America has an identity crisis. To some, she is a corporation that needs managing. To others, she is an idea that keeps evolving. To me, a psychologist who studies hope, she is a living thing that is down and needs help bouncing back. When you listen carefully to her, it is clear that America is struggling. According to a Gallup poll, 27% of America’s people are pessimistic about their personal lives in 2013. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll, 44% said they are fearful about what is to come in the new year. Most alarming to me were the results of another Gallup poll that suggested America’s people have given up on her. 50% said that America’s best days are behind her. Identity problems are giving way to a depressed mood. America needs therapy. Here’s what I recommend:

America, I hear you, and I’m concerned. You feel exhausted, hopeless, and are often on edge. You are lonely and don’t enjoy the things you once loved. You are stuck, muddling through life at best. You are depressed and possibly anxious. It is time to get some help.

My diagnosis is based on your recent report that you are somewhat pessimistic about the future and fearful about what is to come. At times you think you are a has-been. Interestingly, on days when you are most blue, you think things will get better soon. It is on the days when you are seeing red that you speak of the doom that must be right around the corner.

I realize you’ve had a really tough few years. Trouble finding work and making ends meet is enough to knock anyone for a loop. Your long, drawn out fights with others have made you weary. And then Superstorm Sandy added to your struggles, which you certainly didn’t need. No wonder you are so down.

Here is what I think is happening. Your pessimism and fear have sent you on a downward emotional spiral. When you’re overwhelmed by those negative emotions, your only options are to fight, flee, or freeze. You can’t solve problems well when you are this way. You walk through life with blinders on, unable to see possibilities and opportunities. So hassles turn into insurmountable problems. Conversations with old friends turn into debates, which turn into stalemates. Small skirmishes might even turn into World War III.

This negativity also prevents you from being your creative and innovative self. You said you want to grow your new small business and pay down some debt. But that won’t happen as long as you let your sadness and fear trump your joy and hope.

Your case is a complicated one, and it’s made worse by some of your daily habits. Let’s talk about your evenings in front of the television. I think what you watch on TV is helping to keep you stuck. Entertainers masquerading as newsmen and women yelling at people and calling them names. Stretching the facts to bolster their points. It’s toxic. Turn that stuff off. It is making it harder for you to bounce back. Find a show that lets you escape from what’s bothering you. Have you ever watched Downton Abbey? Seems like nothing could get old Lady Britain down. That’s the kind of stuff you should be watching, if anything at all.

Ok, back to your goals for treatment. Let’s start by thinking about what you would be like if you weren’t sad and stressed. Imagine that a month from now you’re having a great day. You’re smiling and laughing, being productive, and getting along with other people. Look at you! You look happier and more relaxed just thinking about your future self. So why don’t we work toward helping you become that future self?

Psychotherapy will take more than just this one chat to be effective, and we will spend much of our time teaching you how to think more adaptively about your future. But I do think you can find a little relief right now. No, it is not a pill. No, I am not going to hug you. We need to turn that emotional spiral upward.

So here is what I want to you to do before our next session. Find one thing that excites you about the future. It can be a reunion with old friends, a sporting event, or some big goal at work. Better yet, pick something that is challenging and really meaningful. Remember how happy you were when you were trying to get to the moon? You can feel that way again. “Oh boy!” That’s what old Walter Cronkite said when you landed on the moon. Aren’t you ready for an “oh boy” moment? You are due.

Our time is up. See you next week. Don’t forget your insurance card.


Data drawn from the following polls:

About the Author

Shane J. Lopez Ph.D.

Shane J. Lopez, Ph.D., Gallup Senior Scientist in Residence and Research Director of the Clifton Strengths School. His book, Making Hope Happen will be published in March 2013.

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