Use the power of positive psychology to push past preconceived limits.
Eager to reach my destination, I raced ahead of my group, climbing up and down steep hills in the 100-degree heat as the sun beat down on my tired body. Sweating profusely, I realized my water supply was dwindling and began to fret. Would my water run out? Would I suffer heatstroke and deliriously wander off the path?
I was invited to hike more than 100 miles of the Camino de Santiago, or Way of St. James, the centuries-old path that meanders through quaint European villages to the shrine of the apostle St. James in Santiago in northwestern Spain in the summer of 2009. In preparation for the trek, I hiked Vermont’s Green Mountains to acclimate my body and read Paulo Coelho’s The Pilgrimage to shape expectations.
While prepared physically, I hadn’t envisioned the enormous mental toll of the trip, so I was especially fortunate to have just earned a master’s of applied positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania that I could put into practice.
Putting Positive Psychology Into Practice
While we might not have yellow arrows pointing the way, positive psychology does give us important guidance on which mental paths to choose. This marathon hike was a real-world example of how I could choose healthier thoughts and actions, rather than wallow in a helpless state of pity, overwhelmed by negative emotions.
Focusing on the Positive
I shifted my attention from the throbbing pain in my legs to the beautiful flowers that surrounded me in the vineyards. By broadening my perspective, I was able to marvel at nature’s awesome beauty. I reached for my camera and started snapping pictures of the flowers. Soon, I noticed more and more exquisite flowers that seemed to emerge out of nowhere—tall, regal purple flowers waving in the wind and small, simple, white flowers with delicate petals. As I focused my camera on them, they slowly transformed into magnificently intricate creations. Once I focused on positivity, it moved into the foreground and my pain subsided. The beauty of it is that we can decide which to see.
What I Learned Along the Way
Many life lessons emerged throughout my pilgrimage and continue to unfold in my life today. I coined the term “overthinking-anticipating-maximizer” to describe how I had habitually lived most of my life. The phrase depicts a thinking and behavioral style that hasn’t always served me well. I now realize this ritualized pattern of living isn’t written in stone. Rather, it’s composed of learned habits I created, but ones I can unlearn by replacing them with healthier habits. While it will take practice, it is something I can change, resulting in a better state of mind.
Here’s a look at each of the three words that have defined my behavior to date:
Suzann Pileggi Pawelsi holds a master's in applied positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania and is a contributing editor to Live Happy. Her first book, Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts, written with her husband, James Pawelski, Ph.D., comes out in January 2018.