By Claire Grainger-Valvano, LCSW, OSW-C, Clinical Supervisor
What if you were to learn that you have the potential to change, choose, and decide your mood; challenging negative thought patterns, which tend to be heightened during a crisis of cancer.
Positive psychologist and author Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky studies happiness and its influence. Her findings reflect that while 50% of happiness is in our genetic code and 10% is based on our life circumstances, 40% is self-determined and lies within each of us. Dr. Lyubomirsky also suggests that this 40% is underutilized, and we indeed have the ability to bring this 40% to its optimal level of functioning.1 Grasping the concept that we can guide our minds to a more positive perspective of our own volition is empowering!
Positive psychology, while relatively new, is a burgeoning field. Degrees are now offered in reputable universities around the world. Martin Seligman, Ph.D., director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center, and considered the Father of Positive Psychology, has written a plethora of books on the subject. His concepts include “learned optimism.” Its tenet is that joy can be cultivated and that making an effort to choose a positive mindset has many benefits, both mentally and physically.2 He reports that pessimists are more likely to give up in the face of adversity and/or to suffer from depression. He invites them to learn to be optimists by thinking about their reactions to adversity in a new way. What can one learn from disappointment? Can it be something you grow and derive a benefit from?
To see adversity with a potential of being beneficial can help boost that 40% happiness factor that Lyubomirsky speaks of. To explore the idea and engage in positive self-talk, “This may not have turned out as I would have liked, but what might I learn from this?” Finding meaning from difficulty can enhance our happiness potential.
By understanding the work of Seligman and Lyubomirsky, we can begin to explore that our mood potentially lies greatly within our own minds. We may blame others or our situation for our emotional state, but believe we hold the key to boost our own mood and impact how we respond to a situation. With this potential, we still remain aware of the impact of genetics as well as life’s circumstances.
What can nurses do to significantly improve the chance of a positive mood within their patients? Studies and books by Seligman, Lyubomirsky and Lynn D. Johnson, Ph.D., are a good start. The Nun Study, a longitudinal study initially conducted by the University of Minnesota, is an example of how immersing oneself in mind-broadening activities can keep the brain young, active and agile - and perhaps even ward off signs of dementia.3
So, becoming interested in life, its choices, even and in spite of its challenges, are helpful for a positive outlook and an interesting life. What can nurses do to increase the chance for this happening with the patients and families they work with, as well as themselves? The answers are available to most of us.
Being happy in these chaotic times can be a challenge. While genetics play the majority role in our mood, we still have a 40% say in what our mood can be. These tools apply to nurses as well, who can succumb to burn out and exhaustion in the emotional and physical challenges in oncology. Maybe most of us can’t change all of our mood completely, but small shifts in perspective can help make gray skies a little more blue with a hint of sunshine.