Doing more of what works
Therapist: “So, on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the most depressed you have ever been, tell me how depressed you are right now.”
Therapist: “7? That’s great! Tell me how you keep it from becoming an 8.”
At this point the client looks confused. “I don’t know” he says, to which I propose that we find out why, then do it more. An entirely backwards approach, radically different than, “7? How did it get that bad?”
A woman sat in my office for several weeks and told me how sad she was, how she had found that since her illness life had become meaningless because she was no longer able to do the things that she loved. One particular day she was telling me that she didn’t feel like she could vacation with her friend who had invited her to spend the weekend in a house on the beach.
“A Friend? Did you say you have a friend? And an invitation? To the beach? Wow, you are so lucky!” My client was confused and aggravated. “But I can’t go,” she insisted. “I don’t want to be a burden.” At that point my challenge was to help her know that her sadness and disappointment were optional. That she likely had qualities that appealed to her friend enough that she would want to spend a weekend with her despite her limitations, and that despite her limitations she could enjoy a vacation with her friend.
Psychology has a history of finding and fixing what makes us sick, but only recently has it become a focus of study to find out what makes us well. This shift in thinking has become known as Positive Psychology. A name that often connected with Positive Psychology is Martin Seligman and he is convinced that nurturing strength is as important as treating illness.
According to Dr. Seligman, research shows that positive emotions increase in three ways: Having a pleasant life, a life with “flow,” and a meaningful life.
A pleasant life is what one would expect, having pleasurable experiences, thoughts and feelings. Dr. Seligman describes a life with “flow” as complete mindfulness of the moment, when time stops and all of one’s energy is directed at becoming “one with” an experience. A meaningful life is knowing what one’s strengths are and applying them to something larger than ourselves. It would be ideal to have all three areas working at once, but according to Dr. Seligman the research shows that the pleasant life is the least effective path to positive emotions. People who find their strengths, enhance them and apply them to a greater purpose have longer lasting positive emotions.
I see that as wonderful news. Sometimes we have unpleasant experiences and we can’t always be assured our lives are going to be pleasurable, but we are always in control of being mindful, finding and enhancing our strengths; pondering, seeking and attending to what is meaningful to us.
What to do…
So try this. Ask several people to write down three strengths they see in you. Collect all the lists and find the overlaps. If you don’t have any idea what your strengths are this will give you a clue. Then design a beautiful day. Do something you are good at. Do it purposefully, with intent and do it for some reason bigger than you. (Altruism always beats out fun in increasing positive emotions.) Then design every day that way. Find a way to use your strengths and talents in your work and play. Life satisfaction will go up and you will save yourself a trip to my office.