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Positive Psychology: Myths, Misinformation & Grief Relief

Positive Psychology

What Positive Psychology is Not… Myths & Misinformation

Life is predictably unpredictable. It is full of hardship, heartbreak, and uncertainty.

Life is also full of wonder and opportunity and challenge.

The field of applied positive psychology does not avoid or deny the complexities of our human existence.  Instead, it offers evidence-based insights and interventions that enrich our lives and enable people to live with intention, wholeheartedness, and a sense of well-being as the seasons of life unfolds.

The practices and principles that have emerged from the study of positive psychology research can even mitigate the negative effects of adversity when trials and tragedies strike — as they inevitably will.

Positive Psychology is NOT Repackaged Self-Help Fluff

Rainbow-smiley-faced-unicorn emojis and “think positive” bumper stickers hinder more than help the “science” of positive psychology advance.

Regrettably, there are countless self-proclaimed “positivity gurus” who perpetuate the idea that positive psychology is all about being positive and happy in a Pollyanna-ish kind of way.

It’s not surprising that these misconceptions self-propagate in our online world where untrained “practitioners” selectively dumb down and misrepresent the emerging research to deliver a kind of superficial “happyology”.

We’ve all seen the blog posts: “7 Simple Strategies To Stay Happy” — as if happiness is a permanent state of being and the end goal of existence.

We’ve all heard the clarion call for starry-eyed optimism in the face of life-altering loss.

We’ve even been told the secret to alchemizing adversity is simply to channel our “vibrational energy” to create new and better realities — as if those of us who have experienced adversity or tragedy somehow invited it into our lives by virtue of “negative vibrations”.

Here are the problems with some of what we’ve heard:

This sort of “positivity” can feel like a prescription for forced merriment and self-deception and ultimately end in lifelong suffering and cynicism.

It’s maddeningly out-of-touch with the daily challenges of modernity and the very real suffering in our world.

It minimizes life’s hardships, undermines our well-being, and leaves people feeling disillusioned, disengaged, and ultimately depressed.

Blogger Łukasz Strachanowski succinctly describes how misconceptions proliferate in his observation that many authors and bloggers have:

… bastardized positive psychology and regurgitated it into a crowd-pleasing and a multi-million-dollar “positive thinking” industry. And misunderstanding and ill-informed commentary have compounded the problem and produced a bitter backlash against the science. The source of this backlash’s power is easy to identify – it is ignorance about the field.

So What is Positive Psychology?

Wikipedia defines positive psychology as, “the scientific study of what makes life most worth living”, or “the scientific study of positive human functioning and flourishing on multiple levels that include the biological, personal, relational, institutional, cultural, and global dimensions of life”.

Positive psychology was built upon humanistic psychology and really began to blossom as a new field of study in 1998 when Martin Seligman chose it as the theme for his term as president of the American Psychological Association. Up until the turn of the century, a disproportionate number of psychological studies focused on one end of the mental health spectrum with all eyes on illness and/or maladaptive behavior — essentially emphasizing what was wrong with humanity. Seligman and his colleagues felt there was not enough emphasis on all that is right with people, or enough studies about what actually enables human flourishing.

In 2011, Seligman consolidated his research in his book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being.

The book introduced the PERMA theory of well-being which included five key components for human flourishing, including:

  • Positive Emotions: Feelings that foster optimism and positivity and ultimately increase a person’s sense of well-being to enrich all areas of life — health, relationships, work, etc.  This includes not just the emotions of pleasure that arise from meeting survival needs like eating, drinking, sleeping, etc., but also emotions of eudaemonic well-being — those deeper, longer-lasting satisfactions that arise from both challenging and meaningful experiences. Positive emotions ultimately enable people to reflect on the past with gratitude, cherish the present, and be drawn to the future with hopeful anticipation.
  • Engagement: Participating in activities that are so all-consuming that we feel a sense of complete immersion or “flow”.  In a flow experience, we live entirely in the present and lose all track of time. Flow experiences occur when there’s just the right balance of ability and interest and opportunity. They may challenge us intellectually, physically, and/or emotionally. And although there are countless types of flow experiences, common activities that inspire full engagement include music, dance, art, writing, athletics, performing, reading, working, etc.
  • Relationships: Healthy and authentic relationships in our families, communities, and places of work contribute dramatically to well-being. We are social creatures who need social connections to truly flourish. We need to experience a sense of abiding love, belonging, and connectedness to feel safe and secure in a world that is constantly changing.
  • Meaning: When we set aside superficial pursuits and dedicate our time to the service of something greater than ourselves, we experience well-being.  People may find this through a variety of pathways including their career or their family, through social activism, religion, politics, a creative work, charitable engagement, or a whole host of other activities that fill us with passion and purpose.
  • Accomplishment: Setting and achieving meaningful goals brings longer-lasting satisfaction and provides us with a sense of agency and accomplishment in the world.

Applied positive psychology is a descriptive, not prescriptive, science.

A New Theory of Well-Being:  PERMA + Vitality = PERMA-V

The Flourishing Center

Shortly after Seligman released his book, one of his former students from the Masters in Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania, Emiliya Zhivotovskaya, built upon the well-known PERMA theory of happiness in her work as Founder & CEO of The Flourishing Center in NYC.

Zhivotovskaya’s research suggested that physical well-being and vitality were also critical components of flourishing, and thus emerged the PERMA-V theory of well-being. Other practitioners have since adopted this model, though sometimes it’s referred to as PERMAH, with the “H” representing “health”.

The PERMA-V theory is now taught in Zhivotovskaya’s Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology (or CAPP) Program, which is the world’s leading certification program in the field to date.

As a CAPP graduate myself, the PERMA-V theory is the model I draw upon in my client work.

How Do Positive Psychology & Grief Relief Come Together? 

As someone who works with people who are navigating serious life transitions, my goal is not just to help people function again… although that is the first step to well-being.

Ultimately, I want to help people flourish by changing the conversation about life after loss.  I do this by helping people grow in self-awareness, self-compassion and self-care, and ultimately by providing people with evidence-based practices and principles that empower them to:

  • Experience more positive emotions
  • Engage in the world more wholeheartedly
  • Have richer relationships
  • Find greater meaning and purpose
  • Set and accomplish meaningful goals
  • Experience greater physical and emotional strength and vitality

I know firsthand that in the wake of devastating loss or transition it can be incredibly challenging to summon any positivity or sense of hopefulness about the future.

I also know firsthand that we can take small, intentional steps to slowly rebuild a life of deep joy, abiding connection, and profound purpose.

Based on what we know about human flourishing, we can summon the character, conviction, and compassion to live wholeheartedly again, as each season of life unfolds.

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About the Grief Recovery Method

Grief Recovery Method

I get asked a lot about what The Grief Recovery Method is, how it works and why I use it with clients… Here are my answers.

What is the Grief Recovery Method?

The Grief Recovery Method is a program that helps people heal after life-altering transition and loss… It’s been around for 35+ years and helped millions of people.

Who is the Grief Recovery Method for?

The Method is for anyone who is broken-hearted and who wants to feel whole again.

Although many participants have experienced traumatic events, like the death of a loved one, or a divorce or breakup, a serious accident or illness, people also come when they’re hurting because of more abstract losses, like losing their self-confidence, or their sense of safety and security.

Ultimately, there are countless losses that can affect our lives deeply — and that change how we see ourselves, and the world, and each other.

The program helps people draw on their own experiences and courage to make sense of their pain, to make peace with the present, and find hope for the future… even when it’s hard.

It helps people communicate the truth of their story in a way that makes healing possible.

How is the Grief Recovery Method different from other programs?

  • First, there’s an emphasis on personal agency for healing. Although you may or may not be responsible for what has happened, you can make choices about what happens next.  We focus on taking action steps; not just on sharing our stories… although we do that. What we try to avoid is rumination, social comparison, and unhelpful commentary that can hinder healing.
  • Second, it’s a limited duration program – it is six to eight weeks long, depending on whether you prefer a one-on-one or group experience. There is also an intensive weekend retreat option. The shorter duration actually fosters accountability and action.
  • Third, there’s an actual “method” that participants learn which fosters healing after a relationship has ended, and equips people to approach current relationships with greater authenticity.  So the value of the Method extends well beyond the duration of the program.

How does the Grief Recovery Method work?

Grief is complicated and messy and it’s unique to each one of us.

We often feel disconnected from other people in our life after experiencing loss… like no one really understands what we are going through.

Not surprisingly, we internalize a lot of emotions and often feel bad about ourselves, and how we’re coping. And there are things we want to say out loud – to talk about our loss and to make sense of our story — but there are so few places where it feels safe to do so.

People might offer unhelpful advice – or try to fix us… or, without meaning to, they might minimize our loss… and all of it is upsetting.

To complicate matters, the demands of everyday life keep swirling around us and we feel like we can’t keep up. We can’t think straight. We feel emotionally overwhelmed and like we’ve forgotten who we are.

We experience this emotional vertigo… like we’re off balance and struggling to find our bearings.

In my experience, what the Method does is slow things down… it normalizes grief…. It takes a topic that is messy and complicated and systematically walks you through a series of small action steps that increase self-awareness, acknowledge the emotions that are arising, and allow us to be honest and vulnerable about our loss and our life story. This is what ultimately fosters healing.

What do you talk about?

During the program, we talk about cultural myths and misinformation about how to navigate loss and transition. We unpack some of our default behaviors and beliefs about coping – things that we’ve done and believed since childhood. And then we focus on one specific relationship, with someone who may or may not be alive, but a relationship that still carries unresolved, ruminating pain.

We work through the Grief Recovery Method handbook to reckon with and release what is emotionally unhealthy and unhelpful to our sense of wholeness and well-being.

Most people just need to be heard. And there are so few places where they can be fully honest and fully themselves… experiencing the Method has a profound effect on the people who are courageous enough to participate honestly because they’re committed to healing.

How did you find the Grief Recovery Method?

After my husband Noah died, my grief felt utterly unbearable.  Until his death, I had never lost anyone close to me.  It was a wholly unfamiliar terrain. I was disillusioned, disoriented, and truly in the depths of despair.

I scoured bookstores, websites, and community groups for the best possible resources to help me understand what was “normal” — grasping at anything that might provide some measure of comfort and consolation and ultimately help me to rebuild my life.

I stumbled upon The Grief Recovery Handbook about a year after Noah’s accident. I did the exercises on my own and found they were helpful so I decided to become a Grief Recovery Method facilitator a couple years later. Part of my training was to work through the method as a participant.

Completing the Method in a group context was life-altering for me in a way that no amount of reading, independent self-reflection, or traditional therapy could have been…

There is tremendous power in having someone bear witness to your story without judgment, analysis or commentary in a way that helps you reckon with reality and rumble with your story.* 

It was different than any other support groups I’d been a part of. There were no layers of religious judgment. We spent time in reflection; not rumination, shame, and regret. The Grief Recovery Method also helped me to unload some of the cultural baggage I’d been carrying about what “appropriate grief” looks like (FYI, it’s not for anyone else to judge, nor are comparisons helpful in grieving although sharing our story with others humanizes us).

Ultimately, working through the Method normalized my grief and allowed me to make sense of the breadth and depth of my loss in a way that was profoundly cathartic and healing.

What I love about the Grief Recovery Method is that it fosters resilience and hopefulness.

When we take inventory of all we’ve been through, we see how strong we are. When we allow ourselves to honor the full range of emotions, we can connect more deeply with others in joy and sorrow. When we learn how to navigate adversity and grief in healthy ways, it inspires confidence that we can, in fact, handle whatever the future holds…

The reality is that life is hard. And life is also beautiful. And it’s by acknowledging these two truths together that we are emboldened to live more wholeheartedly and to rebuild meaningful lives after loss.

If you want to sign up for the program, check out the events page to see when the next cohort will start or email info@theflourishingspace.com.

 

* During my healing journey, I also read a lot of books by Brené Brown, Lucy HoneKristen Neff, George Bonanno, Thomas Lynch, David Whyte, Joan Didion, Krista Tippett, Richard Tedeshi, Martin Seligman, and others. One of my favorite books during some of my darkest moments was Healing After Loss by Martha Whitmore Hickman.  One of my favorite meditation resources is Tara Brach’s website

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Grief & Growth: Towards Wholehearted Healing

wholehearted healing

I am well-acquainted with unwelcome transitions and loss. 

Between 2002 and 2011, I moved ten times for my husband’s graduate education and career. In 2012 he died in a car accident, leaving me widowed with three boys to raise.

Noah was my best friend, co-adventurer, and the father of my children. He was brilliant, wildly creative, and disarming in the way he could bring both levity and depth of thought to any conversation.

Admired and loved for his poetic and humorous ways of relating to life’s polarities, Noah marveled at its absurdities. He celebrated life’s beauties despite its brokenness. He had an unassuming yet witty and passionate presence that drew a motley crew of interesting people into our lives.

For more than a decade, I was content to build my life around his theological career and passions. I left my Canadian homeland, served overseas in South Korea, set aside my own graduate school ambitions, and labored alongside him in the United States as he pursued his vocation. I had more faith in his potential than anyone I’ve ever known.

Noah’s presence was the most consistent thing in my adult life. He was my home. My partner. The keeper of memories and the muse for my secret ambitions. We had plans to write, to travel, and to start a broader cultural conversation about authenticity, shame, and spirituality in a culture that had grown increasingly manic, competitive, and superficial.

On the day Noah died—March 6, 2012—everything shifted unalterably for me.

Widowed at the age of thirty-six, I found myself with three boys to raise in a new community where I had few friends. Despite the well-intentioned people around me, I grew weary of the platitudes, empty consolations, shallow spirituality, and superficial self-help that minimized my loss and prevented me from grieving honestly.

In his absence, I was riddled with guilt and paralyzing self-doubt about whether I could be resilient in the face of adversity.

According to the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory, the death of a spouse is one of the most stressful events a person can experience. This felt especially true for me.

I didn’t know how to live without Noah. In truth, I didn’t want to at first. In his absence, I was riddled with guilt and paralyzing self-doubt about whether I could be resilient in the face of adversity.

My grief had eclipsed my desire to innovate, create, or celebrate the many good things this one precious life holds. It kept me from being the person I so earnestly wanted to be: the woman who pursued joy fearlessly, loved wholeheartedly, and dared to have meaningful conversations about what makes life worth living.

But how could I live a meaningful life without the man I loved most? How could I be joyful or hopeful when I’d been utterly betrayed by the naïve optimism of my youth?

I found no comfort in the rote religious consolation offered by some of the people closest to me. Nor did I believe the universe was unfolding as it should … or that everything happens for a reason. Making sense of this loss was too difficult.

We are wired to make meaning, moment by moment, in a world that is predictably unpredictable and unfair.

The biggest hindrance to my healing was my desire to make sense of why Noah had died.

There is both a harsh reality and a profound wisdom in accepting that some losses cannot be explained or redeemed. They can only be navigated with grit and grace … and the belief in the possibility of growth for those of us who choose to love life, even in the shadow of death.

I’ve since learned that asking, “Why do bad things happen?” is rarely helpful or edifying. Life is hard. Loss is inevitable. A more empowering question to ask is, “What’s next?”

The reality was that Noah was gone. I was still here. So were other loved ones. And life was still worth living.

I knew I could not risk the life I still had for the one I had lost. I knew I needed to embrace wholehearted healing. 

So I chose to lean in to grief. What emerged was a deeper love of life, a greater compassion for others, and the ability to broaden the cultural conversation around loss, adversity, and healing.

As I’ve studied resilience and post-traumatic growth, I’ve come to appreciate the body of emerging research from the field of applied positive psychology. It has enabled me to integrate evidence-based practices and principles into my own healing journey and empowered me to help others: experience more positive emotions, engage in the world wholeheartedly, have richer relationships, find greater meaning and purpose, set and accomplish meaningful goals, and achieve greater physical and emotional vitality.

Beyond that, I’ve discovered a growing community of kindred spirits who are courageous and honest enough to reflect on our frailties and foibles while still holding space for life’s wonders and mysteries … and the hope of what can unfurl as we are transformed.