Positive Psychology: Instalment #2 

In my introductory column on Positive Psychology I spoke about how the field seeks to examine how people thrive, and those who study Positive Psychology recognize that stress is not necessarily bad, but can instead be viewed as opportunistic. In this column, I would like to address the terrible tragedy of the recent OC Transpo accident in light of the field of Positive Psychology.

 

            To begin with, I was alarmed at hearing several news reports that inferred that the passengers of the bus accident will inevitably face Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This is simply not true. Of course, anyone personally involved in a traumatic event certainly is at risk of developing PTSD, but to believe in its inexorable occurrence is dangerously fatalistic. We all heard of PTSD, but have you ever heard of Post Traumatic Growth Syndrome? There are people who, when faced with a terrible personal experience, have grown and become more whole through the ordeal. No doubt, some passengers on route 269 will face recurrent nightmares, flashbacks of the incident, and overwhelming feelings of anxiety and numbness. Those persons need and deserve psychological support. But others will be humbled by feelings of how precious the gift of life is, may develop renewed energy for studying road safety, or might re-dedicate efforts of philanthropy for those who have faced their own traumas.

 

When you come face-to-face with a near-death experience, it can take you down two roads….one is filled with anxiety about the fragility of life and how our day-to-day comfort can change in a flash; but the other road is filled with the appreciation of the fragility of life and how special and wonder-filled every day really is. What makes the person take the more growth-filled road? Positive psychologists have identified an important trait…the capacity and practice of savouring.

 

Savouring involves the active recognition, focus, and exploration of a pleasant sensory experience or memory. Enjoying food is a good concrete example. We all eat all kinds of foods that we enjoy, but to savour the food is to eat slowly, to notice and try to identify all the flavours, and to let go of other thoughts so that the sensory experience of taste is dominant and unfettered by distraction. There is so much to savour. We can consciously focus on the joy of a breath of fresh air, the memory of a sunset, the laughter of a loved one, the rough tongue of a pet dog licking you. Sure, you can vow to savour life’s joys after witnessing a disaster, but you need to have previously practiced its art. Start today. Take a few conscious moments to savour some favourite memory; perhaps gaze at a vacation picture and relive that joyous moment in all its glory. Look at a tree and let yourself be amazed by its complexity as you welcome the feeling of pleasant shade.

 

You see, most of us take for granted pleasant, even joyful experiences. We don’t rehearse these events regularly, and we don’t consciously savour each minutiae of the event. If we did, we could more likely balance out the understandably powerful and detailed memory of a traumatic event. By practicing proactively, the art of savouring, we offer ourselves a defense against the over whelming terror of a life-threatening experience.

 

Finally, savouring is no guarantee against PTSD. There are so many factors associated with this complex condition. But the field of positive Psychology has identified the practice of savouring as one insulating factor against stress leading to the potential for mental illness.

 

Ralph Hesse, M.S. Psychology