Copyright Rita Watson 2015
Source: Copyright Rita Watson 2015

During the early hours of New Year’s Eve a colleague sent me a gift, a link to the Kennedy Center Honors.  Because I live in a television free home, he knew that I would be thrilled with Aretha Franklin’s tribute to Carole King.  I was also mesmerized by tributes to Rita Moreno. With Cece Winans I joined in the tears of the audience as she sang “Blessed Assurance” for Cecily Tyson.

Women who overcome obstacles to become stars are enlightening role models. Then with the back story of George Lucas and Seiji Ozawa, the miracle or turning adversity into opportunity began to resonate.

Perhaps we all know the stories of the filmmaker and the conductor, but viewed within the context of their art gave us a glimpse into the triumph of positive psychology. Through the research of Dr. Loretta Graziano Breuning, of the Inner Mammalian Institute, we see how to create new pathways in the brain to look for the positive aspects of life.  With both Lucas and Ozawa, we have stories that inspire and might encourage us to embrace happiness and gratitude rather than cynicism and negativity.

George Lucas was in a serious car accident shortly before graduating from high school.  During three months of recuperation, his imagination took flight and today Star Wars has become a present day legend and myth in which we see the forces of good and evil. The iconic words "May the force be with you," is spoken in all the Star Wars movies.

Seiji Ozawa apparently began playing piano at the age of seven.  Following graduation from junior high school, he injured two fingers in a rugby game, a life-changing event. After his teacher took him to a performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, he embraced the art of conducting.

Why is it that some people can face tragedy and soar while others fall into a deep depression?

Resilience in Children

While researchers have pondered the question, some scientists have studied happiness, gratitude, and one’s ability to recover after tragedy. According to a report from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, chaired by Dr. Jack Shonkoff, children who succeed are fortunate enough to have had a committed, supportive parent or other adult.  Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D. is director of the university-wide Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.

The most recent report was summarized by Bari Walsh, “The Science of Resilience: Why Some Children Can Thrive Despite Adversity,” in March 2015. It points out that it is “key capacities—such as the ability to plan, monitor, and regulate behavior, and adapt to changing circumstances—that enable children to respond to adversity and to thrive.”       

Walsh adds: “Resilience is born from the interplay between internal disposition and external experience. It derives from supportive relationships, adaptive capacities, and positive experiences.”

As adults, how do positive experiences affect our relationships?

Some people need a blueprint to help them with positive experiences and gratitude. In Dr. Breuning's book, "Beyond Cynical: Transcend Your Mammalian Negativity" she describes a strategy for thinking more positively, which is further elucidated in “Habits of a Happy Brain." 

In talking with her she explained: "Negativity meets some primal needs, but it doesn’t build the life we want. Your brain is good at finding evidence of threats because past threats built a pathway in your brain. Your electricity will flow there until you build a new pathway. She added: “Three times a day, stop and find evidence of something good and that will wire you to expect good—and to find it.”

Recently lecturing in Pune, India, where noisy motorcycles and diesel fuel fill the air, she looked beyond the pollution. "There I was in a community where you did not see evidence of hunger or disease. You can walk safely. The streets are clean. The food was clean. The bathrooms were clean. It was good there," she noted.

Then Dr. Breuning said, "Your brain is designed to find problems and solve them. As soon as you solve a problem, your brain goes to the next problem. That’s why it is so hard to see evidence of the good. But with a neural pathway for personal agency and realistic expectations, you are able to see the positive and say, 'Wow, that problem is solved.'”

The happiness factor

It is an oversimplification to say, however, people who can see the glass as half full instead of half empty are likely to seek  ways to overcome adversity rather than sink into a depression.  Psychologists Edward Diener and Martin Seligman, in a study conducted at the University of Illinois, determined that students committed to spending time with family and friends had high levels of happiness. Both men avidly promote and are considered leaders in the study of positive psychology.

Copyright 2016 Rita Watson

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