Thriving is NOT simply "being able to deal with it". Use positive psychology for BEING well
Updated: Dec 8, 2020
"When you remove depression from a person, you aren't left with a happy person...you're left with an empty person...sometimes people need to learn what BEING WELL is." (Seligman, 2011: "Flourish").
For Seligman, the act of being well (notably NOT "wellbeing" as an adjective) involves the five elements of "PERMA":
Within therapy or coaching, those who also learn these state shifts as a "bolt on" to the traditional exercises they are using tend to not only recover faster, but remain in that state of recovery - they learn to flourish.
Seligman also makes clear the difference between "learning to deal with it" and thriving. Learning to manage (eg. "powering through" - supressing the symptoms, getting on with it despite the world being a bit s*it sometimes) is often the goal of "cure" for therapy, or "success" for coaching. While admirable - what if it is possible to do one (or more) better? What if it is possible to use all the conventional tools to do well, to succeed, to achieve, and truly love every minute? THEN you are flourishing.
However, this is not easy. IF we see depression for example as in part a state of sadness. It is also possible that the person experiencing it has not learned (perhaps due to circumstance) to live in a state of positivity.
As Linehan says in her book on Dialectic Behaviour Therapy for emotional management for people with Borderline Personality Disorder, it's all very well saying "When life gives you lemons make lemonade...but you need sweetness for that." If you've lived in world without sweetness - and often sadly through no fault of your own - you are also going to need to learn to find it, make it, and hopefully soon you'll love it.
This is where the tools of positive psychology - the simple exercises that are fun and yet bring huge returns - in addition (it's NOT an "alternative therapy"!!) to standard practice will help you feel great when objectively you may already be great.
If you need extra convincing - even if you do not have a diagnosis, how often do you think "I KNOW everyone says I'm doing great/I'm successful/I'm amazing...but I just don't see it." Then you too could do with some help in being well!
Yet these tools do not engage the ego - they are not about generating a sense of "entitlement" that can so often come with verbally building self esteem, or rewarding behaviour, they will bring a sense of fulfilment, satisfaction, perhaps even relief...and happiness. They are state shifters.
My own coaching and training work involves a combination of both practical tools for goal setting, exploring and addressing personal barriers, and reframing the mindset; as well as an exercise here and there to help you recognise sweetness. Seligman encourages you to go one step further and take the "authentic happiness VIA strengths test" (you need to set up an account, but it's free and they don't spam you! There is even a test for children.) The 5 top strengths the test reveals are the positive emotions ("P" of PERMA above) that - if you engage in them, will give you the greatest positive state shifts. Using them regularly will raise your vibe - help you find that "sweet" spot, which in turn may give you that boost to continue with your counselling or coaching work - or, grow from surviving to thriving, from living to flourishing. Having my clients do the test enables me to tailor the best positive psychology tools for them eg. If someone's top strength is "gratitude" then of course the "gratitude journal" is a great one, if it is "self control" then instead perhaps a journal of the times they showed self discipline to achieve whatever they intended to would be more energising for them.
Activate the elements of PERMA
Some tools Seligman suggests are:
- The letter of gratitude. Sending a letter to someone whom you appreciate telling them why they made such a difference in your life.
- ONE strength daily - Intentionally find a way to engage your "flourishing" energies by finding an unusual way to use one daily. He gives the example for "unusual" of - if your strength is "Hope, Optimism and Future" - then yes, you could volunteer to teach a class, or mentor, but perhaps you might want to write a blog article on a new development in your professional field.
- Creating a positive emotion generator - Creating an activity to activate PERMA and trying it over the week.
(I recommend his book for more!)
Other ways that I - and my clients - have found beneficial (whatever your top "sweetness" strengths are, ie. even if you don't take the test!!) include:
- Affirmations or meditations
- Physical exercise - and for me, combining a walk or run with an affirmation meditation makes me feel great because I'm making the most of that time...(perhaps that's also because "zest" is my top strength...it may not work so well if "peace" is yours!)
- Self improvement - either through reading, taking a course or even trying out some of my coaching exercises.
- Creativity - this may be composing, art, dance, crafts - it needn't even be a masterpiece, but simply doing something which is your own!
- Focusing on friends - notably the relationships that energise you. Through spending time with them it squeezes the exhausting ones out, OR at least makes your time spent there more bearable.
- Reframing - actively choosing to see things not as "good or bad" but "effective or ineffective" in that context. Moving from a "victim" mindset to "survivor". Knowing you can "write" your narrative not just own it. Instead of overthinking and generating anxiety, simply choosing to think "I wonder." (Dobro DiMarco, 2020). Rather than feeling envy, choose to feel joy that you got to see someone's happiness and use that to focus on building you.
- Healthy Substitutions you love in easy reach - KNOWING that you have something you can reach out for that feels nice, or comforting, or positive so when a negative urge comes, you can "surf it". (Like having fruit instead of crisps for a dieter).
- Dancing/Singing/Music - and doing it like no-one's watching!
- Positive pictures - I screenshot messages of thanks, and achievements, and happy memories - things that make me feel good when I see them and keep them easily accessible on my phone. This also reminds me to value those moments.
-Self compassion - a bubble bath, a cup of tea (and savouring it), anything that makes you feel warm and fuzzy.
I could go on - but you will also have many things you prefer that speak best to you - you go do them!!
To flourish is not to "learn to manage" - that's simply "cure"...and yes, counsellors and coaches help with that anyway. It is to live daily in a state where you are able to truly appreciate, celebrate and value your accomplishments - so when you get what you want you
recognise it, cherish it and keep it; where you can believe that while "wining the lottery is nice - I can also 'make it all better' (or actually awesome)"; where you know you have the inner strength and resilience to survive crisis, rebuild when exhausted and still be able to thrive. It is to find fun, joy, play, love, wonder within responsibility, within ambition/drive achievement, within 'getting better'...within a world that can be tough, but one where you will be more than just ok. Don't just work on wellbeing, learn to be well.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilienceFor coaching tips and tools including positive psychology: click WORK WITH ME or SKILL PILL and here for Media appearances or Psych Q&A. Twitter/IG @draudreyt