Resiliance, Trauma and Growth

Why can some people turn trauma into growth and some just can’t? Some people seem like that can thrive even after the most horrible experiences.  How was Jaycee Dugard able to talk on television and write a book about her 18 year abduction by a sick sex offender and talk about hope and growth while some well trained soldiers regress into self-medicated non-productive lives?

In chapter 8 Seligman talks about his efforts to turn around the military culture from a confused coping with PTSD to a well constructed plan for converting the built in stress of working for a killing machine into a source of personal strength. His plan is awesome, and can save countless lives both physically and emotionally. But is seems to me as a useful paradigm only for the military.

Of course, there are other stressors that approximate the trauma that one might encounter in the army, but it is only in the military that a person willingly puts him or herself in a situation where traumatic stress is expected. As Seligman notes in the beginning of the chapter, a catastrophic flood can be just as psychologically damaging as a battlefield. And there is a lot to be learned from studying how people cope with such disasters. But it seems almost impossible to take lessons about building resilience in the military and apply them to civilian life. Ordinary people should not have to train themselves to prepare for trauma. While Jaycee Dugard has what it takes to survive hell, why would her family have taken special steps to give it to her at age 10?

The question that begins to get an answer in this chapter is what is it that is what it takes to flourish in the face of traumatic experiences? And then, how can it be imparted to people who can expect to experience trauma (ie: soldiers.) I would have been happier if Seligman had addressed the clinically prevalent problem of how to turn past trauma into growth. He doesn’t. This is really about increasing resilience. As the three star general said to the brigadier general at the end of a meeting with Seligman: “General Cornum,” said General Casey, ending the meeting, “you are to make resilience training happen for the whole army. Move out.” (p.165, italics mine.)

For people who are familiar with Albert Ellis’s Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), the basis of Seligman’s system will be easily recognized. If you know how to perceive and think about a situation you are less likely to get bent out of shape. Of course, that tidbit of a truism can be found in most religions from Judaism to Buddhism, from Native American Spirituality to Hinduism. REBT and, now Seligman, operationalize that imperative for the modern sensibilities. The goal is, in Seligman’s terms, how to fight catastrophic thought in real time.

The trick is (again, not really new in psychology) is to take an objective realistic view of whatever it is that you are facing (gathering evidence), take that perception and use an optimistic lens, and then take a long term perspective (“don’t sweat the small stuff, and it is all small stuff”. )

How does he do it? First step is to get the trainees to begin to focus on the positive in their lives. This is done with the standard positive psychology favorite of a gratitude journal. Second step is for each trainee to identify his or her own personal strengths. Identification is not enough though. They go through exercises to illustrate and practice putting those strengths to practical use. The third step builds strong relationships both professionally and in each participants private life. This includes how to respond to others both actively and constructively, and a five-step model of assertive communication. The five step model includes the following steps (p.174):

  1. Identify and work to understand the situation.
  2. Describe the situation objectively and accurately.
  3. Express concerns.
  4. Ask the other person for his/her perspective and work toward an acceptable change.
  5. List the benefits that will follow when the change is implemented.

Seligman relates his success with this program in the army. I do not doubt it. Also, I believe that each of these skills are helpful to every person who can learn them and put them into practice. I have questions concerning the breadth of applicability. They are great skills for anybody to use when they are in a potentially traumatizing situation. They might be helpful for people who have passed through trauma. But I think that they have limited use for people in their struggles to reverse the effects of trauma.


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Strengthening the Strong. Chapter 7 Flourish

In Chapter Seven Seligman outlines one the boldest, grandest studies ever undertaken. Truth is, it was not (or maybe is not) being undertaken as an experiment. The chapter tells of the US Army’s use of Seligman and positive psychology to try to make the entire force into a resilient, healthier mega-organization. It can be considered an experiment for two reasons: first because it is the first time such a thing has ever been attempted, and more importantly, because there will be a huge amount of data collected that can keep social scientists busy for a few decades.

The real significance of this experiment, nay, project, is that it has the potential to revolutionize not only the army, but all of healthcare. Since the army is large enough to have significant influence on the rest of society, if people come through a program where PTSD is significantly lowered, and marital happiness is significantly increased, there will be a ripple effect across the entire society. It might take a few decades (as did racial equality) to move from the military to civilian life, but it is bound to happen.

The army program for resilience and positive psychology consists of two parts. The first is a Global Assessment Tool (GAT) and the second is a course that all soldiers are required to take.

The Global Assessment Tool includes an overall satisfaction scale plus five specific scales. Those are: Strengths, Emotional Fitness, Social Fitness, Spiritual Fitness, and Family Fitness. These scales are linked with each soldiers’ records, and there must be more than a million individuals in the data base by now. The possibilities are staggering. Phenomenal. But there are simple, now verified, ideas that can be developed into life saving programs. For instance, there is now hard data that as emotional fitness increases, both general health and the incidence of PTSD decline. Since this will save lives and millions of $$$$, the government should be willing to invest in it. The army is already investing in these programs, and we can hope that that ripple effect will flow through the rest of society.

The course component is actually an on-line course that consists of four modules: Emotional Fitness module, Family Fitness module, Social Fitness module, and Spiritual Fitness module. It takes an organization to develop and implement such a grand program. It was developed by the best of the best. The leading experts in every field were recruited by the army to put together this comprehensive training that is intended to increase each and every soldier’s resilience. Realistically, the military is expecting long, hard, relentless wars in the near future. Terrorism works by breaking down the enemy’s resistance, not by just killing off a lot of troops. Wars of attrition go on forever (almost.) But that is what is expected in the near future. So the goal is to train the troops with the skills they need to survive.

The Emotional Fitness module has a goal to get the soldiers in touch with their own emotions and, at the same time, give them tools to use their emotions in an efficient manner. Good thing. Being a soldier is one of the most emotional jobs in existence, and for too long the philosophy has been to ignore or repress those emotions (except at certain unavoidable times.)  Seligman gives some examples that I really enjoyed.

  • Admiration: occurs when you think someone displayed great skill or talent. It helps you focus on learning from that person.
  • Joy: occurs when you get or are getting something you desire. It alerts you to opportunities for new experiences.
  • Pride: tells you that you, yourself, have done or achieved some culturally valued skill or task. While too much is considered negative, when use correctly, it is a catalyst for future achievement.
  • Gratitude: you think that someone has shown that he or she cares about you. Assists in constructing positive relationships.

The Family Fitness module is a new type of concept for the army. In today’s world, the soldiers are in daily contact with their families back home. That means that they participate not only in the joys, but also the problems and crises. It has been shown that a marital riff is a strong predictor of poor performance, which in the army can be deadly. Also, it is a precursor for suicides in the army.  The need and benefits are obvious.

The Social Fitness module is more traditional military. It increases the group identity, which has always been a backbone of the military. But it can always be strengthened, and certainly needs attention when the other aspect of wellness are being worked on in order that there won’t be negative consequences to the group psyche. There is a wonderful finding in this section concerning the contagion of emotion. Using data from the famous Framingham study of 5,000 residents, the psychologists looked at how negative and positive emotions clustered geographically throughout the city. They found that if a family or individual was depressed it is likely that the neighbors also had negative emotions. But much more significant, it was true also for happiness. If there was a node of happiness, the neighbors were also more likely to be happy. But that’s not all. The happiness factor was stronger than the negative one. Happiness is more contagious than depression.

The last module is the Spiritual Fitness module. As Americans we pride ourselves as being dedicated to the ideals of freedom much more than allegiance to a king or ruler. There is a moral or spiritual ideal that the army strives for. It allows for revelations of immoralities such as the My Lai massacre or the Abu Ghraib debacle. In addition, this module helps the soldiers learn that people are very different one from each other. Hopefully, with this module the learners will understand that it is possible and desirable to accept other people’s views without giving up on their own.

Let’s pray for the ripples.

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Do you have what it takes to Flourish? Chapter 6

I am teaching intelligence in my PSYCH 101 class this week. We cover the traditional theories, Spearman, Thurstone, Gardiner and Sternberg. I also throw in some Emotional Intelligence because my students seem to like Oprah. But I suspect I will have to wait a bit before Seligman will be part of the Intro course. Not that he doesn’t deserve to be included. He does.

Chapter six is entitled: “GRIT, Character, and Achievement: A New Theory of Intelligence.” As the first chapter of the second part of the book, it is in some ways pivotal. It describes the intra-personal qualities that are amenable for the attaining that flourishing state. While I am not sure that “intelligence” is the best term to use, it certainly is a safe term, since it has never been sufficiently defined. When Seligman defines intelligence he seems to be describing the qualities necessary for attaining intellectual success rather than some single measurable variable that can be labeled intelligence.

Take, for instance, his analysis of the component of speed. It is reasonable to assume that a person who both acquires and utilizes information faster can make greater intellectual strides. Seligman asserts that experts can think much faster so they process information faster. While I do not have the knowledge to refute that argument, neither does Seligman give real evidence to support it. It is just as reasonable to assume that experts process information in their areas of expertise in a qualitatively different manner. Perhaps they have more efficient ways of using heuristics? In the early days of artificial intelligence research there was a area of psychology that looked into this, and there was some interesting findings, but I do not recall the details.

Another component, which I personally need to work on, is slowness. It seems like the intellectual parallel to engagement portion of PERMA. If one keeps running to fast how is it possible to not drop some pieces? It seems that the first component of this theory of intelligence is a good mixture of speed and deliberating that will produce an optimal rate of learning.

The next piece is stick-to-itive-ness. Or GRIT. Well, said, Marty! If you don’t keep it up you will not reach your goal. Unfortunately I know that only too well. But there is something that I wonder about. He states, “if you want to become world class at anything, you must spend 60 hours a week on it for ten years.” Good advice, but his examples are all physically based skills. Is it true for intellectual skills? Are we not talking about intellectual based intelligence? I think the boundaries need to be more clarified. It gets a bit confusing. But no matter, it is only a preliminary exposition of a new theory, so much work can still be done. None-the-less, the value of GRIT is unquestionable in any area of endeavor. And as a theory the practitioners of the science can experiment and measure for many years to come.

In summarizing this chapter we can quote “that achievement = skill X effort,” and thre are four factors that need to be cultivated. The first is speed of thought, which affects acquiring knowledge and utilizing the knowledge. The second is slowness, or allowing for the brain to go through executive and creative processes that cannot be sped up. The third is the rate of learning which a factor of the rate of thought and getting new bits of information into the system. And the last is the amount of time one puts into the task.

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Positive Education: Great Plan & Possibility

Chapter 5

Education. It seems that in many people’s minds this is the key to the future. I happen to agree, but too often that is an excuse for lame or misguided interventions into a system that is not working. Like, if education is so important then we need to increase the government budgets for education. Well, if you increase the money flowing into a misguided project, then the misguidedness gets strengthened and the overall results get worse.

Education is a very complex area that too many people claim to either understand or have the key for.  One basic problem is that education can be focused on many different areas. Math, language, and other academic subjects are often the focus of most schools. When we talk about a person being educated it might refer to the body of knowledge that is really unimportant but indicates that the person has a “well rounded” education. Trivial issues like, who were the impressionists, when did they live and what did they do? When was the Russian revolution and what was the outcome? Things that every well educated person knows so it serves as a yardstick for the level of education that person has and points of reference for other conversations.

Seligman talks of a different kind of education, and interestingly, he does not even package it as education. It seems more like a tool to enable successful education of any other sort. It seems as though including the education of well being is important because it enhances the other, real stuff, of education. I would argue that teaching well being should be the main focus of education and then one can go from there to the other areas of multiple intelligences.  But if one needs to package it the way that Seligman does in order to make the sale, then so be it.

In this chapter we meet four programs for teaching positive principles to school children. The first, actually a pre-positive program, is the Penn Resiliency Program. This program has been in place for more than 20 years and has enough research evidence that it serves as a great introduction to the “real stuff” of positive education. This program has very strong evidence that it reduces depression and anxiety, that it reduces conduct problems and it is equally effective across different cultures and ethnicity. I would love to have this in the college I teach in, since we have real problems in these areas. But has some draw backs as far as implementation. It needs very well trained group leaders and they need to be meticulous about adhering to the curriculum. With little flexibility it cannot really be used in many settings because the more it is moved around, the more it will devolve. Also, it does not teach the broad range of positive principles, but only one aspect: resilience.

Seligman then reports on the Strath Haven High School Project, which broadened the curriculum to include the major areas of positive psychology and implemented it on the high school class level. The report is of good results but the report here is not detailed enough to understand how it worked, how to implement it and if it is really replicable.

The bulk of the chapter discusses implementation of a positive psychology program in an entire school. This is truly a wonderful and wondrous project. The Geelong  Grammar School Project is really special, but it probably is and will remain unique. A wealthy, well respected school that took on a project to completely transform their entire institution into a positive psychology laboratory. It proves the vast power of positive psychology. However, it will be very rare to implement a closed educational system with cast sums of money, with the top people in positive psychology given free hand to develop and implement whatever they think might work. That, plus a possible Hawthorne effect, produced extremely impressive results. Again, it proves the potential strength of positive psychology in an educational system, but it needs to be replicated in more realistic settings. Like the college I work in.

Actually, in later chapters Seligman describes implementation in a larger wealthier closed educational system- the military.  I will discuss that in a few days.

The chapter ends with a piece about “positive computing.” Teach millions of people across the world to use the lessons of positive psychology by embedding it into Facebook and gaming. Nice plan. I’m all for it. But here I will remain skeptical till I see it. Somehow games about gang wars sell better than games about saving the world. But we really need to stay positive about that also.



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I love it: Losada, Gottman and God

Coaching lacks two backbones: a good theory and a way to gather evidence that it works. Seligman wants to supply us with that through positive psychology. I think he can. Since positive psychology sets out to study, measure and classify positive emotion, engagement, good relationships, meaning and achievement and coaching applies these aspects to real life situations the fit is close to perfect. The argument is that with a marriage between coaching and positive psychology coaching will become more professional and it will be distinct from clinical psychology, social work, counseling, or marital therapy. I think it is a valid argument.

While most of this chapter outlines the Masters in Applied Positive Psychology program at Penn State there are a few really important concepts and ideas that both practical and enlightening. The first has been a favorite of mine for about 25 years. That, in spite of the fact that in psychology it has not been around for more than a few short years. I’ll explain in a bit.

Seligman calls it the “Losada ratio” named after the fellow named Marcel Losada who “discovered” it. Losada looked at communications in companies and found that those firms that had a ratio of better than 2.9:1 of positive to negative statement flourished and those with less withered. Also above 13:1 faltered since the positive seemed more like fluff than substance. Seligman cites that well known (at least amongst marriage counselors) study by John Gottman that a strong marriage is reliably measured by the ratio of positive interaction to negative ones. Generally, if you want to voice any criticism in a relationship you need to have at least five times the amount of positives to each negative.

I have been using this idea for decades in my practice. I’ve often cited Gottman but I learned it when I was first married. One Rabbi told me that I should not consider my wife as more loving than G-d. “Well, OK,” I replied, “What lesson are you trying to tell me now?” “In the Jewish prayer we ask for all sorts of things. But we don’t ask until we first give at least three prayers of praise, and don’t leave until we give at least three prayers of thanks. Wouldn’t one be enough? No. It is to teach us that if you even want to ask or criticize, you must first give at least three times as much praise and thanks, even to people, especially your wife.”

If you think about it, universal human wisdom did not start with psychology. Psychology is just quantifying it.

So the Losada ratio is one great concept that we can apply today. And he tells us stories about people applying it.

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The Dirty Little Secret of Drugs and Therapy

Chapter three is extremely exciting for me. In this chapter Seligman confirms some ideas that I have had for years. In a sense I did not need his confirmation since I have been spouting them regardless of affirmation from the great of academic psychology. But we see here that Martin Seligman is also championing ideas that make him pretty much of an outcast in the greatest of ivory towers.

His section on cure versus relief outlines the biggest problem with clinical psychology today. He notes that in the clinical world of psychopathology there is no interest in curing the pathology, merely relieving the disturbing symptoms. I have used the sore throat analogy. If you go to a doctor with a sore throat, she can tell you that you have a sore throat and you can take a Cepacol. Thanks, doc. I really needed that. Or she can do a test and find that you have a strep throat and prescribe an antibiotic. Now that’s more like it! We now cure the disease by killing the pathogen (bug). The first reaction was what we get in psychiatry. Partially because the DSM is all about symptoms, partially because drugs work on symptoms, and mostly because academic psychology has not looked for ways of real cure.

This last reason is where Seligman sheds the most light for me. From his perspective, being privy to the biggest of the big in psychology he relates how psychology strove to imitate “real” science and kept itself away from applied studies. He tells of meeting with Jerry Bruner in 1995. Jerry Bruner was the “elder” of academia, and participated in a 1946 meeting where it was decided to abandon study of real life and work on the basic components of psychology. Seligman tells how and why that was a mistake for psychology and the world.

For me, it justifies something that I have been struggling with for 30 years. I decided early on not to be involved in academia because I want only to help people. I was always ambivalent about it since I also believe in the value of advanced education. But having been in an undergraduate school that emphasized “pure” research I felt that study of rats’ memories, or contrived social situations did not directly help people. Reading that Martin Seligman felt the same way was a bit relieving. OK, he is an academic, but he has more ability than me to pursue two directions at once. So, that does not make me feel bad.

Not to leave a chapter without a useful exercise Seligman gives us the outline of four possible styles of responding to some news that a partner of some sort might share. The responses are divided by two dichotomies giving four styles: Active and Constructive, Passive and Constructive, Active and Destructive, Passive and Destructive. He gives illustrations and explanations. Quite helpful and interesting. Obviously the active and constructive is the most useful and enhancing for relationships. But I won’t be a complete spoiler….

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Creating your Happiness, Chapter 2 of Flourish

In this series I will summarize and give my own impressions of Martin Seligman’s new book, Flourish. This posting is about chapter 2.

Chapter two is important, but it was nothing new for me. None-the-less it is still a most impressive chapter.  Seligman presents exercises that work to increase subjective well being or happiness. This is an important stage in the book because without the possibility of really improving a person’s positive feelings, subjective well being (SWB) or happiness, why write the book at all. Of course the impact of the success of these exercises is that they are well validated through the scientific and research process.

One of the nice things about this book is that Seligman shares himself in the book as well as his findings and philosophy. He talks about how he has always “takes his own medicine.” He was first famous for teaching dogs “learned helplessness” by either giving them a punishing electric shock or rewarding them with Purina Dog Chow. He tells that he would subject the dogs to those conditions without trying them on himself first. (The dog chow was worse than the shock.) So he also did the positive experiments on himself (and his family) prior to giving others to do the exercises.

There are a number of experiments in this chapter, and I will not go through them all. But for those who are not familiar I will relate the most famous of them. That is called the “What-Went-Well Exercise” or the “Three Blessings.”

It is really very simple but very powerful. Every night dedicate 10 minutes to write down three things that went well that day. It can be minor (My husband brought home my favorite ice cream.) or Major (My daughter gave birth to a healthy boy today- (Which BTW really happened to me today!)) Then next to each event write down “Why did this happen” like “because my husband is really thoughtful sometimes” or “I reminded him to go to the grocery store” or “G-d is good to our family” or “She takes good care of herself and had good doctors.” There is overwhelming evidence that this simple exercise improves the SWB of people regardless of their baseline on the happiness-depression scale.

Actually I should not call it a happiness-depression scale, because one of the major tenets of positive psychology is that those two factors are not really dependant on each other. The absence of depression does not make one happy, and there can even be a sense of SWB for a person with a clinical depression.  And Seligman actually goes into a long description of use of these exercises with depressed patients.

At the end of the chapter there is an overview of a program of positive psychotherapy. It is fourteen sessions long and utilizes many of the principles of positive psychology that have been formulated and studied over the last decade and a half. The details are in another book called ”Positive Psychotherapy: A Treatment Manual” by Rashid and Seligman (2011). I must admit that I have a distrust and distaste for manualized psychotherapy, but I am not sure that this is psychotherapy. It seems more like teaching specific skills. I like it enough to look into it as a possibility for adaptation for my own students as a series of workshops or a separate course.

The course of therapy includes identifying charater strengths and finding ways of capitalizing on them. Doing a blessings journal and learning how to capitalize on forgiveness. Exercises in optimism (I could use that.) Practice in savoring good moments in life. Finding good character traints in others and building on them, and integrating pleasure, engagement and meaning into a full life style.

Doesn’t it make you want to get involved.

The next chapter is  personally important for me. But that will have to wait till tomorrow. Like I mentioned, my daughter gave birth to a baby boy this morning, and my wife is coming home in a few minutes…..Let’s celebrate!

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