This guest entry is from Jane Jennison MSc, a Positive Psychology Coach and author, and co-founder of the Positive Psychology Summit:UK. Jane is a fellow member of the Positive Psychology Guild (PPG) and co-director of Autonomous Ideas, one of the PPG’s organisational members. Her grassroots-driven approach to practicing and sharing Positive Psychology is one that is much needed in communities today.
There is a misconception that Positive Psychology is ‘happiology’ and that low mood, sadness, grief and so forth are emotions that are not welcome. As today is the anniversary of my dad’s death, and I am feeling buffeted by tidal waves of grief and sadness, it feels like a good day to talk about this.
The ‘second wave’ of Positive Psychology, or ‘Positive Psychology 2.0’ embraces low mood and poor wellbeing. Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener have written an excellent book, “The Upside Of Your Dark Side: why being your whole self – not just your ‘good’ self – drives success and fulfilment”. They argue that every emotion is useful, that all emotional states gave some adaptive advantage. Anger stirs us to defend ourselves, embarrassment is an early warning to avoid humiliation, and guilt reminds us of our moral codes. Itai Ivtzan et al have also explored these ideas in their book “Second Wave Positive Psychology; embracing the dark side of life”. They explore challenging experiences, thoughts, emotions and behaviours which trigger discomfort, and show that they bring the capacity for growth, healing, insight and transformation. Our paths, they suggest, may be painful and challenging, but the outcomes can be positive.
We can see from this, Positive Psychology is the science of happiness, but it does not exclude any emotional state; all our emotions are valid, purposeful, and have meaning. The sadness I feel today does not mean I am a ‘failure’ as a Positive Psychology Practitioner. I feel sad because I miss my dad. I don’t only miss him on the anniversary of his death; I miss him most of the time. He was not a saint, but he was a kind, generous man who loved me, adored my children, and with whom I shared many adventures and common interests. I miss the future that we no longer have.
So, how do I deal with this? Does Positive Psychology have anything to offer me?
One thing that is linked to Positive Psychology is mindfulness; being fully present, and having non-judgemental acceptance of our emotional state. I am allowing myself to feel sad, to accept that part of loving someone is grieving their loss, and to accept that – today – I am not going to be a festival of rainbows and unicorns. That’s OK. Marking and noticing the date helps me a little, too. In previous years, I have visited the National Memorial Arboretum around now; we have a tree dedicated to dad there, in the Borneo and Malaysia Plantation, in recognition of his armed service in Malaya. It is a place he visited, and was fond of, so it seemed a good choice. I first visited it after we had dedicated the tree to him, and was blown away by the gentle dignity of the remembered losses we face. There are plantation areas for armed services, for Chaplains, for families who have lost children. All human life – and death – is here. It is also breathtakingly beautiful, part of the National Forest, has two rivers running through it, and over 300 sculptures throughout the arboretum. It’s a place of great peace and comfort for me, and I will miss it this year – it’s too far away for me to be able to visit under current pandemic restrictions.
In her book “Mindset”, Dweck introduced us to the concept of growth mindset and this is something I will be leveraging today. Growth mindset is not about avoiding challenges, or failures, but looking within them to see what we can learn – or grow – from. My challenge is that I can’t go to the National Memorial Arboretum. I can’t mark the day in the way I usually would. A fixed mindset response is ‘all or nothing’, but a growth mindset is more nuanced. What can I do instead, that gives me a similar solace? The component pieces of the National Memorial Arboretum that I can replicate are trees, space and snowdrops. I am fortunate that there is a park near to us which offers these, so I shall be visiting this afternoon.
Finally, I can accept that it’s OK to not be OK. I can treat myself with loving kindness, and nurture myself in the way that I would care for a loved one who is grieving. Self-compassion is something I struggle with, and transposing my experience onto a loved one, and wondering how I could support or validate them, is a great way for me to have more perspective and compassion. Neff and Germer have developed a science-based self-compassion training program and have published “The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook: A Proven Way to Accept Yourself, Build Inner Strength, and Thrive” workbook. I have added this to my ‘to buy’ pile, accepting that I can build more self-compassion and recognising that it is a worthwhile investment. I can accept that today is not going to be a productive working day, and build self-care into the day instead. So, I am going to eat a lovely stir-fry my husband has cooked, share mealtime with my family, then go for a nice long walk.
Jane Jennison is a positive psychology coach and author. She is Director of Autonomous Ideas Limited, and co-founder and co-organiser of the Positive Psychology Summit: UK. She has a Master’s Degree in Applied Positive Psychology. Her workshops help people identify their strengths, build positive relationships and find authentic happiness.