Dr. Martin Seligman is considered the father of what’s known as the positive psychology movement. He was once elected president of the American Psychological Association by the largest vote in that organization’s history, which must have made this self-described “natural born pessimist” feel almost happy. He’s also the author of a book that I often recommend to heart patients called Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. This gem, originally published 20 years ago, is still a valuable tool for learning skills that decades of research have shown may actually enhance our sense of wellbeing – a commodity that’s in short supply for the freshly-diagnosed heart patient. Dr. Seligman lists some basic identifiable types of the elusive state we call happiness:
‘Happiness’ is a scientifically unwieldy notion, but there are three different forms of it you can pursue:
“For the Pleasant Life, you aim to have as much positive emotion as possible and learn the skills to amplify positive emotion.
“For the Engaged Life, you identify your highest strengths and talents and re-craft your life to use them as much as you can in work, love, friendship, parenting, and leisure.
“For the Meaningful Life, you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.”
But for freshly-diagnosed heart attack survivors – or for any human being struggling within the chaos of an unexpected traumatic event – even the prospect of somehow ever again having a pleasant, engaged or meaningful life can feel like far too much to grasp at first.
“Pleasant?” Who can entertain the prospect of a “pleasant” life when every new bout of terrifying chest pain leaves us frozen in fearful exhaustion: “Is this something? Is it nothing? Should I call 911?”
“Engaged?” This would involve identifying those “strengths or talents” that we may have once had long ago, but now require simply too much energy to even contemplate.
“Meaningful?” Does this involve forcing ourselves to be remotely interested in others during a time when we are understandably focused only on whether or not we’ll survive the night? Indeed, some of Dr. Seligman’s detractors have criticized his field of positive psychology as being intentionally oblivious to stark realities. But his response to this is:
“The very good news is there is quite a number of internal circumstances under your voluntary control.
“If you decide to change them (and be warned that none of these changes come without real effort), your level of happiness is likely to increase lastingly.”
In other words, he maintains that, despite whatever is happening in your life right at this moment – from a death in the family to a life-altering illness or losing a job – we each have something deep down inside our psychosocial wiring that we can control, even when all around us life seems to be reminding us how puny and powerless we actually are. As Dr. Seligman observes:
“I have been studying optimists and pessimists for the past 25 years. The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault.”
“When something bad happens to a pessimist, she’s likely to get into a sort of dark and hopeless mental muttering that has her thinking things like: ‘Why me? Ain’t if awful? It’s permanant and everything is ruined and it’s all their fault.’
“The optimist’s explanation? ‘It was bad luck. I’ll be able to handle it. I learn from my experiences.’
“With this kind of reasoning, an optimist feels a greater sense of control over her future – and her health.”
Which one are you?