By John Preston, Psy.D.
Often life is very hard and sometimes tragic. Throughout the 20th century psychology and psychiatry have focused almost exclusively on the treatment of mental illnesses and developing strategies for reducing emotional suffering. Obviously this has been very important, but it only addresses half of the issues involved in establishing an on-going sense of well-being. Living a good and meaningful life requires not only effectively managing life difficulties, but also making wise decisions about life pursuits and developing strategies that enhance aliveness.
The past two decades have seen increasing interest in psychological approaches that promote positive emotions and enhance one’s ability to feel a greater sense of aliveness and quality of life. Collectively, these approaches are not so much aimed at increasing happiness (although this of course is important) but in fostering an on-going sense of well-being. Such ideas and strategies for maintaining well-being are now drawn from research on resiliency, adaptive emotional habits, neuroscience of positive emotions, cultural and spiritual traditions for navigating through painful emotional times and strategies from positive psychology. These emerging means of reducing suffering and promoting well-being include ways to overcome maladaptive emotional habits, healthy mood regulation techniques, action-oriented techniques for increasing self-awareness, making life decisions that increase a sense of vitality and meaningfulness, and promoting the growth and expression of one’s unique self. Especially challenging and important are insights that address coping during times of very serious illness or when facing one’s mortality.
Also unfolding during the past two decades are discoveries in the neurosciences about the role of the brain that contribute to emotional suffering. The human brain evolved to ensure survival and not happiness. To a large degree, a good deal of emotional pain has to do with the impact of rather hard-wired neural circuits. Such circuits are devoted to survival; not to well-being or a sense of aliveness. To feel distressed is more or less a default experience for us humans. However, new insights have emerged regarding the importance of brain change in overcoming maladaptive habits and increasing the capacity to experience more aliveness. It is now recognized that neuroplasticity (structural and functional changes in the brain) can occur throughout life; even capable of altering what otherwise would be rather hard-wired neural circuits. Many newer techniques have been developed to facilitate adaptive brain changes. Such approaches include sleep enhancement, stabilization of the circadian rhythm, exercise, diet, high-intensity light therapy, mindfulness practices and specific psychotherapies.
Interestingly, some of these discoveries are remarkably in-synch with many age-old ideas drawn from spiritual and cultural traditions; ideas regarding the nature of human emotional suffering and methods for reducing suffering. What is clear is that the landscape of human psychology is complex and approaches to reducing emotional pain and enhancing well-being require integrated approaches embodying the aforementioned perspectives. It is by way of these integrative strategies that people may have their best shot at having a good life…even when life is extremely difficult.