Kirsten Cronlund, MAPP 2008, is committed to helping others navigate the rough waters of divorce with resiliency, drawing upon personal experience and the science of positive psychology. She is now serving as the director of Bryn Athyn Church School. Full bio.
Kirsten's articles are here.
AFGO – Another Freaking Growth Opportunity (polite version) – is a term used by my friends who are 12-step group members (like Alcoholics Anonymous). It is said with a wry smile, usually after hearing about a challenge someone is going through, such as divorce. “That’s an AFGO,” they declare (pronounced “af-go”), nodding at one another, sometimes rolling their eyes. The unstated message is, “Yep. We’ve all been there. It sucks, but you’ll be better off when you do the work required to get through it.”Contrast this with the upbeat, cheerleader-ish message that is promoted by some motivational groups. When I was in high school, the parents of one of my friends became heavily involved in a multilevel marketing organization. My friend – who we’ll call Laura – brought motivational messages from the conferences she attended to me and the rest of my group at school. “PMA!” she would exclaim enthusiastically whenever we expressed a hardship. PMA meant Positive Mental Attitude, and it made us want to throw up. We started avoiding Laura because her positive declarations felt disrespectful of the realities of our lives. I’m guessing that if someone had mentioned PMA to me during my divorce I would have slugged them.
Turns out that both AFGO and PMA carry some truth – and some pitfalls.Resilience
Resilience is the ability to move through adversity successfully, and it is crucial to flourishing through divorce. In The Resilience Factor, Psychologists Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte define resilience as not simply the ability to continue functioning, but to grow and expand as a result of a negative experience.
Barbara Fredrickson, creator of the Broaden and Build Theory of positive emotions, has found the following relationships between positive emotions — such as joy, love, gratitude, and inspiration — and resilience:
- Resilient people experience heightened levels of positive emotions – at or above the 3:1 ratio of positive to negative emotion that she and her colleagues have found to be the tipping point to flourishing.
- Increasing positive emotions in anyone – regardless of their initial outlook on life – builds resiliency.
These findings, while deceptively simple, are extremely relevant to people going through divorce, which is an adversity if ever I saw one. Maybe by doing more things that raise levels of positive emotions during divorce, a person can flourish in spite of (or maybe even as a result of) the stressors. This pathway to flourishing is crucial because it offers hope during the divorce process. (See my article on divorce from last month.)
If flourishing during divorce results from raising levels of positive emotions, then, why shouldn’t we use the PMA approach? That’s all about seeing the bright side of life, right? The answer lies in Marcial Losada’s positivity-to-negativity ratio. Losada recommends having a positivity-to-negativity ratio of greater than 3:1 and less than 12:1. Notice that the number indicating negativity is not zero. We cannot, and arguably do not want to, erase all negative emotions. And to ignore hardship robs positivity-increasing efforts of any credibility.The AFGO approach, then, feels much more genuine. The social support provided by friends who have also gone through hard times helps people feel more connected. And a 12-step group helps keep its members focused on such positivity-enhancing mechanisms as finding meaning in life and helping others, while not ignoring the reality of the hard parts. The potential danger in the AFGO approach, however, is the implicit message that the only way to grow and flourish is through adversity. Divorce, of course, is not a prerequisite to happiness, nor is suffering in general.
The Middle Way is Both Ways
So here’s the take-away: during divorce – or other trying times – it helps to look for every way possible to increase positive emotion while giving appropriate attention to grief, anger, and other negative emotions. If you do this, it’s very possible that you will not simply survive the hardship, but will actually grow and flourish as a result of the experience. Then you can get on with the enjoyment of life, not seeking out ongoing trauma as a way to continue growing, but growing instead through a focus on increasing what is already good.
Fredrickson B. L. & Losada M. F. (2005). Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing. American Psychologist, 60, 678-686.
Fredrickson, B. L., Mancuso, R. A., Branigan, C., & Tugade, M. M. (2000). The undoing effect of positive emotions. Motivation and Emotion. 24, 237-258.
Fredrickson, B. L., Tugade, M. M., Waugh, C. E., & Larkin, G. (2003). What good are positive emotions in crises?: A prospective study of resilience and emotions following the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11th, 2001. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 365-376.
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.
Ong, A. D., Bergeman, et al. (2006). Psychological resilience, positive emotions, and successful adaptation to stress in later life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91: 730-49.
Reivich, K, & Shattẻ, A. (2002). The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. New York: Broadway Books.