Spoiler alert: Did you know that being positive isn’t necessarily the same as being optimistic? Did you know that your methods for coping with stress might be hurting your health, even if they make you feel better?
There was an entire revolution in psychological treatment called “Positive Psychology” which began after the book Learned Optimism changed everything in the ’90’s. Before that, psychological practices were geared toward treating severe functional mental illnesses.
The author of the breakthrough book, Martin Seligman, asked the question, why aren’t people fulfilled and thriving when we know more about human behavior than ever before? Because he challenged the field of behavioral sciences, an entire branch of psychology became dedicated to helping (otherwise “normally” functioning) people become their best selves.
In his book, Learned Optimism, he discusses the surprising spike in depression, anxiety, suicide, and drug addiction when we live in a happiness-driven society. He believes it is much more than simply public awareness of mental health driving the rise in diagnoses.
In his book, he explains that children were once taught how to overcome obstacles and persevere, but the focus in education has instead shidted to boosting self-confidence regardless of the effort. He theorized that the self esteem movement, which was standardized in classrooms around the country during the 80’s and 90’s, played a major role in changing the way early childhood minds develop and learn coping strategies.
One point that I found particularly interesting is that he proposes individuals of prior generations (ie. 1950’s, 1960’s, etc.) were raised to believe they were always surrounded by an invisible support system. Today, that sense of strong community doesn’t exist for most young people.
In the past, people realized that their support system shared responsibility for every success, failure, and contributed overall to the person they became. Because there was an awareness that outside forces had a hand in their lives, when their hard work did pay off, they were happy to share their triumphs and celebrate with their circle of support. Likewise, when their attempts failed, they wouldn’t fall too far or stay down too long as they had a safety net of people ready to pick them up and get them back on their feet. Just as the successes were shared, the devastation of each loss fell not only on one person’s shoulders, but they shared it with their community.
In the past, community looked quite different than our version of today which, for most people, consists of aloof friends we selectively share information and photos with on social media.
Americans once valued country, faith in government, patriotism, even the President. People were raised connected to a personal faith; organized religion provided another strong support structure of people they viewed as their second family. They were inclined to make life long connections inside of their schools and residential areas where they were urged to be active citizens. Above all, the nuclear family was once the cornerstone of society.
Just the sheer idea that others believe in you can be the difference between a devastating pitfall that derails your life and a curve ball which you can bounce back from. Today, most don’t grow up ingrained with the same surrounding support system, lasting personal connections, or strong faith in God and country.
Learning about these changes in our community structure helped me understand how we see the world so differently, and why we might be developing such vastly different coping and social habits from our parents and grandparents.
We are independent. Our successes are our own to take pride in and celebrate. We are taught to have faith in ourselves. There is great emphasis on self-determination, and we’re allowed to reap our own rewards when we succeed. But on the downside, our tools for coping with inevitable life failures and day to day stresses may unfortunately be lacking. We are taught that personal responsibility and success are absolutely everything, but when we fail (as we all do), the personal fallout can be emotionally and psychologically devastating…even traumatizing.
I was already working on my Learned Optimism piece when I happened to read an article on Resilience, and was surprised to find that the number one quality suggested in becoming more resilient is to create the same types of communal support that past generations grew up with (as Martin Seligman wrote about).
Surrounding yourself with close connections, friends, family members, becoming more connected to faith, plugging into community, and making permanent, lasting relationships with “people who affirm you, recognize your strengths, natural, innate abilities, and provide the support and acceptance you need” will increase your resilience [Mary J. Yerkes].
Other ways to become more resilient: accept “good enough” instead of perfection, focus on what you can control, find deeper meaning in life, accept advice from your loved ones, take care of yourself, ask for/accept help, don’t be surprised when life changes suddenly, have faith that things will eventually get better, set goals you can achieve, laugh.
Being resilient isn’t about silencing yourself through turmoil or ignoring your emotions, but resiliency is a method of utilizing multiple positive coping strategies along with a mindset that is always ready to “roll with the punches.”
Martin Selgman writes, “If we habitually believe, as does the pessimist, that failure is our fault, it will undermine everything we do.” Pessimists feel personally responsible in all success and failure, and helpless to make changes. This thinking leads to tendencies for depression and anxiety. Chronic pessimists are also more likely to have health troubles later in life.
Does this mean that society’s focus on self-reliance and self esteem could be creating generations of pessimists? I don’t know if that’s true, but it would be very ironic in our happiness-driven, positivity-focused culture!
The good news is, both Resilience and Optimism can be learned!
Something I really soaked in this past year was that God is passionate about calming our fears. I grew up in church, and actually, many pastors do a great job of instilling more fear into people instead of inspiring courage. The opposite of what the Bible reiterates. This isn’t a tirade on the way some churches use fire and brimstone to scare their congregation into submission, however. I am not against the church as a whole.
I grew up afraid of a lot of things. I won’t tell you all of the things I worried about and feared as a child; those fears were not my church’s fault. As a teen, I had anxiety, panic attacks, and insomnia. No one realized it, but my mind was spinning with worries and fears all the time (not unlike so many teens). Now that my chronic illness is at the point where I’m no longer able to go to church, I have found reading scriptures on my own and journaling about them has been an excellent learning experience.
I’ve stumbled upon so many verses throughout this past year regarding fear. PS, the Bible has a lot to say about not being afraid and having courage. The biggest realization for me is that most of these verses are not only discussing fear, God actually COMMANDS us not to be afraid. That’s pretty major, don’t you think? I think so.
I was going to do an entry listing verses like this, but someone told me there are 365 “Fear Nots” for every day of the year. After researching, God tells us not to be afraid of life and then gives us a different reason for each one 103 different times. But fear is discussed over 500 times throughout the Scriptures! God really wanted to send a message, don’t you think? You might be wondering: if He did not want us to fear, then why create us to be such scaredy cats in the first place? Well, He didn’t. The Bible says that we were not created with a spirit of fear or “timidity” but of power, love and self-discipline. (2 Tim 1:7)
However, He also knew ahead of time that His children would live in an increasingly frightening world. We would have so many terrifying prospects to face every day, so many things to worry about in the future, and we would be petrified when going through risky, unfamiliar circumstances. We are reminded to have faith and not to be distracted by all of the anxieties that fill our minds with doubt.
“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you.” Deut. 31:6
“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” Josh 1:9
Three years ago my health and pain conditions got so much worse than I could have ever anticipated. I spent the first 7 years worrying about what the worst case scenario might be. I protected myself from so many things, hiding from potential threats to my “deteriorating” health- things that might make me worse which anxiety had cooked up in my mind. Yet I never could have foreseen what has happened to me; fear did not help me at all. And I’ve now been through worse than my fears ever prepared me for. Seriously, I’m SO over being afraid!
God keeps reminding us to be courageous, commanding us not to fear, and instilling a sense of His own strength in us. In the coming year, throw some caution to the wind! Take risks. Worry less. Go on more adventures. Say YES more! Give more. We have a God who promises to be with us always and an awesome afterlife waiting…
Several of my friends deal with anxiety, panic attacks, OCD, and are looking into the coming year with a feeling of doom brought on by fear bombarding their thoughts. So many I know are awaiting very scary test results that will determine all they will be dealing with in the coming year, and it feels impossible to shoulder. If you are living in a constant state of terror now that you have been diagnosed, or will be facing major surgery or multiple invasive procedures this year, I would like to leave you with a few verses to take with you which also are a comfort to me. He knew fear would be one of the most overwhelming and distracting emotions for us and wants us to live a good life, focused on things that can help ourselves and others grow, not live bogged down by stress and dread; otherwise, why would He have been on such an anti-fear campaign?
Have a Happy, Fearless New Year!
“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Isaiah 41:10
“Do not be afraid. I have set you free. I have called you by name. You are mine.” Isaiah 43:1
“For I am the LORD, your God, who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.” Isaiah 41:13
“Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” Hebrews 13:5-6
“Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong.” 1 Corinthians 16:13
“Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.” 1 Peter 3:13-14
“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” 1 John 4:18
“When I am afraid, I will trust in you.” Psalm 56:3
“She is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future.” Prov 31:25