Home All The Importance of Grieving AND Smiling Your Way Through Divorce

The Importance of Grieving AND Smiling Your Way Through Divorce

written by Kirsten Cronlund 16 September 2008

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 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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, & Shatt?, A. (2002). The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. New York: Broadway Books.

Cal vs Stanford 370 (Cheerleaders) courtesy of Rraiderstyle
Waterbending (Boulder in Water) courtesy of Zach Dischner
Forsaken (Grief) courtesy of debaird

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Wayne Jencke 16 September 2008 - 4:38 am

Kirsten, perhaps a key aspect of growth is acceptance or putting things in perspective. Both are critical for resilience.

Kirsten Cronlund 16 September 2008 - 8:37 am

Yes, Wayne… I couldn’t agree with you more! I was just listening yesterday to an audio book by Pema Chodron (a meditation guru) called Getting Unstuck, and she was talking about the gut-wrenching experience of having to let go of things that we cling to. Those things could be physical items, but they can also be ideas about the way relationships “should” go. Our tendency is to want to fix everything — to make it right again. But maybe one of the blessings of divorce and other major adversity is that we HAVE to accept that which we can’t fix. Then there is a freedom because we are released from the “stuck-ness” of needing things to be a certain way in order for us to be happy. I think this is a huge piece in posttraumatic growth, a topic that fascinates me. Thoughts?

Thanks for the comment!


Elaine Williams 16 September 2008 - 10:49 am

Very good article. I’ve experienced divorce and death of a spouse in my lifetime. The worst thing any of us can do is give in and let ourselves become permanently stuck in depressing emotions or feelings of helplessness.

Kirsten Cronlund 16 September 2008 - 2:09 pm

Thanks, Elaine, for your thoughts. What methods did you use to get out of “stuck-ness”?

Wayne Jencke 16 September 2008 - 2:35 pm

Kirsten – psychology is already working with “acceptance” therapy. Many of its proponents suggest that it is more powerful than CBT.

Many of the executives I coach have had relationship breakdowns – it seems to go with the territory. There seem to be three groups – the VERBers (Victim, entitlement, rescue and blame), the positive spinners (it was the best thing that ever happened to me) and finally those who accept the situation – my experience is that the latter seem to do better.

Christine Duvivier 16 September 2008 - 3:27 pm


Your article is thoughtful and something anyone can relate to (love your PMA story!). I noticed, when I was grieving following a neighbor’s tragedy, that Active-Constructive Responding and Appreciative Inquiry (had to participate in them in a MAPP class on a day I was grieving) both bumped me up out of the depths of grief– and I stayed at a higher level after that. I was still sad, accepting, and empathic but I was personally functioning at a better level. So I agree with you about the role of positive psych tools.

Angus Skinner 16 September 2008 - 6:06 pm

Hi Kirsten
Nice piece – I love your heading ‘The Middle Way is Both Ways’. Creativity is shining through.

Kirsten Cronlund 16 September 2008 - 10:15 pm


I have never heard of the term VERB. Maybe I’ll have to work that into another article… I can definitely see its contrast to the “Best thing that ever happened to me” camp.

How does acceptance theory differ from AA’s Serenity Prayer? I’ll have to look into that.

Thanks for your thoughts,

Kirsten Cronlund 16 September 2008 - 10:20 pm


Yes, the raising of levels of positive emotion is powerful. I guess the trick is convincing someone who is at the bottom of the pit that it’s worth the initial effort. I think the experience of comfort and safety are key in this process. What do you think?


Kirsten Cronlund 16 September 2008 - 10:21 pm

Wish I could take credit for that heading, Angus. Truth is, it was Senia’s suggestion. It is creative, though…


Wayne Jencke 17 September 2008 - 4:01 am

The VERB’s are the formula for an unhappy life. I generally introduce the VERB’s as “all talk no action”. Happy people seem to get on with their lives.

If you like acronyms you might like my ACCEPTional resilience model

A – Awareness of thinking
C – Calm the mind and body
C – Constructive self dialogue
E – engaged in what you do
P – positive emotional intelligence
T – Trandform/transcend the situation

Its bizarre but business loves acronyms

Kirsten Cronlund 17 September 2008 - 8:29 am

Hi Wayne,

I recently read Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath and they would definitely agree with the value in acronyms. I like yours, although I think one of the most important parts of resilience is seeing oneself as part of a bigger whole, something you can rely on and something that you can contribute to. Is that in your model somewhere?


Wayne Jencke 17 September 2008 - 1:27 pm

Kirsten – can you clarify what you mean by the “bigger” whole?

Kirsten Cronlund 17 September 2008 - 8:38 pm

What I mean is the source of meaning for any individual, be it God (or another name for a higher power), loyalty to one’s country, a community, an extended family network, or simply creation in general.

wayne jencke 17 September 2008 - 11:09 pm

Kirsten, do you think there is a common theme that connects your concept of the bigger whole? I think its about people being engaged.

Nick Ritchey 18 September 2008 - 9:14 am

Hi Kirsten,

I love the AFGO acronym! It all comes down to balance in the end (The Middle Path in Buddhism) doesn’t it — and it’s good to know the extremes 🙂

Thanks for sharing,

Kirsten Cronlund 18 September 2008 - 10:51 pm

Wayne, I’m not sure what you mean by “engaged.” It makes me think of Flow, which can be a completely solitary activity. I can be engaged in my hobby of stamp collecting, but it really isn’t about anyone but me. If there is a theme to the bigger whole, I’d call it two things: giving service and receiving sustainance.

Kirsten Cronlund 18 September 2008 - 10:52 pm

Great to hear from you, Nick. I’m glad you like AFGO, but you’re right – it does all seem to come down to balance…

wayne jencke 19 September 2008 - 12:41 am

Kirsten, have you ever been “engaged” in a good conversation? Or perhaps you have a met an engaging person?

Kirsten Cronlund 19 September 2008 - 9:15 am

Absolutely, Wayne. What you’re talking about, it seems, is a level of connection. I definitely see connection as being critical to resilience, actually both in terms of connection to solitary activities (like reading a good book that really makes me think) and connection to other people. But I do have a theory that the connection to something larger is a hugely critical factor in resilience.

Louis Alloro 19 September 2008 - 1:25 pm


Love this piece! It’s amazing to think the power we all have to increase positive emotion — for ourselves and for the people we love going through hardship like divorce. Emotional contagion is a wonderful thing!

AFGOs for all!


Wayne Jencke 19 September 2008 - 4:20 pm

Kirsten – so why do you think spirituality/religion is connected with life satisfaction. Is it about hope, purpose, connectedness, sense making, acceptance …..?

I read some research that suggested that if you control for positive affect there was minimal correlation between religion and life satisfaction.

So perhaps underneath it all are positive emotions that I listed earlier.

Kirsten Cronlund 19 September 2008 - 5:46 pm

Thanks, Louis, for your hearty endorsement of the possibility for growth in adversity. And, yes, I also see a contagion effect as possible and likely, which is why I am pursuing working with people going through divorce — to help them grow through the experience. Nice to hear from you!


Kirsten Cronlund 19 September 2008 - 6:09 pm

Wayne, I think that spirituality/religion CAN be connected with life satisfaction (although when I speak of meaning I am not limiting that to spirituality and religion), although it isn’t always the case. As psychologists Pargament & Mahoney have written, if a person’s idea of God (or higher power) includes a loving, compassionate being then that does lead to a sense of well-being. Another psychologist, Kirkpatrick, has drawn a comparison between Bowlby’s attachment theory for children and adults’ attachment to God. When adults have a secure attachment they feel safe, protected, and willing to venture out securely. I agree with this idea. It speaks to Marty Seligman’s statement that one possible reason for the epidemic of depression in our society is “threadbare spiritual furniture.” (And he does not limit his idea of spiritual to things having to do with God and church.)

Wayne Jencke 19 September 2008 - 9:57 pm

Kirsten – So can an atheist be happy?

Kirsten Cronlund 20 September 2008 - 8:25 am

Of course, Wayne. As I said, this isn’t about strictly defined spirituality. It’s about belonging and contributing to something larger than oneself. That could mean being committed to the cause of honoring nature, it could be the spread of political freedom and justice throughout the world. It’s anything that provides meaning and purpose beyond the daily grind.

SteveM 20 September 2008 - 8:26 am


In the context of positive psychology, that is an excellent question.

Of course an atheist can be happy. However, an authentic atheist will find his liberation through Nietzsche, not Positive Psychology. There is a metaphysical component of Positive Psychology that I don’t agree with. And that is the attempt by its chief proponents to rationalize transcendence through Darwinian, biological arguments.

Nietzsche wrote in Twilight of the Idols:

They have got rid of the Christian God, and now feel obliged to cling all the more firmly to Christian morality: that is English consistency. . . . With us it is different. When one gives up Christian belief, one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality. Whoever tries to peel off this fundamental idea—belief in God—from Christian morality will only be taking a hammer to the whole thing, shattering it to pieces.

His principle dichotomy is “Rome against Judea, Judea against Rome.” Aristocratic (Roman) morality which is centered on strength, power and excellence versus slave (Judeo-Christian) morality, which in Nietzsche’s mind transforms weakness into virtue. I.e., “love your neighbor.” “Blessed are the meek” Positive Psychology is attempting to conflate the two in an underhanded way. So catalyzes obvious questions like yours.

Nietzsche was well aware that the slave morality of the Judeo-Christian ethical framework of Western man is impossible to rupture without a profound injection of revolutionary thought. The liberating nihilism of Nietzsche is just too much for most to bear.

So Western society concocts various “spiritualities” which are richly religionized forms of atheism. These are the philosophies of “Zen-Lite”, Richard Rorty’s romantic polytheism and Dr. Valliant’s search for the soul embedded somewhere in his brain scans are examples of the spiritual “filler” used to justify the the complete PP paradigm.

I happen to believe highly in Positive Psychology as an animating Weltanshauung. But it’s questions like yours that suggest its scientist-philosophers limit the size of its meta-physical sandbox.


Wayne Jencke 20 September 2008 - 6:58 pm

Kirsten, I agree with you that its important to go beyond the self. But do they need to be big ticket items? And I guess more interestingly why does going beyond the self work?

As an aside I recently ran a workshop with a group of environmental activists (they are committed to a bigger purpose) – they were amongst the unhappiest people I have met. Why – because their passion was about what is wrong with the world

Kirsten Cronlund 21 September 2008 - 8:37 am

There are many ways of connecting, Wayne. One is with other individuals, which is really important. But because that’s something that already gets pretty much press, I tend to focus my attention on the meaning piece – connecting with something larger than oneself.

As for the environmental activists you were working with, I wonder what their responses would be if you were to ask them questions that point to their overall life satisfaction levels. They might not have high levels of positive emotion in their lives, but their sense of meaning and purpose, while not putting smiles on their faces, might be strongly positive parts of their lives.

I don’t think it has to be an either/or situation, of course. Positive emotion and meaning and purpose are not mutually exclusive, and the heightening of both is something that I personally strive for in my life.

There are many pathways to flourishing…

Wayne Jencke 21 September 2008 - 4:04 pm

Kirsten, they actually aren’t that satisfied with life and they make everyone elses life miserable (that’s why I was there). eg they have poor personal and work relationships, poor health, high turnover and burnout … it doesn’t sound like they are flourishing to me.

My theory is that if the higher meaning activates positive emotions then its sustainable. If it doesn’t (eg you do it out of a sense of duty) then its a formula for burnout.

For example I do free seminars for community groups because it makes me feel good – not because its the right thing to do according to some God. (probably talking about the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation)

SteveM 21 September 2008 - 9:59 pm


You write as if positive emotions and sense of duty are disjoint. If they were, hedonism would run rampant and nothing would get done.

If you give free seminars because it makes you feel good, well that’s fine. But that’s the most base, self-indulgent rationale for doing anything. Of course we are all self-indulgent at times. Deservedly so even. But it the old days when belief meant something, doing something you liked but passed off as “dutiful” was called “cheap grace”.

Positive Psychology which seeks to circumvent obligation as both dutiful and satisfying is a road to nowhere.

P.S. An elegant, sublime example of PP applied to profound service motivated by deep spirituality can be found in the work of the great humanitarian Dorothy Day.

Wayne Jencke 22 September 2008 - 4:48 am

SteveM, you just ever so slightly missed the point I was making. I was suggesting that positive emotion was the basis of sustainable activity.

When people say they love what they do aren’t the suggesting that a positive emotion(love or passion) drives their behaviour?

Just a theory

SteveM 22 September 2008 - 8:28 am


OK, I see. I was looking at the totality of a commitment. I.e., the weariness and drudgery that inevitably accompany any effort providing lasting value.

I always thought that the philosophy of “Random Acts of Kindness” was the most superficial and perhaps even narcissistic “Positive” model that could be advocated. Because it implies no commitment or sense of obligation. If one feels like being kind, one is kind. If not, one is not. That model invites just enough personal investment to satisfy an internal need for self-congratulation. And then that’s it. It can be completely internally focused.

Like you, I enjoy doing volunteer work partially because I walk out feeling better than when I walked in. So sub-consciously forecasting out the follow-on good feelings may induce me to go when I’m a little fatigued. We don’t need PP to augment that simple incentive.

It’s the times when someone is extremely tired and perhaps emotionally needy themselves and they really don’t want to go, but they go anyway out of obligation. Doing so then makes them special. The happiness generated by those acts of selflessness is transcendent and hard to describe. I suppose it’s the happiness that results being true to one’s values.

If PP can help people work through that real-time decision calculus and induce them to do the “right” thing consistent with their values even when they don’t want to in real time, then it would serve a terrific purpose.

Dorothy Day was one of those transcendent figures. Back in the day we called them, “saints”. I don’t know what we call them today.

BTW, my argument is to keep PP as value neutral as possible and focus on process. Not because I’m a relativist, but because once a PP facilitator or therapist starts overlaying their own values onto a person or group, the process itself risks becoming personality driven and corrupted.

Incidentally, I’ve been thinking a lot about PP applied to people who are negative on Dr. Seligman’s scale. I’m thinking of a paradigm. Call it “Red to Green” or something. In that context, think of someone depressed and housebound whose fundamental values are benevolent and giving. They just can’t get out of the house. Psycho-therapy may tell them why they are broken. A CBT therapist may present them with a formula and action plan. But a PP intervention would include a dialog not about how they got to where they are, or the step by step mechanics of moving towards the door. Rather a directed conversation that focused on what was important to them fundamentally. Perhaps surfacing that fundamental realization would provide the authentic, value-driven catalyst the client needs to take action and move forward.


Wayne Jencke 22 September 2008 - 3:00 pm

SteveM – ideally PP would be value neutral – but this isn’t the case. You only have to look at how the definition of PP has changed over a decade to see that it is “value laden”. Mu

Invariably PP is also influenced by its founders – given that Seligman acknowledges the fact that he was a grumpy old man – perhaps PP is all about how to make grumpy old men happy.

And of course it will be influenced by its funding – the Templeton foundation – hence the focus on strengths and Christian values. To a certain extent I think PP has been hijacked by the strengths movement.

Kirsten Cronlund 26 September 2008 - 3:00 pm

Check out my new divorce coaching website:


This explains a little more about the role of meaning in navigating adversity.

Wayne Jencke 27 September 2008 - 3:53 pm

Kirsten, Just found an interesting piece of research you should check out. Basically compared the impact on pleasure, engagement and meaning had on life satisfaction.

Interestingly in Oz meaning had little impact on life satisfaction and pleasure had a negative impact.

In the US sample meaning was the most important, followed by engagement and pleasure (in the US sample pleasure had a positive impact)

The oz sample controlled for personality and found that agreeableness and emotional stability were better predictors of life satisfaction than engagement.

So I guess you can now see where I was coming from?

Also personality factors such as emotional stability and agreeableness were as important as meaning.

Kirsten Cronlund 27 September 2008 - 6:21 pm

Wayne, Thanks for this. Sounds like there’s a lot in the study. Can you give me information about authors, title, etc.?

I do see where you’re coming from – that maybe the role of meaning in life satisfaction is cultural? Or at least personally determined? I do wonder about the subtleties, though. For instance, what if the Australians were less likely to rank meaning because of some other culturally-determined factor — like maybe they have a heightened sense of duty or something. (I don’t know. I’m just making this up.)

It does seem surprising that pleasure would be tagged as the least impactful pathway to life satisfaction in the US. You certainly wouldn’t guess that from looking at much of the media.

Thanks for passing this along.


Wayne Jencke 27 September 2008 - 6:46 pm

Kirsten, article is three ways to be happy: pleasure, engagement and meaning – findings from Australian and US samples (Vella-Brodrick, Park and Peterson) Journal of Social Indicators Research, March 2008.

The research in oz controlled for personality factors which resulted in meaning becoming insignificant – suggests that meaning is about personality????????

That’s why I like to do a personality profile – it helps me make sure the intervention fits the person.

Kirsten Cronlund 27 September 2008 - 7:46 pm

Thanks, Wayne.

What personality profile do you use?

Wayne Jencke 27 September 2008 - 8:26 pm

Email me (http://www.i-i.com.au/about/contact.html) and I will explain the profile

Barry Elias 15 February 2009 - 9:39 am

September 17, 2008

Dear Senia,

This article seems to reinforce the point I articulated during Mr. Lionel Ketchian’s presentation Tuesday, June 17, 2008 and reiterated Tuesday, August 12, 2008 at the Happiness session.

I believe you have alluded to the importance of experiencing a multitude of feelings, which can then be channeled positively.

Look forward to staying in touch.

Best regards,
Barry Elias


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