By Ilyssa Hershey, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Most of the shadows of this life are caused by standing in one's own sunshine. -Ralph Waldo Emerson There are people who appear to have forgotten the positive aspects of themselves or have pushed them aside in order to deal with life's challenges. Difficult and painful experiences are most likely the catalyst to engaging different coping strategies to buffer ourselves, so we can move forward and take care of the business of living. The result of these coping strategies could be many things, from depression and anxiety, to unfulfilled relationships and job choices, to not taking care of our physical health. Many theories used to treat mental health issues focus on the "illness" or "dysfunction". As therapists, we want to find out what is causing the negative symptoms and help to eliminate the sadness and stress. We assist people in exploring and expressing their pain. In 1998, Martin Seligman (who was the president of the American Psychological Association) decided to make positive psychology the theme of his term. He felt the first half of the 1900s was focused exclusively on treating illness and not the promotion of mental wellness. Positive Psychology is the study of happiness and what makes life worth living. Instead of focusing on dysfunction or abnormal behavior, it is centered on helping people become happier. People not only want to stop the pain, but also want to find meaning and fulfillment in life. Sometimes finding meaning and fulfillment in one's life will prevent or minimize the pain, as well as help to act as a buffer against illness - mental and physical. Do you remember how you felt when you helped someone in need? How about when you realized you are good at something? Think back to those days when you decided in the morning you were going to have a great day no matter what! Do you recall how your day turned out? The idea is that if we decide to change the way we look at things, by changing the language we use in our heads from negative to positive, the things we look at change. When we decide to find the good in something or in ourselves, that on the surface seems sad or upsetting, we usually can and it brings us peace and joy. The study and practice of increasing happiness is not new. Many of our forefathers in psychology developed theories and practices that involved human happiness. In the 1950s, Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers - two of the main founding fathers of humanistic psychology, approached treatment by looking at the importance of individual strengths in overcoming life's challenges. They believed that people look to find meaning in their lives and strive for personal growth and happiness. Martin Seligman brought these early ideas to a modern arena by presenting a model of well-being called PERMA. This model describes the five important building blocks for well-being and happiness. (P) Positive Emotion To experience well-being we need positive emotions in our life. The premise is that positive emotions can undo negative ones. (E) Engagement To become engaged in a project in which time seems to stop. As we lose our sense of self, we concentrate intensely on the task. (R) Positive Relationships To have close, meaningful relationships is linked to happiness and health. (M) Meaning To feel there is a purpose to our existence. This could include religion, spirituality or a cause that helps humanity in some way. (A) Achievement To have a sense of accomplishment and success. This could be achieving a goal, seeking to master a skill or winning a competitive event. A therapist that utilizes this model will help the client focus on the positive aspects of themselves: self-acceptance, purpose in life, autonomy, personal growth, positive relationships and mastery of the environment. Some of the techniques the client would practice include: identifying their strengths, writing positive experiences in a daily journal and increasing their language of strength. Instead of saying, "I am not good at anything", they would state, for example, "I am good at helping others." In addition, the therapist would continue to help to reduce negative symptoms. Research has shown that when one focuses on their strengths, it helps to prevent suffering in the future. Feelings of happiness and purpose can be very effective and invincible buffers against the damaging effects of setbacks and disappointments. So if you find that the shadows of your life are preventing your light from shining, you can by utilizing the techniques listed above or with the help of a therapist, begin to find those positive aspects of yourself you have pushed aside or forgotten. As you do, the shadows become smaller, your light shines brighter and as a result, you are more able to enjoy life while being able to deal more effectively with life's challenges.
copyright 2013 Ilyssa Hershey, Psy.D.