversity or event. It’s not always an easy thing to do, but I know personally, when I do it, I usually feel better about the situation.

As I was thinking about Thanksgiving and the things I am grateful for, this tool reminded me of a poem I had seen in the past about being thankful for life’s less glorious moments. A quick internet search turned up the following, which I think sums up the sentiment I wish to convey today.

i-am-thankful-for

On Thanksgiving, and hopefully every day, I will strive to see the silver lining in the difficulties and hardships that may arise, knowing there is always something for which I can be grateful.

I wish you and your loved ones a safe, relaxing and Happy Thanksgiving!