Julie and Julia is a movie about a high functioning woman, Julie, who is beginning to struggle with life. Although she is interpersonally content, self-sufficient and relatively upbeat, she is inching toward depression and despair. Neither her occupation nor most of her friendships are fulfilling. A slow but steady spiral seems inevitable. If the status quo remains the status quo then I would bet good money that there would be mounting frustration and sadness that would spill over and begin to strain her marriage and her general mood. Depression. Maybe a hospitalization or lost job. Then, who knows? Not a pretty picture.
This is the Julie in the beginning of the movie. By the end of the movie this Julie has been transformed into Julie 2.0 - a happier, more confident and well-adjusted version. How does she escape this fate? She compromises a "plan" to change her life for the better. She decides to write a blog that will chronicle her commitment to cooking her way through the Julia Child cookbook. This positive game plan produces a positive trajectory toward well-being and self-actualization, as her sense of self and personal and professional success are in stellar shape by the end of the film. This embodies a relatively new approach to therapy that is beginning to catch on in the world of clinical psychology.
Traditionally, the field of clinical psychology has focused on mental illness. This is obvious, I know. But what is not so obvious is the fact that this focus is done at the expense of a focus on mental health. Mental illness involves deficits and problems. You talk about the things you don't want to talk about. Research is performed on those that seem to struggle, whether for understandable reasons or not. If, for instance, Julie had entered therapy to help cope with difficulties, the mental illness model would have likely been applied. Why are you feeling bad? What are the things you do that make this worse? What childhood traumas or current difficulties account for this negativity? Julie, why are you crying...?
This long-standing, dominant approach to helping people in need of psychological services is now being turned on its head with the Positive Psychology movement. In sharp contrast to the medical model of illness, this movement involves understanding signature strengths instead of significant weaknesses, teaching how to enhance positive emotions instead of how to reduce negative emotions, how to seek pleasure instead of how to avoid pain. Research is performed on those that seem to thrive despite adversity. As an instinctively adaptive response to her depression, Julie's "cooking plan" is consistant with the broad guidelines of this approach.
A brief synopsis of the plot sufficiently serves as a checklist of positive psychology tenants.
1. Julie is inspired by the dedication, tenacity and upbeat thinking modeled by Julia Child. This instills hope and optimism about the future.
2. Her husband's overwhelmed contentment at the dinner table and her detailed, prideful reflections on garlic bread are all the evidence needed to identify cooking as her signature strength. Her blog idea nurtures what she does best.
3. Her daily cooking assignments provide opportunities to practice a strong work ethic, perseverance and task mastery. Competence. In fact, cooking serious meals on a daily basis opens up the possibility of attaining a flow state (optimizing present experience) - do an activity that is perceived as voluntary and finding an optimal balance between skill level and challenge level.
4. Her self-esteem steadily rises as she receives notoriety for her blog and comes to identify herself as a great cook, and no longer as a powerless administrative official.
Theoretically, this experience of pumping up her identity as "excellent cook" generalizes or balloons into a life of greater meaning. This is the ultimate goal of positive psychology. We can also see how Julie's sequence of steps aligns with the conclusions offered by this past century's greatest psychologists on how to live well.
Freud: "Love and work, that's all there is."
Erikson: "You must develop trust...autonomy...competence."
Seligman: "Attain pleasure and engagement."
Who knew cooking could not only be a game changer in terms of depression, but also in terms of living a more fulfilling life as well. Indeed, research in this area is suggesting that an important question be posed by therapists to the patient: what is that thing that affects YOU in the same way that cooking affects Julie?