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Using Positive Psychology to make Ourselves more Resilient

by Tony de Gouveia

In my recent articles in Born to Shine magazine, the focus has been on the topic of Resilience, the ability to “bounce back” from adversity, hardships in life. It is appropriate then, as we celebrate Women’s Day on 9 August this year, that we remember and honour these characteristics (Resilience) in the 20000 women who marched to the Union Buildings for the cause of freedom in 1956. This memory is a resource that we all, women and men can use to inspire and motivate us in the present time.

In this issue the spotlight moves to an exciting new area of Psychology called Positive Psychology, which focuses on redirecting our attention from what is wrong in us(pathology) to what is good(strengths). For too long our gaze has been on symptoms and failure, deficits and shortcomings and this has created a narrow half-baked perspective which has limited us in our search for happiness, well-being and solutions going forward. The goal in Positive Psychology therefore now becomes the enhancement of well-being, which is a whole new ball game. We will now look in at how Positive Psychology perspectives/exercises can help us transform the quality of our daily lives and “flourish”.

The first focus area involves Gratitude (thankfulness). Gratitude can make our lives happier and more satisfying than they are. When we feel gratitude we access and benefit from the pleasant memory of a positive happening or event on our life. Furthermore, when we express our gratitude to others, we strengthen our relationships with them. So, some of the following questions can help us tap into this powerful resource:

1. What items, for which you are thankful, would you place on your gratitude list? There is always something we can place on our list, regardless of our circumstances.

2. If you could write a gratitude letter to someone who did something positive for you in your life, who would it be and how did they affect your life? According to the author of this “Gratitude Visit” exercise (Dr Martin Seligman) the purpose would be to deliver it to the individual personally in a thoughtful, meaningful way. In my view, this (delivering it personally) is ideal, but it is not essential, particularly if the person referred to is dead or doesn’t live nearby. It is in my therapy experience the very act of writing the letter whether one delivers it or not that makes it effective.

The second aspect concerns the “What-went-well” or “Three Blessings” exercise. If we are honest, we spend more time thinking about what goes wrong and not enough about what goes right in our lives and this is not really helpful. Conventional wisdom suggests that we learn from our mistakes. In fact what we learn from mistakes are the characteristics of mistakes. This tendency can set us up for Depression and Anxiety. An overemphasis on Failure (also discussed in a previous issue) can have devastating effects on our self image and self esteem and our mental well-being generally. Do you find yourself dwelling on weaknesses a lot and why do you do it?

One way to prevent this is to improve our focus on and appreciation of what went well in our lives. Research suggests that we need to experience at least three positive comments or interactions to every negative one in order to be a flourishing state (optimal ratio is 5 to 1). The problem is that too many of us don’t “salute” moments of gratitude, contentment, “awesomeness” or joy by noticing or savouring them (which is what happy people do). Given that many people have Cell phones with camera apps nowadays, you can even take a picture of the happening in order to remember them going forward. The chances are that if you make this a habit, you could be less depressed, happier and even hooked on this exercise six months from now.

The third aspect is a focus on our Strengths. Research data shows that most people do not come close to making full use of their assets at work -- in fact, only 17 percent of the workforce believes they use all of their strengths on the job. Many at this point may draw a blank because they feel they don’t have or know what their strengths are. If we do know what our strengths are, they are often couched in vague or bland terms. According to Marcus Buckingham (author of “Now discover your Strengths”) who has written extensively on the topic, strengths consist of talents, skills and knowledge. Strengths he says are not just those things that we feel we are good at (successful) but those things that make us feel strong as opposed to drained or weak.

For the purposes of this article, you are encouraged to visit the web-site and to take the Signature Strengths (VIA) test in order to get an indication of where you lie on a Strengths profile. This profile provides an evaluation on 24 particular Strengths which are grouped in 6 different clusters, namely Wisdom/knowledge, Courage, Humanity and love, Justice, Temperance (self control) and Transcendence (spirituality). Another site you can visit is

Knowing what your strengths are is an important first step. Also, talking to other people who regularly make use of their strengths can likewise be helpful. The main idea is to get some sense of what your strengths baseline is and to use that as a platform for further development. The next objective is to get these strengths working, which is what we will explore in future editions.
Finally, the Kindness exercise. Much has been written in the Psychological literature on the positive effects of altruism (doing good, being kind). So here’s the exercise: find one totally unexpected kind thing to do tomorrow and “just do it”. Notice what happens to your mood with this and all the exercises one month from now. Carpe Diem ([let’s] seize the day)!

Tony de Gouveia is a Clinical Psychologist in Private Practice at the
Akeso Clinic in Alberton
(011) 907-2811/ 082 4565046

Born to Shine Magazine