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In this paper, it is argued that a psychology of loss can help to illuminate one of the central themes of positive psychology: That is, showcasing those human skills that emphasize human strengths and optimal functioning. However, the interface of positive psychology and a psychology of loss also contains a definite paradox. Loss is not an intrinsically positive event that will necessarily build human strength. Yet, the experience of loss can become a profound means for showcasing human strengths and potential. We also caution that a positive psychology, in its quest to focus on the more uplifting qualities of the human experience, must also realize that suffering and loss is inherent to the human condition.
Unfortunately, many of the studies that have considered resiliency in certain populations, such as Vietnam War veterans or adult female survivors of childhood sexual abuse, have operationalized it as the presence or absence of certain psychiatric disorders (34-37). Yet, there have also been other studies that have focused on resiliency by examining how individuals can thrive and lead exceedingly productive lives in spite of their loss. For instance, Whiteman (38) notes that resilient Holocaust survivors have high feelings of self-worth, try to find meaning from their experience, assimilate the knowledge that they have survived into their daily lives, and value current and pre-Holocaust era relationships. Nelson et al. (39) discuss how a "fighting spirit" may be indicative of resiliency in cancer patients: They found that cancer patients who believe that they can fight back, conquer, and recover from cancer reported lower levels of negative affect and increased optimism.
The resiliency literature further reveals the paradoxical relationship between positive psychology and a psychology of loss. On the one hand, it is almost impossible to ignore the issue of whether individuals may develop certain forms of psychopathology as a consequence of their loss. Yet the issue of how individuals can "bounce back" from their loss to lead rewarding and productive lives has relevance not only for the study of resiliency, but also for positive psychology and a psychology of loss. In many respects, the net gain from the absence of psychopathology and the presence of resiliency forms the core of our argument about the human potential to construct acts of great value and meaning from events which represented a great loss to the individual.
A Brave New World?
If a so-called positive psychology is to develop, then it must recognize its fundamental limitation: We will never have a society where individuals are immune from loss and trauma or the psychological and emotional consequences of these events. These events are inherent in the human condition and human mortality. Psychology--including the areas of positive psychology and the psychology of loss--must always be concerned with recognizing and addressing human problems and frailty. Sadly, many loss events that in a "perfect" society should never happen, such as war and genocide, rape and incest, stigmatization and discrimination, will likely be a permanent reality in our lives. Thus, the interface of positive psychology and a psychology of loss can be a literal brave new world of understanding; otherwise, it risks becoming synonymous with the unattainable themes in the dystopian Brave New World.
While we suggest that loss experiences can build human strength, and in doing so lend more credence to the goals of positive psychology, we will always be faced with those who desperately struggle with tragedy. Consider the case of Carla June Hochhalter, whose daughter was partially paralyzed as a consequence of the Columbine High School shooting massacre. Almost six months to the day after these shootings, Carla June Hochhalter walked into a local pawn shop where she asked to see a handgun and then proceeded to load it and killed herself with a shot to the head.
This tragic death reveals much more than the possibility that those who experience loss will not experience any sort of psychological growth--indeed, it shows that loss can be too devastating a burden for many individuals. However, this case also suggests that the discipline of psychology--including positive psychology--must embrace a careful scrutiny of people's powerful sense of loss and how to help them adapt to the circumstances of even the most devastating loss. We cannot have a positive psychology if we do not have an appreciation for a psychology that realizes and accepts that many human motivations, cognitions, and behavioral consequences often are rooted in suffering, despair, and pain: And, as psychologists, we are in a unique--and obligatory--position to examine and treat suffering, despair, and pain.
Most major psychological research areas consider the consequences of the presence and absence of a certain stimuli or condition: Indeed, this fundamental notion forms the bedrock of what experimental science is all about. For instance, when we study happiness, we must necessarily have an understanding of which factors contribute to our happiness and which do not (41,42). If we realize that increased wealth does not increase happiness (41), this, of course, gives us a better understanding of what happiness may be. A psychology of loss allows for an appreciation of the balance between understanding what a positive psychology is or should be and what it is not.
In short, there is the Huxleyan danger that a positive psychology, in its quest to focus on the more uplifting qualities of the human experience, will ignore those events that cause us to be "broken" and in need of a "mental cure." However, the interface of positive psychology and a psychology of loss can lead to a "brave new world" of discovery and understanding for both of these areas.
- Miller, Eric & John Harvey. The Interface of Positive Psychology with the Psychology of Loss. American Journal of Psychotherapy. Summer 2001. Vol. 55 Issue 3.
Reflection Exercise #9
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