Through speaking and writing, Sean Doyle, JD, MAPP '07, explores the poetry and science of well-being. Whether it's the work place, parenting, community, home, or hardship, Sean invites us to inject more hope, affection, and meaning into the world. Check out his chapbook, On Being Human. Another book is underway. Watch its progress and let publishers know you're interested via the book page on his website. Full bio. Sean's articles are here.
The Roof Leaks
Sometimes I feel like I have this life-thing all figured out. The roof leaks: no problem. The dog pees on the Christmas presents: primo-fodder for our holiday letter! But then there are other days … I catch a glimpse of cockroaches scurrying away as I crack open the cabinet doors, and it DOES bother me. I stress about them all day. I research whether it would hurt my dog if I sprayed poison on the baseboards. (Answer: Yes). I fret over how expensive an exterminator would be and fear what the neighbors might think if a car with a gigantic water-bug on the roof stopped in my driveway. (Can’t they at least park down the block? Maybe in front of that one neighbor who scowls at the kids?)
So what is going on? The little critters were there last week. How come they did not bug me then?
Happiness Is Hard Work?
A key take away from positive psychology is that happiness can be hard work. Sometimes we DO have things figured out: an undesirable event happens, and we roll with it. But life has a way of presenting us with challenges of all shapes and sizes, at unplanned hours, with any number of legs, and whether we are ready or not. The challenges can come one at a time, or piled on top of one another: as my 401k disappears like a cockroach behind a cereal box, a real creepy-crawly insect tiptoeing around my kitchen tips me over the edge. Life is not a single task to be solved and checked off like each of the twelve labors of Hercules.
Skin Nemean lion: Check.
Capture Cretan Bull: Check.
Achieve mastery of life: Whoa! Hold on a minute!
Rerouting a couple of rivers to clean the Augean stables might have actually been easier. Hercules only had to do that once. But we must keep living our lives moment by moment. And truthfully, in some moments, we are better than in others.
So what to do?
Resilience over Obstacles
Reivich and Shatte tell us that resilience helps us overcome past obstacles, steer through everyday adversities and bounce back from monumental crises. It even enables us to reach out and “find renewed meaning and purpose in life.” The authors give us several strategies to help build resilience. While space does not permit a detailed overview of each of these techniques, they generally fall into two categories: know-thyself skills, and change skills.
The “know thyself skills” are designed to help us identify the thinking patterns that can undermine our effectiveness and happiness. It might be recognizing a belief we hold about an event (e.g. Only bad people have bugs) or the discordance between what we believe and our reality (e.g. Insects only live outside). It could even be discovering overreaction to the event (e.g. This pack of pests proves my deeply irreversible character flaw that will be passed on to my grandchildren through my genes!).
In addition to recognizing these beliefs, the authors offer certain “change skills” to help amend those thinking styles so that we can recognize valid, alternative interpretations of the world. (e.g. Blattaria like houses too! In fact, the “water-bug car” WAS in front of the scowling neighbor’s house!)
However it is difficult to apply these strategies, identify beliefs and their sources, and generate alternative scenarios while you are in the heat and stress of the moment. As such, a key element of building resilience is in learning how to contend with the crisis as it occurs. The authors give various ideas to help someone reclaim his or her center while in the middle of the stressful event. One of my favorites is “Real-Time Resilience.”
What a Joy to Test Your Soul!
Toward the end of the novel Zorba the Greek, everything Zorba and the narrator had worked for comes crashing down around them. As all their hopes and labors lay in ruin at their feet, the narrator proclaims:
“When everything goes wrong, what a joy it is to test your soul to see if it has endurance and courage!”
Oh, and about those cockroaches, they really are remarkably resilient little guys . . .
Editor’s Note: A version of this article appears in the first book in the PPND series, Resilience: How to Navigate Life’s Curves.
Reivich, K, & Shattẻ, A. (2002). The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. New York: Broadway Books.
Kazantzakis, N. (1952). Zorba the Greek. (C. Wildman, Trans.). New York: Simon and Schuster.
Chapter 13 in the PPND book, Resilience: How to Navigate Life’s Curves, is based on this article.
Images: Cockroach costume, Hercules