When I met the people in the cafeteria where I was going to give the talk, I was unsure about how they would respond to the presentation. This was a group with real mental and emotional, not to mention personal, difficulties. Could they relate to what I was going to talk about? I thought that I would at least have to simplify the material on the fly. Would they even participate?
I prepared a presentation on gratitude, including some interventions designed to increase it, and in turn increase life satisfaction. Once the talk was underway, the group shocked me by being immediately responsive and engaged. I had to force myself to move on to each successive point because I was getting so many responses to my questions.
After a time, I finally got to describe the gratitude letter and visit. (This is a classic intervention described, among other places, in Seligman’s Authentic Happiness.) I asked for volunteers to mention someone who was important to them in their lives, and then to tell us what they did and how it made them feel. A woman spoke up and pointed to the young woman intern at the end of the table. The woman said, “She’s leaving tomorrow. She has been very important to us. She is a very nice and sweet person.” The flood gates were opened. Each person around the room was eager to describe the positive attributes the intern had and how these attributes contributed to them personally or to the Bridge House collectively.
“She is very helpful.”
“She is so sweet and kind.”
“She makes me feel good.”
“She knows where the need is and responds right away.”
“She helped me quit smoking.”
The intern was in tears. Gratitude permeated the room, and it was focused on one person. Every face was lit up and smiling. The intern tearfully thanked everyone.
Is “Below Zero” a Skewed Term?
We euphemistically talk about people “above or below zero” in positive psychology. Those “above zero” are generally not suffering from depression and are normally functioning individuals. “Below zero” refers to those that may be depressed and have difficulty functioning day-to-day. In this sense, this population was definitely below zero. However, isn’t positive psychology supposed to be for those who were already “above zero?” And, aren’t these interventions designed for people that have clear cognitive abilities?
I can tell you from my experience at the Bridge House that even those recovering from serious mental illness respond amazingly well to positive psychology. They can participate in the strengths interventions and truly benefit. They can feel the strength of these interventions, and they most certainly can see the importance of it in their lives. They clearly tell me how working on their happiness is important for them to stay afloat in their lives.
More than a year ago, a man named Lionel Ketchian (www.happinessclub.com), “a regular business man” as he puts it, began giving weekly talks on happiness at the Bridge House. He is responsible for introducing general positive psychology principles to the population there. He tells me that within a year, this withdrawn and anti-social group has turned into engaged and empowered individuals. Even the staff report enjoying working there more.
To say that this place is a much needed haven of support for those in this struggling part of Bridgeport is an understatement. Those that work there are indeed angels for this community in need. I, too, am grateful … for contributing something small to a community that has built so much for itself.
Emmons, R. (2007) Thanks!: How the new science of gratitude can make you happier. Boston: Houghton Mifflan Company.
Seligman, Martin (2004), Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.
The picture of Bridge House comes from the Bridge House web site.
Nick, what an uplifting article! I admire that you took a risk by bringing PP to a group of people who are traditionally excluded from our studies. Could there be a pre/post study here? Warm regards, Margaret
Nick, you make a good point about the fact that “below zero” doesn’t need to be so. Actually, one of my favorite pieces of research that Marty has discussed is Positive Psychotherapy (like this paper here) tested on individuals with mental illness who responded much better to Positive Psyychology than to psychotherapy as usual or to psychotherapy plus medication.
Great work Nick – I especially love the way ‘the flood gates opened’. And then everyone, if I read you right, was energised!
As to ‘below-zero’ I must have been asleep or too depressed during that lecture. I thought non-zero (hope) was getting out of bed, rising fom the mud.
I absolutely agree that PP is applicable for all. I see it more like learning to play tennis or golf – we all learn from the best. It is also true that sick is sick, Things You Can Change and Things You Can’t,
Thanks, Margaret! I, too, was uplifted being there and experiencing their energy. The fact that this is a population normally excluded from our studies is unfortunate. Tayyab Rashid and Acacia Parks have begun to show PP’s effectiveness in the therapy setting, however to my knowledge it has not been looked at for the recovering mentally ill.
That is some great detective work, Senia! Thanks for the comment.
Well, I suppose that “zero” changes for the part of the world in which you live. Below-zero in San Diego might be when you don’t get to the gym because of traffic, so you enjoy the sun anyway; while in London, you’re above-zero if you simply don’t curse the gray and rain that morning. 🙂
In all seriousness, yes, in my experience PP interventions can empower and energize even those overcoming serious mental difficulties.
In the Business Special Interest Group, we had a discussion of the role of positive psychology in “Business in a Downturn.” I can’t find a direct reference, but apparently Marty Seligman had commented orally that Pos Psych was for growing businesses. Most SIG participants disagreed — we have seen enough to believe that positive psychology has a lot to offer when people are facing difficult changes or are very uncertain about the future. I think that’s the same point you’re making here. Positive Psychology is not a fair weather friend.
Thanks for sharing this event. I like your audience dialog presentation approach.
Yes, yes, yes! PP is NOT just a fair-weather friend. I believe that we are all finding this out.
Thanks for the comments!
Fabulous Story Nick,
Congratulations on being adventurous. I see a great use for PP with below zero populations. My interest is using PP with people who have addictions and for strengthening their recovery. 12 step programs have been advocating gratitude and for years.
I work at Bridge House, where Nick did his presentation last week. There are generally 60 people who have lunch at our ‘Clubhouse’ model of psychiatric rehabilitation, and of those approx. 15 or 20 choose to regularly attend our monthly Happiness Lunch. This self selected group is like a sponge for PP! I really hope that Nick will return and become part of our ongoing quest for happiness. The participants are poor, inner city adults, all with an Axis 1 diagnosis…and they are all so receptive to ideas for ways to feel better.