Tag Archives: positive psychology

The Letter I Never Sent

In the field of Positive Psychology, there’s a famous happiness-boosting exercise called the Writing letter to a friend.gratitude letter. Designed by Dr. Martin Seligman, it involves writing, delivering, and reading a letter of gratitude to someone whose life enriched yours. When I heard about this exercise from Tal Ben-Shahar, my teacher in the Kripalu Center’s Certificate in Positive Psychology (CIPP) program, I immediately thought of an ideal recipient: my high-school English teacher.

I met Alice when I was a 15-year-old student in her class on the works of William Shakespeare, the literary love of her life. Alice would jump up on desks, gesticulating wildly as she acted out monologues from Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth. This tiny woman with the giant personality had contagious passion for the Bard, along with a wardrobe of distinctive belts, hats, and vests that could be called upon in a theatrical pinch.

But that was just the beginning of my friendship with Alice, who very quickly became a lifelong “believing mirror” for me—the kind of person who affirms what we’d most like to believe about our capabilities, talents, and significance. Alice told me that I was beautiful when I felt chubby and pimply. She encouraged the writer in me when I was more interested in being popular with boys.

After high school, Alice cheered me on through college, career changes, and the adventures of being an independent woman in the big cities of London, New York, and Boston. A trip home to see my family always included a visit to Alice’s house, where a sign on the front door read, “This door only opens for expected visitors.” Upon knocking, any lucky member of that group would be greeted by a hearty, “Well, hello, darling,” as Alice reached up to give the fiercest hugs and kisses I’ve ever received.

At Christmastime we’d exchange gifts, and hers thoughtfully reflected my interests and pursuits, even when they were counter to hers. Although Alice never understood why I left a career in public radio to teach and write about “that yoga, new age stuff,” she once gave me a statue of a woman, seated in meditation, that now sits in the room where I teach “that yoga, new age stuff.”

In summertime, I’d chat with Alice in her backyard as she sipped Scotch and I drank iced tea. When Alice wasn’t listening to my tales, she was telling her own, including the one about how she met her husband during a business call, when his deep voice and charming wit compelled her to suggest that they continue the conversation “over lunch.” Thus began a passionate love affair between a four-foot-something teacher and a six-foot-something editor. Their marriage was tragically cut short by his death from cancer, and I don’t think my dear friend ever fully recovered.

Throughout the years, Alice was a loyal correspondent, sending cards full of news, musings, and encouragement that always arrived at just the right time. When my first story was published, Alice wrote to me, a then 40-year-old woman, “In my rank book, your story receives an unqualified A-plus. This is what you were born to do.” Later, she told me that she’d saved my letters so that I could “incorporate them into the novel you will one day write.”

The most memorable card appeared after the demise of a romantic relationship on which I’d hung very high hopes. I’d even brought my British beau to Alice’s for a Christmas morning visit, during which she turned on the charm like never before. When she later learned that Michael had abandoned ship, Alice wrote, “My dearest, I looked up the word ‘cad’ in the dictionary and, to my un-surprise, there was a picture of Michael. A second likeness appeared to illustrate the tenor of ‘despicable.’ If you are guilty of anything, my Kim, it is that, like Othello, you ‘loved, not wisely, but too well.’”

Once, Alice gave me a box of very small cards, each one containing a line from Shakespeare. Written on the cover were the words, “There was a star danced, and under that was I born …,” a line from Much Ado About Nothing that conveyed her deep affection and went straight to my heart.

And so I was devastated to learn of Alice’s sudden death this summer, and instantly full of regret that I never wrote my gratitude letter. When I mentioned this to a CIPP classmate she said, “You can still do it. In fact, it could be a very powerful experience.”

I had a feeling she was right.

As I sat down to write my letter to Alice, the tears began to flow. I cried for the troubled girl that I was when I met her. I cried for the 50-year-old woman who’s not sure that she’s lived up to her teacher’s expectations. I cried because I didn’t get the chance to say thanks and goodbye, and I cried because there was now one less person on Earth who loved me unconditionally.

As I finished the letter and the tears abated, I felt a deep peace come over me. A month later I shared my reflections at Alice’s memorial service, where several other former students told me that they, too, felt uniquely seen and cherished by this childless woman who adopted so many of us as her kin.

While I can never repay my beloved friend for her generous love, I can pass it on by being a believing mirror for my own students, family, and friends. I can also live, as she most certainly did, by these words from Alice’s favorite author: “To thine own self be true.”

(This essay was written for Kripalu’s blog, Thrive, and also appears here.)

Bad News, Good News – The Gifts of Adversity

Heard the one about the Chinese farmer? According to the Taoists, he had a horse that ran away. A neighbor said, “Oh, that’s bad news,” and the farmer replied, “Good news, bad news, who can say?” The horse soon returned with another horse, which many labeled good news. The farmer again withheld judgment and gave the second horse to his son, who broke his leg when the animal threw him off. “That’s bad news,” clucked a sympathetic neighbor. “Good news, bad news, who can say?” the farmer predictably replied.

Days later, the emperor’s soldiers entered the village to round up able-bodied young men for war. The farmer’s injured son was spared, and the neighbors congratulated his dad upon hearing the “good” news.

You can guess what the farmer said, right? Well, I’m beginning to understand the wisdom of his philosophy, at least when it comes to adversity. I’ve learned that so-called bad news can sometimes lead to good.

Things like being turned down for a job or losing one, getting dumped by a lover or left by a spouse, and experiencing a life threatening illness or injury can sometimes lead us to more good than we ever would have imagined. Asking “What next?” “What can I learn?” or “What can I be grateful for?” in the wake of upsetting events has served me better than asking “Why me?” Positive psychology researchers call this benefit finding.

I tried to remember this two weeks ago, when my husband was in a fender-bender. As I took in the “bad” news over the phone, I silently expressed gratitude that no one was hurt and the car was okay. That in itself was progress for me—reaching for the good in a situation on the spot instead of having a meltdown. As it turns out, we’ll get some money to fix our car, which could use a little bodywork. Good news, in my book.

Four years ago, a different car accident resulted in injuries that allowed me to leave a career that I was no longer enjoying. The same thing happened with a panic attack in 1997. At the time of these events, I was too shaken to envision the positive outcomes that would follow. Both episodes introduced me to some talented healers, the accident led to a financial bonus, and the panic attack sent me on an emotional and psychological healing journey that gave birth to my current career.

The things we often label terrible and tragic can have hidden gifts. Sometimes they force us to grow our courage and commitment and call upon strength that we never knew we had. Sometimes they humble us enough to admit our vulnerability, ask for help, and accept it. Other times they catapult us out of our comfort zone and prompt us to make sorely needed changes that, left up to us, might never have happened.

I’m not saying there’s no room for tantrums or tears when things don’t go as we’d like them to. I’ve had my share of those and consider them healthy reactions to disappointment and loss.  But once the anger has cooled and the sadness has lifted, I think it’s important to work with the reality before us rather than waste time and energy lamenting, blaming and living in “coulda, woulda shoulda.”

Evidently, the tendency to make lemonade from lemons is hardwired in us.

Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, says that we humans have a “psychological immune system” that helps us to synthesize happiness even when we don’t get what we want. Gilbert says that our brains can assist us in finding the ultimate good in whatever happens, and that synthetic happiness is as real as the kind that comes when things go our way. His own story illustrates how not getting what we want can be a blessing. When he couldn’t get into the creative writing class that we wanted to take in college, Gilbert ended up finding his passion and acclaim in psychology. Today he’s a Harvard professor and a media star who gives TED talks.

And how did I stumble upon Mr. Gilbert’s work for this essay? While heading home from a visit with my family the other night, I encountered a horrendous seven-mile back up on the only road out of town. Rather than sit and stew, I turned the car around, went back to my parents’ house, ate some ice cream and read a good book. When I got back in the car a few hours later, there was Dan Gilbert on the radio, discussing the good news about bad news. Perfection.

If you have a story to share about the gifts of adversity, I’d love to hear it. In the meantime, I wish you mostly good news and what my watercolor teacher calls “happy accidents.”

Kim Childs is a Certified Life and Career Coach specializing in Positive Psychology, creativity and spiritual development. Click here to learn more and schedule a free initial consultation in person or via phone or Skype.