In 2005, Bruce Smith, Ph.D. began teaching a course on Positive Psychology at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. At the time, most psychologists were focused on treating disorders – on taking away negative things in their patients’ lives. But Bruce’s research was in resilience and positive emotions and he wanted to take a different approach, focusing instead on trying to create a life of joy, meaning, and fulfillment despite the inevitable stress of life.
“I could immediately see how much students benefitted from learning about positive psychology,” Bruce says. “And when I was going through stressful times in my life, I could see how much of a difference it could make.”
The course took off. In 2010, he started teaching it every semester. Before long, the course grew to 200 students and was voted the best at the University. The growing popularity of the course led to the addition of a more advanced course, the option for graduate students to take it, an online version of the class, and a positive psychology student organization.
In 2017, Bruce had a sabbatical where instead of teaching he wrote a book. He decided to put on paper what he had found most valuable in teaching the class and in learning from the students. “I always wanted to take time to write a textbook for the class,” Bruce says, “something reasonably priced for students – just the price of copies.”
Soon after the students began using the textbook, Bruce begin doing research on the course and found that students taking the class consistently had increases in happiness, well-being, and resilience while having decreases in anxiety, depression, and stress.
When the pandemic hit, Bruce began meeting every week on Zoom with the Center for Applied Positive Psychology that he co-founded in 2019. The center consists of community leaders interested in spreading the benefits of positive psychology to as many people and communities as people.
“Near the end of last semester, we decided to put the best of the class and positive psychology into a workbook to make freely available to as many people as possible during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Bruce says.
The result is Bruce’s workbook “Moving from Surviving to Thriving: The Positive Psychology Workbook for Challenging Times.” Check it out: It’s available for free download HERE or if you prefer a printed copy, at minimal not for any profit cost of $6 on Amazon. Both include links to videos of Bruce presenting the lessons if you would rather watch than read them, as well.
When Digging Deep spoke with Bruce, he recommended the following favorite exercises from the book, which he paraphrases here:
- Three Good Things – write down three good things that happen every day. This can help us overcome our natural bias to pay more attention the negative – that we see so much in the news and is easy to fall into during the pandemic.
- Identifying and Use Your Strengths – there is an excellent free survey that you can take at https://www.viacharacter.org that will help you identify your strengths and you can find new ways to use them at 340 Ways to Use VIA Character Strengths at http://tayyabrashid.com/pdf/via_strengths.pdf
- Gratitude Expression – write gratitude letters and emails to those you haven’t fully thanked and regularly express your gratitude and compliments for other people.
- Creative Kindness – review the many lists of kind acts on the internet and find the new ways to expressed kindness that you enjoy the most.
- Best Possible Life – write about the best possible life you can imagine for yourself, identify specific goals for achieving it, and invite people to help you achieve it.
Bruce is quick to point out that these and other exercises developed by Positive Psychology aren’t about repressing negative experiences or simply ignoring difficult emotions. “People think that ‘being your best’ means getting rid of your flaws rather than using your strengths, but if you see humans as a rich mixture of both, you can activate the better angels while also being human and fallible,” he says. “Positive psychology is not just the absence of the negative or superficial pleasure, but finding meaning and purpose, being engaged with others and the larger community, and discovering joy and fulfillment in the midst of stress and despite our imperfections.”
According to Bruce, this prioritization of purpose and connection can help people who have experienced trauma – for example, the traumas of 2020 – move toward an outcome of posttraumatic growth instead of posttraumatic stress. Basic research shows only about a quarter of people who experience trauma develop PTSD but half report some aspect of benefits or growth or positive change – improved relationships, personal growth, spiritual growth, becoming a stronger person or finding more meaning in life.
“In the book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ Viktor Frankl writes about how a sense of meaning and purpose enabled him to survive four Nazi concentration camps during WWII, so having a sense of purpose in our lives can enable us to survive the stresses and traumas of the previous year,” Bruce says. “The pandemic, George Floyd, the election, and the capitol riot have been traumatic for so many but they have also opened us up to new opportunities for creating a better world.”
Bruce thinks that Joseph Campbell’s idea of hero’s journey can inspire and unite us in using positive psychology to become our best and improve our life together. One of his favorite quotes is “be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle.” Bruce says that, “the hero’s journey we are all on involves developing and using the best of ourselves to work together to face our greatest challenges and make them the occasion for creating a life worth living.” Bruce’s workbook is labor of love and gift for anyone who wants to answer the call to make this journey in moving beyond surviving to thriving.
Garth Sundem is a parent, husband, and author of books including “Real Real Kids, Real Stories, Real Change”.