Practicing Positive Psychology on Your Placement and Beyond
I recently had the privilege of spending a week at the European Conference on Positive Psychology and was thrilled to hear so many exceptional educators, clinicians and practitioners reaffirm, though various talks, research presentations and workshops, how valuable the work is that our teams facilitate on their placements.
Whether working with service users and promoting the PERMA model, which includes fostering (P)ositive emotions, facilitating meaningful (E)ngagement, forming healthy (R)elationships with other service users, participating in (M)eaningful interactions and acknowledging (A)chievements throughout sessions, or using hands-on thinking and play as a way to reduce stress and anxiety and make abstract ideas and concepts tangible, there is no doubt that volunteers on placement are increasing their practical Positive Psychology skills; oftentimes without even realising.
However, it is important to note that the skills volunteers gain and hone throughout their placement are not always session-specific. There are interpersonal relationships flourishing constantly for volunteers throughout the placement's duration with community members, homestay families, staff and, of course, fellow volunteers. Employing a positive approach to these interactions is equally important.
Promoting positive mental health is the main aim for participants, whether working with service users or engaging with colleagues. The current, and future, mental health practitioners that participate in our placements get the chance to really utalise their epic empathy skills by living and working with each other, which encourages a more collective approach to everything from planning and executing sessions to having breakfast. This can be new and intense but, just like at projects, spreading the good vibes is a surefire way to not only elevate the mood of others, but also increase everyone's overall feelings of well-being! Increased well-being leads to improved overall functioning, resilience and life satisfaction. Talk about #winning!
As we all know, mental health isn't simply the absence of mental illness. Therefore, promoting positive mental health is equally as important for the well-being of service users presenting with mental health concerns as it is to the people volunteers come into contact with every day like roommates and colleagues on projects. Spreading enjoyment though treating people with kindness, and contributing positively to individual relationships and to society as a whole, is how we increase meaningful interactions and collective mental capital.
One of the conference speakers I was lucky enough to see, Zipora Magen, spoke about how, through her research, she discovered that people of all ages gain the most happiness and fulfilment not through material possessions or individual achievements, but through helping and building relationships with others. She illustrated this in a beautiful parable, which I think makes the point about how crucial it is to look at the world in a less individualistic way and to try and spread positivity at every opportunity. It is an old Hasidic story of a rabbi who was trying to understand more about the afterlife.
Firstly the rabbi was taken to hell where he observed a huge table full of the most wonderful food you can imagine; meat, cheese, fruit, cake, chocolate...pizza...but the people sat around the table were emaciated; their faces hollow and slick with tears. The sight of this feast made the rabbi salivate and he couldn't understand why no one was eating despite how in need of nourishment they looked.
Upon closer inspection the rabbi saw that each diner had their hands tied to a very long-handled fork - long enough to reach the food, but too long to get the food into one's mouth. The rabbi saw that their suffering was indeed terrible and bowed his head in compassion.
Next the rabbi was taken to heaven and entered a room identical to the first. He saw the same large table, leaden with food, and the same long forks tied to the diners' hands. However, there was joy in the air and everyone appeared well nourished and jubilant.
The rabbi could not comprehend how these people were not sick and starving like the others until he saw that the people around the table were not concerned with getting the food into their own mouths, which was impossible, but instead were feeding their neighbours so everyone around the table was happy and healthy.
I love this story because it demonstrates that the way to end suffering is often obvious if you work with others and abandon the individualistic mindset. Feed your neighbours because the more we look out for each other, and support each other, the more resilient we are to negative vibes and the more compassionate we are as humans.
Participants on our placements spend so much time together that it is easy to get fatigued, but is often through these relationships, not in spite of them, that the most beautiful things happen and the strongest friendships form.
In conclusion, we're all missing a trick if we're just showing compassion to only those we see as being "in need" of positive mental health interventions. Everyone benefits when we are warm and kind to each other. Spread the love, feel the love!