Take a glimpse into the world of applied positive psychology with The Flourishing Center podcast. Each episode includes three sections giving you insights and hacks into living an authentically happy and flourishing life.
What you’ll learn in this podcast:
- Science Says—How getting Facebook likes can affect our happiness.
- Life Hack—Learn how to find your purpose in life.
- Practitioner’s Corner—Learn how a University is helping their students thrive.
Read the interview from the Practitioner’s Corner:
Emiliya: Hello everyone and join me in welcoming Diana Brecher. She is coming to us live from Toronto, Ontario, and she is a clinical psychologist and scholar in residence for positive psychology at Ryerson University.
She’s been integrating positive psychology into her work, and I’m so excited for you guys to hear more about the delicious things she’s up to in the world. So Diana, thank you so much for taking the time to be here with us.
Diana: It’s a pleasure. I’m so happy to be here.
Emiliya: Diana, tell us, what brought you to this work?
Diana: Well, I’ve been working in the university setting in the counseling center at Ryerson University since 1991, so it’s 27 years since I started here and I’ve been working with students in distress that whole time, up until about a year and two months ago.
And what I found was that I was able to really make a difference in these students’ lives, but what I wanted to do, was I wanted to move upstream. I wanted to get into contact with these students well before the crisis emerged.
And so I became really interested in positive psychology because I think that’s a field of research and practice that really shows us that if we front-load a lot of skills and attitudes and behaviors early on, that kind of 40 percent that Sonja Lyubomirsky talks about that’s under our control, we can make a huge difference in terms of our capacity to thrive and to flourish.
So I became interested in learning those skills so that I could teach them to my community, being students, faculty, and staff in the university.
Emiliya: That’s beautiful, Diana. One of the things that excites me so much is that so many psychology students go through university training and they rarely ever get to hear about positive psychology, because they spend so much of their time studying the basics of psychology, which of course is important, but I can’t tell you the number of undergraduate students I’ve met that either … maybe they finally heard about positive psychology their very last semester of college, or haven’t heard of it at all, so it’s so exciting to know that these tools are being given to our young adults and that they’re getting the skills so early on, as well as their professors.
Diana: Absolutely. What I decided to do was, when I took the certificate course, certificate in applied positive psychology through the flourishing Center, what really struck me was that one of the foundations of flourishing is resilience. And so I created a five-factor model of resilience, which was the genesis of a training program that I now run for students and faculty and staff. It’s a four-week program. It incorporates, I think, some of the best ideas in positive psychology, but I’ve put them together like pieces of a puzzle and I get people to engage in these skills with the hope that front loading them will allow these individuals to flourish when they do come across really stressful and difficult challenges.
Emiliya: That’s awesome, Diana. Can you tell for the audience that’s listening … Some people might not be familiar with the concept of resilience. So, what, in your eyes, is resilience and in particular, what are the kind of things that you see that faculty in the schools and the students needing to be resilient around?
Diana: Well, I think of resilience as … if you think of five pieces of a puzzle with mindfulness being the heart of it, so the capacity to be in the present moment, then gratitude for the good things in our life and our capacity to notice possibilities and engage in them. Optimism, which allows us to frame experiences in such a way that gives us the energy to bounce back, self compassion, really based on the work of Kristin Neff, looking at being your own best friend, and seeing your suffering in context. And then finally grit and resilience, so Angela Duckworth’s work in grit around persevering, around obstacles, and having passion for very long-term goals, and at the same time, I’ve borrowed from Christine Padesky’s work, who’s a clinical psychologist in building a personal model of resilience, which is attending to the strategies and attitudes that we use when we persevere doing something we love to do, and transferring those same skills when we’re encountering a challenge.
So the second part of your question was what kind of challenges do students experience? Well, they’re huge. They could be academic challenges because they may be unprepared for the demands of their program, or it may be life circumstances completely outside of their college or university experience, but they’re simply not prepared to deal with a fire in their apartment building, their parents getting divorced, going through a serious breakup, dealing with health concerns, managing being far away from home as an international student.
All kinds of stressors can come in, plus life events, like experiencing a clinical depression or an anxiety disorder, or a trauma where you do need a lot of help to bounce back. But sometimes, people postpone the help-seeking behaviors so long that it becomes a huge crisis by the time they get help. So I’m trying to teach people the strategies to manage things early on, to nip them in the bud so that they don’t need crisis intervention because they’ve actually bounced back along the way.
Emiliya: I love that, Diana. Thank you so much for both walking us through your model and sharing some of those specifics. I think that one of the things I found in speaking about resilience and teaching resilience skills in our programs and others, is that I find that resilience becomes this buzzword that people want. Of course, you want to be resilient and we want organizations to be resilient, but so few people recognize that it’s actually a skill set and it’s made up of these micro level skills and that we could break it down and we could teach it and we could workshop it and we could train these muscles and when you train all of these different factors, they’re all important pillars, you do get more resilience and I think the thing that’s held people back from recognizing that resilience is something that they can increase, is that resilience is what is the outcome of all of these other factors that we work on building.
Diana: Exactly. And alongside of that, because it’s … you know I work in a very large university. There’s 35,000 students. There’s no way I’m going to personally interact with each one of them. What I did was I created a workbook, which I’ve called, Cultivate Your Happiness, A Thrive RU Weekly Workbook. Thrive RU is the title of the program that I’m running because RU stands for Ryerson University and what I did was I thought about the challenges of the academic term for both the fall and winter terms and came up with a weekly exercise for each of the 13 weeks of the term. Based on what I know about the challenges that students face, and so I’m kind of introducing positive psychology light through just a very simple exercise and a reflection question for each week so that students can play with the workbook like a journal.
We’ve done it as a downloadable pdf, plus a print copy, and they can write all kinds of things in it, but each exercise is something taken from kind of research-validated exercises through Sonja Lyubomirsky, through the mindfulness tradition, through the cognitive therapy tradition, so I’ve kind of pulled in from whatever seemed most useful for me.
And the feedback I’ve been getting from people who are using the workbook is that it’s really changing how they’re interacting with their … kind of dealing with their challenges. They’re feeling more resilient. They’re engaging in more healthy activities. They’re beginning to go, as it was talked about in the course that you taught, going kind of north of neutral. So they’re not just going to get by. They’re going to thrive.
Emiliya: That’s amazing, Diana. Thank you, and I’m curious, what is the reaction from the faculty within Ryerson been, as you’ve been introducing positive psychology to them?
Diana: Well, you know it’s been great because I’ve been doing it in two different ways. I’ve been invited into specific academic departments and teaching the faculty the five-factor model of resilience, so we do four sessions together.
And then they’ve been inviting me slowly into the classroom to teach it to their students, so one fashion professor, who teaches a first year introductory course to 150 students, has invited me in for every week of this term, to teach her students about the workbook. So giving more of the background knowledge to the exercises that I’ve pulled together for that.
I’ve been invited in to do lectures on resilience. I’ve been invited to work with the student leaders, or student ambassadors, in a particular department. I come in and I do training with them, training with students who work in the residence.
And the faculty are basically saying, “We want our students to know this because we want them to do well. And they recognize that doing well academically, in part has to do with how well you’re doing personally.
And so if someone is unwell, they can’t really flourish in a classroom. And so they want those kind of double set of skills. They’re being talked about as the academic skills and then the thriving skills.
Emiliya: Diana, I’m so excited about what you’re creating, and I’m imagining this ripple and tide effect and thinking how cool would it be to train the university students to be able to teach other students within the university and empower them with the skills to then teach it to others.
Diana: Well, actually, this Saturday coming up, I’m going to the University of Windsor. I’m going to be working with 45 or so mentors, who are student leaders like in maybe their third or fourth year of their degrees, who are going to be working with first year students and teaching them to thrive by incorporating the exercises from my workbook, but by really bringing it to life what I’m doing in the workshop is I’m giving them the background of what the exercise is all about and how to teach it with extra resources and such.
And my hope is that as I keep working with student leaders also at Ryerson, that it’s going to be almost like a pyramid scheme in the best possible way, where I teach one group of people and then they teach the next group of people. So it’s the train the trainer model and it’s really exciting to see that roll out where I don’t have to be the one person who has all this knowledge, but I’m sharing it with everyone and it’s giving it away and then they take it and they own it and they teach it to other people.
Emiliya: The thing that excites me the most about that is that so much of what we’re doing is we’re teaching skills and sometimes positive psychology can come across to people as that’s really nice theory, or that’s a good skill to know, but there’s only so much life experience you could be going through while you’re learning those skills, and so to teach really is to learn.
So I’m excited for these students because as they learn these skills, they learn it one level. They learn it first on the head level and they go, “Yeah, that makes sense.” And maybe from this massive tool kit of tools that you’re offering them, at that point in time in their life, they’re only going to be able to use one or two, because they’ll be most relevant, but as they start to teach it to others, they have more time with the skills, and they start to embody the skills in a very different way.
And so, to teach is to learn and I’m excited that these students are going to get this opportunity to pass the skills on to others.
Diana: Absolutely. We’ve had an amazingly positive reaction. There’s another program that I just launched with a colleague who’s a learning strategist.
So last March, we invited students who were not in crisis, but not flourishing, kind of that middle ground, languishing, into an eight week program that we call Thriving in Action. And what we did was, each week for two hours, my colleague, Deena Shaffer, would teach holistic learning strategies, and I would teach thriving strategies. And we did it over an eight week period. We had enormous success. We did pre and post tests trying to measure change by self report, by the students in these objective measures, and also subjectively, and what we found was there was a huge shift in the sense of well-being in these students, in part because we were really getting them where they lived.
So their context is a university. So if they can do well in an exam, they’re going to feel better, and if they are sleeping better and exercising, and becoming more optimistic, and engaging in daily gratitude, they’re going to perform much better academically.
And so it becomes like this one hand washing the other and the students found that it made an enormous difference. And so we’re now running a whole set of … well this term is going to be three cohorts of students who are self-identified as struggling either academically or personally.
And they’re going to be coming to the skill-based group. We’ve made it an eleven week curriculum. We’ve involved Outward Bound, which is a kind of outdoors, in nature experience around resilience. We’ve partnered with our athletic center so that students who are taking our program can access any of their exercise classes for free.
We’re really working at trying to look at the whole person and our hope is that this is really going to be an idea that takes off and that this curriculum is going to be something that others can use. We’re hoping to turn it into an e-course. We’re kind of working around the pedagogy around that as well.
Emiliya: That’s awesome. Thank you, Diana. And Diana, I’m curious. How has positive psychology impacted you, personally?
Diana: It has in the best possible way in that I reinvented my career at a somewhat later stage of a career. You know, 25 years here. I left the counseling center. I was seconded into this new role. I’m now in the second year of this work, and what I’m finding is that I’m flourishing because I’m so happy in what I’m doing. The life satisfaction of teaching these skills in this role, thinking about, reading about, and kind of being immersed in positive psychology, has actually become an incredible emotion boost for me. I’m feeling like I’m flourishing because now I know so much about how to do it. So I’m applying it to myself.
Emiliya: And what are some of your favorite ways to put positive psychology into practice yourself?
Diana: Well, I used to meditate periodically, doing mindfulness meditation, but I’ve become a regular meditator. So, I do that daily. It’s really become part of my whole routine, so every morning I do yoga and meditation. I engage in daily gratitude. Three good things are just not enough. There are many more than three, so I really take note of them all day, and it really helps when I’m faced with challenges to remember all of those good things.
I’ve taught myself how to become an optimist. I mean Martin Seligman’s work in learned optimism is really the genesis of what I teach people as part of the resilience training and I can do it now. I know how to be more optimistic.
Self compassion is something that didn’t come that easily to me, but now that I’m teaching it, I’m teaching it to others, but teaching it to myself, so I’m becoming much more self compassionate.
And I’m persevering. Not that it takes a lot of perseverance to do this because it’s so much fun, but the days are long and I have a lot of commitments, and you have to keep going, and it’s easy for me to do that because I get such a sense of meaning from it.
And that’s one of the things, when I think about PERMA-V, is the meaning that we derive from activities that are in our value system, is incredible. And if you can live your life according to your values, there’s nothing better.
Emiliya: Diana, I’m curious if you have taken on any words to live by that are your guiding principles of what helps you show up in the world the way that you want to.
Diana: Really, it’s about bouncing back. Life is going to always have challenges before us. And our job is to do more than just cope with that. It’s really to bounce back.
And so that’s what I try to do, is I try to be flexible. I try to be open. I try to be playful. And when these things are challenging, I just remember I have to bounce back.
Emiliya: Thank you so much for sharing that. And the last question that we’ve been asking people is how do you define in your heart and in your mind, what it means to flourish?
Diana: I think it’s really being your best self and giving yourself permission to take the risks that you need to take in order to reach your dreams.
Emiliya: That’s so beautiful. Thank you for sharing that, Diana. Diana, people would love to learn more about what you’re up to, what Ryerson University is up to, this amazing program on thriving that you’ve created. What are some ways that we can learn more?
Diana: Well, at this point, our website is probably the best place to go, because you can download the workbook from there, I have some tip sheets, and we have some resilience flash cards. We’ve created some materials. We’re going to be updating the website sometime soon, but that’s probably a good place to start.
So it’s basically https://ryerson.ca\thriveru
Emiliya: Beautiful. Thank you so much for being here with us today and sharing your insight, your wisdom, your passion, and some of the beautiful things that you’re doing in the world.
Diana: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure talking with you, Emiliya. And again, I really have to thank you once again for offering this certificate in applied positive psychology, because it changed my life. And so I really am very grateful. So thank you.
Emiliya: Thank you, Diana. Much love to you. Thank you.
Is helping people thrive part of your purpose? If so, visit our website, theflourishingcenter.com, and learn more about how we are training the change agents of the world to turn their passion for helping people into a career where they spread positive psychology through coaching, teaching, and consulting. Thanks for listening and have a flourishing day.