“Making lemons into lemonade,” “learning to dance in the rain,” and my all-time favorite, "The greatest teacher, failure is" are colloquialisms that have the same basic premise - positivity can come from negative experiences. Positive psychology gained popularity in recent years, especially with the widely known shame and resilience theory developed by Brené Brown, PhD.
Positive psychology was pioneered by Dr. Martin Seligman in the late 1990s. Dr. Seligman differed from the majority of the field of psychology by no longer looking at the pathology of a person, but instead focusing on their strengths and virtues in order to help people become happier (Sheldon & King, 2001). Dr. Seligman once noted that, “psychology should be just as concerned with building strength as with repairing damage.” In that pursuit of happiness, Dr. Seligman believed happiness depended on developing three different areas: the Pleasant Life, the Good Life, and the Meaningful Life.
There’s been a second wave of positive psychology; which has changed and grown into different forms. After the growth of Dr. Seligman’s positive psychology, researchers began to understand the limitations of focusing only on positive experiences. Researchers noted that not all negative experiences and emotions are destructive or depleting. In fact, research has demonstrated that feelings of unhappiness and discontent can often promote creativity and adaptation (Linley & Joseph, 2005). From this realization came a second evolution of positive psychology, and the emergence of existentialism positive psychology (EPP). EPP believes that our human experiences cannot be minimized to only the positives; instead, it has to include all human experiences, both positive and negative. In other words, let’s not just skip over and minimize the experiences of the darker more painful areas of the human experience (Wong, 2017). EPP’s goal is to bring out the best in people not despite the darker human experiences, but because of those experiences. EPP believes that negative human experiences can be beneficial in an individual’s growth, development, and even finding a meaningful life (Wong, 2017).
There has been another development in the field of positive psychology, merging neuropsychology and positive psychology- the neuroplasticity of gratitude and mindfulness (Curry, 2017). The premise of neuroplasticity, according to Dr. Melanie Greenberg, is that our brains are geared to have a negative bias in order to predict the future. This negative bias was likely a useful tool during the caveman days when danger typically meant death by a dangerous animal. However, in today’s world this negative bias means that we tend to see negative or possible risks everywhere. Further, these pre-historic risks that our brains are protecting us from are no longer with us, yet our brain continues to see risk and negativity. Subsequently, this negativity can lead to anxiety and depression! Science has shown us that neuroplasticity means that we can grow new neural pathways to start more positive automatic thoughts. In order to really create change, we need to intentionally interrupt and change our negative cycles (Greenberg, 2017).
Science has found several ways to intentionally interrupt our negative cycles. In counseling sessions, a tool often used to break the negative cycle is grounding back to the present moment. For instance, when a client begins a negative cycle of complaining or viewing only the negative, the counselor can ask, “how does your body feel in this moment as you discuss this?” This simple question puts a pause on this negative cycle and begins the process of neuroplasticity. A therapist might encourage a client to deliberately focus on what is going right and to practice compassion and self-compassion. The act of self-compassion, according to Dr. Melanie Greenberg, changes the brain (Greenberg, 2017). Outside of the counseling room, mindfulness is one of the best ways to give a pause between the stimulus and the typical negative reaction. In fact, this pause allows individuals to enjoy the present moment while creating change to neural pathways.
Neuroplasticity means that our brain learns through repetition, thus change does not happen the first time a person attempts it. Every mindfulness technique will take time and repetition to truly transform a person’s brain. Read below to discover more mindfulness activities to help transform your brain and create a more positive and grateful life.
Deep breathing is a great mindfulness practice. Take some time to just focus on your breathing. Use this time to observe your thoughts without participating in. Start with small intervals of 2 minutes and slowly add to it.
We can focus on the moment by using all of our senses to take in an experience. During this time, think about how your body is feeling, what you see, smell, and hear, taste. Some typical examples include a nature walk while focusing on what you see, smell, and hear, or a bubble bath with hot water, aroma soaps, and candles.
Yoga is a great activity that brings in the mind body connection. During yoga, one’s breathing is often the focus, while moving the body through various stretches.
Positive journaling is a great way to focus on the positive each day to help with neuroplasticity. Each night, take a moment to write about what went right that day. It can be big or small, but the intention is to focus on the positive.
Positive psychology may have only been around for two decades, but it has continually grown and evolved. It no longer merely focuses on the positive, but EPP understands that by being human, we have positive and negative experiences in our world. Merging the worlds of positive psychology and neuroplasticity means that we can use mindfulness and other positive psychology techniques to rewire our brains. The world of positive psychology is growing and evolving. It is providing clinicians with the tools to help clients seek happiness while not minimizing the darker side of the human experience.
Written by Amy Rollo, M.A., LSSP, LPC-S
Heights Family Counseling
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