Positive Psychology, Connection & Community (Diane Dreher)
This guest entry is from Diane Dreher PhD, a positive psychology coach, author, leadership consultant, and professor at Santa Clara University in northern California. Diane kindly sat down to answer a few questions we posed to her on our Autumn/Winter 2020/1 theme, “Positive Psychology for Communities”. Her wise and creative insights are cultivated through decades of writing, teaching, research, practice, and experience.
A major challenge for many of us today is the erosion of connection and community. As positive psychology founder Martin Seligman (2011) realized, positive relationships are essential for us to flourish. Yet today America and many other western industrialized countries are experiencing an epidemic of loneliness and social isolation which can lead to division, distrust, and hypervigilance (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010). When people feel they are not safe, they react with anxiety, suspicion, and hostility. Without a supportive community, we retreat within ourselves, experiencing stress, defensiveness, and desperation.
Millions of people are turning to technology to satisfy their need for connection and community, spending hours a day on social media. For many, their phones have become their primary relationships. Some people even sleep with them. Products can be ordered online with a few clicks on the computer, a practice that further erodes community, causing local shops to go out of business. My town used to have three bookstores but they have all disappeared. Even before the Covid pandemic, some people I know have chosen convenience over community, ordering their household goods and even their groceries online. If this behavior prevails, our local communities will become ghost towns with people becoming increasingly isolated, emotionally tethered to their computers.
More than twenty-five centuries ago, the Tao Te Ching warned of the dangers of such disconnection:
Losing touch with nature and ourselves,
We see the part and not the whole.
Wisdom is seeing the larger patterns.
(Tao, Chapter 32)
Divided from nature, ourselves, and one another, many of us are experiencing painful conflicts. Our inner conflicts, fears, and anxiety produce chronic stress, and our outer conflicts only intensify as we perceive our needs threatened by the needs of others. As long as we’re stuck in this painful state of division and distrust, we see the world as a hostile place where we must fight to get what we want, a Hobbesian state of “continual fear” where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Hobbes, 1651). But it need not be this way. Positive psychology offers powerful strategies that can help restore our sense of connection and community.
As a positive psychology coach, researcher, and writer, I’ve been sharing these four strategies in my own life and work.
- Communion with Nature. As poets and philosophers have known for centuries, connecting with nature can heal us on many levels. There’s a long tradition of gardens and healing (Dreher, 2001). Research has shown how connecting with nature can heal us emotionally and physically (Kaplan, 1995; Ulrich, 1984), bring us a sense of awe (Keltner & Haidt, 2003), restore our peace of mind, and help us recognize our participation in the larger pattern of life.
- Mindfulness helps us relieve stress and restores our emotional balance. Jon Kabat-Zinn discovered this in the late 1970s, when he developed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR, which has been validated by thousands of studies. Now research has shown that mindfulness not only relieves stress, but also helps us think more clearly, promoting greater helpfulness, cooperation, and community (Iwamoto et al, 2020).
- Compassion expands our perspective. As neuroscientists, the Dalai Lama, and positive psychologists such as Kristin Neff (2007) have found, compassion is inclusive, involving both self-compassion and compassion for those around us. Not only does cultivating a compassionate attitude relieve our stress, but studies have shown that it can change the way we perceive the world, from an unpredictable, hostile, place to a supportive community of heart (Cosley et al, 2010; Goetz et al, 2010).
- Connection and Kindness. We can start actively rebuilding community what positive psychologist Barbara Fredrickson (2013) calls “micro-moments of connectivity.” We can make these connections not only with close friends and family but the grocery store clerk or anyone we encounter in daily life. A simple smile, eye contact, presence, perhaps a kind word—that’s all it takes. These connections benefit both people—to give is to receive. Helping to relieve stress, improve our health, raise our mood, and reduce inflammation, these small acts of connection can create a positive ripple effect, spreading through entire communities. Our small acts of kindness not only help us flourish as individuals but lead to even more kindness around us. Studies have shown that observing an act of kindness has led thousands of people to perform acts of kindness themselves, creating more hopeful, connected communities (Seligman, 2011; Jung, Seo, Han, Henderson, & Patall, 2020).
I’ve been searching for more ways to apply positive psychology to help us transcend surface differences to recognize what the Tao calls “the larger patterns” that unite us. As a concerned American citizen, I’ve joined Braver Angels, a group that uses active listening to bring together people from the political left and right to listen respectfully to each other and search for common ground. Our meetings are a way for people to interact more mindfully, compassionately, and respectfully, helping to rebuild community in my country that has become so painfully polarized in recent years. There are so many ways positive psychology can bridge our current divides and make a positive difference in the world. I recently learned that a hope intervention I developed with a colleague at Santa Clara University (Feldman & Dreher, 2012) is being used by an Israeli doctor in Jerusalem to bring Israeli and Palestinian health care workers together to build greater hope, an inspiring example in a region fraught with conflict.
In the future, I’d like to see more positive psychology interventions in schools, hospitals, business and community groups. These empowering strategies could be shared with community organizers, social workers, and progressive leaders in fields from education to medicine and politics. Positive psychology interventions offer great promise to transform current barriers of fear and suspicion into bridges of hope for ourselves and our communities. In the future, I hope to make my own contributions to this cause with my research, teaching, coaching, and writing. I am currently writing a book about hope as part of this effort.
Braver Angels. For more information about this group, see https://braverangels.org/
Cosley, B. J., McCoy, S.K., Saslow, L. R., & Epel,E.S. (2010). Is compassion for others stress buffering? Consequences of compassion and social support for physiological reactivity to stress. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46. 816-823.
Dreher, D. (2001). Inner gardening: Four seasons of cultivating the soil and spirit. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Feldman, D. B. and Dreher, D. E. (2012). Can hope be changed in 90 minutes? Testing the efficacy of a single-session goal-pursuit intervention for college students. Journal of Happiness Studies, 13, 745-759.
Fredrickson, B. (2013). Love 2.0: How our supreme emotion affects everything we feel, think, do, and become. New York, NY: Hudson Street Press.
Goetz, J. L., Keltner, D., & Simon-Thomas, E. (2010). Compassion: An evolutionary analysis and empirical review. Psychological Bulletin, 136 (3), 351-374.
Hawkley, L. C., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2010). Loneliness matters: A theoretical and empirical review of consequences and mechanisms. Annals of behavioral medicine, 40(2), 218-227.
Hobbes, T. Leviathan, i. xiii. 9. (Originally published in 1651). Cited in Oxford Reference: https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100223527
Iwamoto, S. K., Alexander, M., Torres, M., Irwin, M. R., Christakis, N.A., & Nishi, A. (2020). Mindfulness meditation activates altruism. Scientific Reports: Nature Research, 10, 6511. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-62652-1.
Jung, H., Seo, E., Han, E., Henderson, M. D., & Patall, E. A. (2020). Prosocial modeling: A meta-analytic review and synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 146(8), 635–663.
Kabat-Zinn, J. For more information about MBSR, see https://www.institute-for-mindfulness.org/offer/mbsr/what-is-mbsr
Kaplan, S. (1995). The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrated framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15, 169-182.
Keltner, D., & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 17(2), 297-314.
Neff, K. D. (2007). Self-compassion and adaptive psychological functioning. Journal of Research in Personality, 41, 139-154
Seligman, M.E.P. (2011). Flourish. New York, NY: Free Press.
Ulrich, R. S. (1984). View through a window may influence recovery from surgery. Science, 224(4647), 420-421.
Diane Dreher, Ph.D. and Professional Certified Coach (PCC), is a positive psychology coach, a regular blogger for Psychology Today, and the author of seven books, including the best-selling Tao of Inner Peace, The Tao of Personal Leadership, and her latest book, Your Personal Renaissance: 12 Steps to Finding Your Life’s True Calling.