Vitalism Signs

By Rebecca Koch
If you’ve ever wanted to a) enter into extensive psychiatric or psychological therapy, b) get on some psychoactive drugs, c) be diagnosed as bad-moonshine-crazy or d) all of the above, you may be interested in a career as one of the Desperate Housewives of Tootertown Trailer Park. Or, you might try simply flipping through the soon to be released DSM-V, the newest revision and fifth edition of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual” for the mental health profession. I’m pretty sure you won’t have to look too hard to find yourself in there somewhere. I, myself, am mentioned on several pages, featured in one appendix and have been asked to play myself (and a host of all the other characters that live in my head) in the movie version.

Speaking of having more than one person living in your head, having multiple personalities (or, more correctly, dissociative identity disorder, aka “DID”), was once viewed strictly as an aberrant accident of brain chemistry. Then, as more became known about DID, it became apparent that DID was actually an elegantly—though bizarrely—adaptive approach to enduring unspeakable abuse on the part of children who developed it. This understanding of DID as an adaptive strategy may have been one of the seeds for the sea of change that is happening in the field of psychology.

The danger with the traditional view of psychology and the new diagnostic standards, though, lies in the fact that it appears intent on making mental health patients of everyone. Are you feeling sad because you’ve lost a loved one? You could have a Major Depressive Disorder. Is your 3-year-old having a spell of pitching temper tantrums? Could be Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder. Careful. You’re walking into treatment territory—the land of traditional psychiatric therapeutics, a condition-based landscape that only provides views of symptoms to be treated, even in the most normal adaptive responses.

That’s not to say that we can’t use some help with our psychological well-being. Even though Americans and citizens of other “First World” countries have more material wealth (for now) than at any other time in history, we are also less happy, more dissatisfied and suffer from depression in greater numbers. Soon, if we continue to allow ourselves to be manipulated into dissatisfaction with what we should see as great good fortune, it may be that no adaptive human behavior or condition will escape being classified as a disorder. I promise you, this is not going to get better as long as there are people out there who profit from selling us on the idea that we aren’t happy. We are creating a culture of people who believe that they are free to pursue happiness without knowing it’s going to take some work on their part to catch it.

Now, though, after 30 years in the making, the science of psychology is in the process of fully embracing what is essentially a vitalistic philosophy in the form of a field that’s going by the name of “positive psychology.” Rather than focus on the constellation of pathological deviations that make up the universe of the human mind, positive psychology focuses on the idea that all human beings are creative, resourceful and whole—that we are innately endowed with everything we need to function optimally. This is a powerfully different view of the psychological landscape. It presumes that each of us is capable of our own insights toward solutions, adaptation and growth.

The view of positive psychology also recognizes that the way we live in the world, as evolving and adapting beings navigating tremendous leaps of social and technological advancement, sometimes results in interference to our optimal functioning. And, best of all, because positive psychology presumes that we are created to be mentally and emotionally healthy, it has concluded that there are specific steps we can take to remove interference to psychological health. These steps are not magic or wishful thinking. Positive psychology—or positivity—is not putting on a happy face or denying that we are experiencing psychological pain or distress or pretending to be happy when we’re not.

Positivity, as a mindset, is the practice of choosing to see opportunities rather than, or perhaps within, threats. Just as the vitalistic view of physical health allows us to see an earache as an opportunity for our immune systems to adapt and grow stronger, positivity allows us to see heartache as an opportunity for our psyches to adapt and become more resilient.

The choice is ours. The time is now. Do we want to be a people who recognize that life isn’t always a bed of roses, but that we’re more likely to have roses when we do the work to turn the soil and prune the canes back to the ground? We can choose to believe that even devastating loss can be beneficial if we do the work to grieve and grow and become grateful for what the loss can teach us. The alternative is to believe that every emotional setback creates a pill-shaped hole in our hearts.