As someone who followed Oprah's advice about a "gratitude" journal and then subsequently hiked to a cliff to throw myself off, I skeptically picked up Flourish, by Marty Seligman. I'm not a big fan of people who have The Answer for mental wellness. I don't believe there is one methodology that applies to all. As mentioned in my last blog, however, we are in desperate need of best practices or qualified suggestions for maintaining health. Today medical and psychological practices tend to embrace the absence of illness as mental health. With the bar so low, relapse rates are ridiculously high. Seligman challenges that standard by implementing and testing tools for long-term wellness in large scale.
John Tierney's recent NY Times commentary on Flourish http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/17/science/17tierney.html0 gets hung up on semantics of happiness and misses the groundbreaking work that Seligman is doing. Seligman, in cooperation with the US Army, designed a Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program. A long-term advocate of physical fitness, the Army now places psychological fitness at equal importance. First, soldiers use a Global Assessment Tool to determine their psychological fitness in four areas: emotional, family, social and spiritual. All soldiers in this program take this test, just as all of them must have a vision and hearing test in a physical exam. Based on the outcome of these tests, soldiers are required to take online modules in each of these areas to improve performance.
For example, if a soldier scores low on techniques for managing family stress during a long-term deployment, s/he might be directed to take a module on enhancing communication skills or relaxation techniques. Considering that most suicides in the military follow a failed relationship with a spouse or partner (are you as surprised to read this as I was?) proven techniques to calm emotions could save lives.
The brilliance in this approach is that soldiers are trained before a crisis instead of given a crash course after an emotional explosion. Having been on either side of a psychological breakdown, I can attest to the cost savings of avoiding a breakdown. We see this in physical health all the time. If one eats well, manages stress, gets plenty of sleep and exercise even a genetic predisposition for heart disease can be stalled or even avoided. The same applies to psychological wellness. Give people tools to train their brains toward wellness and most brains will have a positive result. The same techniques may not work for everyone, but a range of techniques will allow most people to thrive most of the time.
And the really good news about this program? Thousands of men and woman learning the techniques will be monitored over an extended period of time. Based on the outcomes, programs can be refined and applied in the general population. You can read more about Comprehensive Soldier Fitness in Flourish and at the authentic happiness website: http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/newsletter.aspx?id=1552.
My only gripe about Flourish is that Seligman spends too many pages refuting his naysayers instead of giving readers more of his techniques taught in these online classes. One of the techniques he mentions is a gratitude journal. At the end of each day, Seligman encourages people to write down three things that went well during the day and why. He presents a challenge. Do this for a week and see what happens. I rolled my eyes at first, remembering my failed attempt at an Oprah gratitude list when I was clinically depressed. These days I'm feeling well. Forcing myself to account for a few positive results in my day takes the focus away from what I didn't get done and must do to versus what I've actually accomplished or experienced. I may be at risk of becoming a self-congratulating slacker, but I already feel better when I wake up in the morning. Less achy, less cranky, go figure. But I'm only on Day 4. Thursday night number three on my list was MAVERICKS WIN!! I'm not sure if I can attribute the spring in my step to a hometown win or documented gratification. I'll let you know how it goes.
For more information about Julie Hersh or her book Struck by Living, please visit her website: www.struckbyliving.com.