March 20 is celebrated as the International Day of Happiness across the globe. Declared by the United Nations General Assembly on June 28, 2012, the International Day of Happiness was introduced with an aim to make people around the world realise the importance of happiness within their lives.
This International Day of Happiness, People Matters spoke with author and cognitive psychologist, John F. Tholen.
John F. Tholen, PhD is a Cognitive Psychologist (Licensed from 1980-2017 by—and for 22 years Qualified Medical Evaluator for—the state of California). Dr. Tholen possess MA and PhD degrees in Clinical Psychology from the University of Miami, as well as MSPH and BA degrees from UCLA.
In this exclusive interview, John discussed his new book 'Focused Positivity: The Path to Success and Peace of Mind', encouraged identifying and managing behavioural patterns arising from dysfunctional thoughts, adopting a healthy degree of selfishness for our well-being, and advised how to maximise our happiness quotient.
Here are excerpts from the interview.
Amid an endless wave of psychological disturbance brought on by the pandemic, what are some ways to hold onto one’s peace of mind?
Life never stops challenging our peace of mind. Two years of the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in the deaths of almost a million Americans and major disruption of life for almost all of us. Just as it seemed we were about to emerge from the pandemic crisis, we find ourselves faced with the news of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the threat of an escalating war in Europe.
The key to preserving our peace of mind amidst so much disturbing news is to develop the habit of recognising the thoughts that disturb us without inspiring constructive action (dysfunctional thoughts) and—as much as possible—shifting our attention to balanced and reasonable alternatives more likely to reassure us, inspire hope, or motivate self-assertion.
This is the focused positivity strategy:
- Becoming mindful of our thoughts by recording and examining the ideas that occupy our minds when we become distressed and feel helpless,
- Identifying the dysfunctional thoughts that have become the focus of our attention and are causing pointless distress,
- Constructing more reasonable, balanced, and functional alternatives, and
- Systematically refocusing our attention away from the dysfunctional thoughts and toward the functional alternatives.
Although a negative emotion may often represent a healthy reaction to an unwanted event or circumstance, when it triggers feelings of helplessness, it becomes counterproductive. The function of adverse emotions such as anxiety and anger is to motivate us to take constructive action, to move away from—or defend ourselves against—potential danger or to prepare for an anticipated “storm.” Once we have taken all reasonable steps to correct a bad situation or protect ourselves from its effects, however, further negative emotion leads us to feelings of helplessness and inhibition of self-assertion.
Although it seems that our emotions result directly from the stresses we encounter, they are instead reactions to our self-talk—the internal monologue that streams endlessly through our waking consciousness, interpreting our every experience and establishing our perspective.
When our automatic thoughts are dysfunctional and allowed to linger in the focus of our attention, they invade our self-talk and provoke adverse emotion and inhibition—even though dysfunctional thoughts are almost always incomplete, unreasonable, or completely wrong. We can avoid pointless negative emotion—and enhance our peace of mind—by adopting a strategy such as focused positivity.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the only psychological treatment approach that can be considered “evidence-based.” A review of 325 different research studies involving more than 9000 subjects found CBT to be effective in treating depression, anxiety, and related conditions. CBT works because it is the most efficient method of challenging our dysfunctional thoughts, and the most efficient form of CT is focused positivity strategy.
Our best response to any negative emotion is to employ the closest thing we have to a “superpower,” our ability at any moment to shift the focus of our attention to a more functional thought. When we are confronted with a crisis that is beyond our control, we benefit most from taking responsible assertive action—expressing our wishes and feelings without disrespecting ourselves or others. When we find ourselves continuing to be distressed after taking all the reasonable steps we can identify, we are likely to benefit from reviewing functional thoughts such as:
- As horrible as this pandemic has been, we have been fortunate that this virus has mainly spared our children and young parents.
- The pandemic seems finally to be winding down and—as a result—we may be able to celebrate better times ahead.
- The rapid development of vaccines against COVID-19 shows how capable modern medicine is of amazing advancements, and ever more are likely on the way.
- As horrifying as the realities of life can be, the most I can do to help anyone is often just to focus my energy on caring for myself and my loved ones.
- I can’t make world events conform to my wishes, but I can decide to try to approach others with honesty and respect.
- By learning to accept what I can’t change and influence what I can for the better, I may be able to nudge the future in the direction I would like to see it go.
- People are resilient and Ukrainians have often displayed their toughness and are likely to again; the survivors of this disaster will almost certainly find ways to cope.
- I’m only human and I can only do so much. The rest is in the hands of [God, fate, destiny, etc.]
- Despite this horrible war, I can still be grateful that…
Research has shown that the single step of reviewing a “Gratitude List” (all the reasons we have to feel grateful) can boost our mood for the entire day.
How can individuals build greater mental resilience?
We all have illusions, inaccurate notions about ourselves and others. Some of those illusions can inhibit our best responses to the challenges of life. For example, many of us incorrectly believe that we lack some personal quality that is characteristic of successful people and necessary for the attainment of success—traits such as “willpower,” “self-discipline,” or even “resilience.” This notion that we “either have or do not have” such personal strengths, however, has been disproven many times.
Many people who had displayed few signs of self-discipline—and believed they had none—have been able to learn strategies that permitted them to act in ways that appear to display great willpower. In other words, traits such as “willpower” or “resilience” are often illusions that almost any of us can learn to create by finding and adopting effective strategy.
We can build our mental resilience, therefore, by identifying and employing strategies that prime us for successful recovery from setbacks.
Although some of us have had the good fortune of starting life with advantages or learning good strategies early in life, displaying resilience as an adult can depend on adopting focused positivity strategy as much as having been blessed with any special strength or skill. Focused Positivity: The Path to Success and Peace of Mind presents the essential elements for attaining success and preserving peace of mind in simple terms and with easy-to-follow instructions.
In your field of work, how do you maintain and enhance your happiness quotient?
Fifty years in the mental health field have taught me that the thoughts on which we most focus our attention determine our state of mind and our motivation. This knowledge has permitted me to celebrate the many ways in which I have been fortunate and to compensate for my disadvantages.
My good fortune to accidentally acquire the focused positivity approach to challenging events and circumstances has permitted me to develop many additional “successes” that bring joy to my life—particularly the loving relationships I share with family and friends.
Even though I was born with the partial expression of a genetic syndrome that caused a severely deformed foot, missing teeth, and spinal stenosis, I recognise how fortunate I have been. I understand that many have been far less fortunate. No matter how unfortunate we might have been, however, the focused positivity strategy is still the best strategy for moving forward in life.
When my peace of mind is disrupted, I focus my attention on functional thoughts such as:
- Displaying respect and affection for others is often the best response I can make
- We are only human and are limited in our understanding of ourselves and everything else. We all make mistakes and are deserving of compassion and forgiveness
- By appreciating the people who are most important to me, I can enhance my connection to them
- By understanding that, like each of us, I can only do what seems best in the moment, I’ll be able to accept the results of my actions and forgive my mistakes
- By striving to enhance my important relationships, seeking greater understanding, and pursuing activities of interest, I can enhance my feelings of belonging and purpose
A treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) pioneered by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs has demonstrated the power of focused positivity strategy. Over the course of ten to twelve sessions of cognitive processing therapy (CPT), the therapist helps the PTSD sufferer:
- Identify dysfunctional thoughts about the trauma that have become the focus of their attention and are blocking recovery
- Construct more reasonable, balanced, and functional alternatives, and
- Systematically replace the former with the latter
Veterans with PTSD improve after replacing a dysfunctional thought such as “It was my fault; I caused [the traumatic event] to happen” with a more reasonable alternative idea such as “I’m only human. Given the circumstances, I couldn’t have acted differently without risking greater injury. I deserve understanding from others and myself, not criticism.”
Research findings suggest that our minds, much like our bodies, are capable of spontaneous healing—provided that our toxic thoughts are eliminated, much like treating an infection facilitates physical healing.
What are your thoughts about happiness and positivity amid chaos being labelled ignorant and selfish?
Our first responsibility must be to ourselves. We are of no use to anyone when we are foundering in despair and helplessness. A healthy degree of selfishness is, therefore, vital to our well-being and success.
Adopting the focused positivity strategy can enable us to prepare ourselves to be capable of generosity and caring for others. In many instances our well-being requires that we pay no attention to the opinions of others, and this is one.
How can organisations help nurture the pursuit of well-being—especially in today’s hybrid work world?
The most appropriate role of an organisation in promoting the growth of the individuals within it is usually “facilitation”—creating conditions that promote healthy behaviour, enable opportunities for self-enhancement, and provide needed resources. Employers that care about their employees provide a living wage or better, work schedules compatible with childcare requirements and the pursuit of further education, and reasonable health care—or even fitness—benefits. As I understand today’s hybrid work world, organisations can still benefit from providing employees with the opportunity to grow.
What role can leaders play in helping the diverse personalities of today’s workplace feel comfortable speaking up and sharing opinions?
Research has shown that we are often uncertain or torn by competing motivations and that when we acknowledge our ambivalence we increase our creativity, problem-solving capacity, and our approachability.
Unfortunately, that same research also shows that ambivalence can cause negative judgments by others who may see us as indecisive or “wishy-washy.” Leaders in the workplace can utilise these two findings by presenting a confident and certain viewpoint when interacting with superiors, evaluators, or competitors, but acknowledging their uncertainty to—and seeking the opinion and assistance of—those who are subordinate in the organisational structure.
Today being the International Day of Happiness, what is your advice for individuals to maximise their happiness quotient?
Life is what we make of it—both literally and figuratively.
Literally because we can use our voice and our energy to attempt to influence others and shape the world to be more as we would like it. Figuratively because even without changing anything in the world around us, we can still seek alternative perspectives that make the events and circumstances of our lives more fixable or palatable just as they are. A blend of these two approaches—combined with narrowing the focus of our attention to what is possible in the immediate moment—provides us with the opportunity to enhance our success in life and our peace of mind.