Friday, December 01, 2006

First-Time Blogger: A Reflection

Until recently, the world of blogging was completely foreign to me. As far as I was concerned, blogs were maintained either by nerds swapping video game and tech information or by people who had nothing better to do than obsess over and gossip about celebrities. However, when told that I would be maintaining a blog myself as a requirement for my Writing 340 course, my initial cynicism was quickly dissipated. I swiftly learned what a vast, eclectic user and reader base blogs actually had. What I found even more significant, was my total underestimation of blogs and the realization of what incredible and powerful channels they truly are.

My experience with this tool, thus far, is one that I have greatly appreciated. As a Psychology Major, it was very rewarding to be able to research and explore any and all topics relating to people and how our minds work and the great (or ridiculous) things we as people are capable of. The freedom in the range of topics I have written about was an added benefit to the overall experience of blogging. In addition, sharing my work on such a public platform was definitely new for me. I have always tended to be one who generally keeps my work to myself, but having perfect strangers read and comment on it forced me to look at my writing from a slightly different perspective. I was more cognizant of things, from simple spelling and grammar to other arguments or viewpoints that may be raised. When I received my first comment from someone who had read my blog, his encouraging words were not only a relief, but exciting as well. Someone had taken the time to read my thoughts, opinions, arguments, and appreciated them enough to let me know!

Though I have been quite pleased with my work and this course in general, I do believe that I could have made my writing stronger in some ways. Mostly, I noticed, after reviewing my entire blog, that often a good point I attempted to make was slightly watered down by the amount of writing that either prefaced or followed it. There were times that there was too much background, and other times not enough. Despite any shortcomings, however, I am proud of my work and reiterate again how much I enjoyed my first experience as a blogger. This course has definitely opened the door for me to a whole new method of communication, and I truly plan to take advantage of this medium in the near future in order to voice my opinions, simply gather my thoughts, or help shed light on important issues that must be faced.

Monday, October 30, 2006

One Man's Revolutionary Perspective for a Not-so-Revolutionary Science: Why Dr. M. Seligman Deserves an Honorary Degree

Universities often award honorary degrees to individuals whom they feel best embody that which the university both is and strives to exemplify. James Freedman, president emeritus of the University of Iowa and Dartmouth College, asserts that the primary purpose of honoring an individual in this way is to "celebrate distinguished and sublime achievement,” and therefore, in selecting an individual as a recipient for such recognition, “a university [is making] an explicit statement to its students and the world about the qualities of character and attainment it admires most” (117, 118).

As this is inevitably true, the University of Southern California has maintained a few general criteria to aid in selecting an individual who truly deserves recognition and who legitimately exudes that which the university values. USC has clearly stated its mission as being “the development of human beings and society as a whole through the cultivation and enrichment of the human mind and spirit.” This being said, there is an individual whom, I believe, adheres to such a standard of life better than most—Dr. Martin Seligman. A very noteworthy individual, who has certainly accomplished that which falls under the category of sublime, Dr. Seligman is a distinguished man in the realm of psychology; but the relevancy of his accomplishments is not limited to this sphere alone. In fact, part of what I feel makes him such an excellent candidate for nominee as an honorand of USC is the fact that Dr. Seligman's work permeates all academic boundaries such that his accomplishments and achievements are pertinent to each and every field of study, each university, each human being.

Dr. Seligman’s contributions to the field of psychology are many, as can be seen by his numerous journal publications and written books. He has also been the recipient of two Distinguished Scientific Contribution awards from the American Psychological Association, the Laurel Award of the American Association for Applied Psychology and Prevention, and the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Society for Research in Psychopathology. Dr. Seligman has been a leader in the development and implementation of the new branch within psychology, Positive Psychology. Though it may be slightly obvious by the name of this new topic, Positive Psychology, to be more specific, “focuses on the empirical study of such things as positive emotions, strengths-based character, and healthy institutions.”

After spending the majority of his career studying helplessness, Dr. Seligman explains that his intrigue with optimism exclusively, was a result of noticing the effects that optimism had on
helplessness. More specifically, Dr. Seligman discovered a significant difference in mental perspectives between individuals who did and did not become helpless. Through his studies, he “found that optimistic people got depressed at half the rate of pessimistic people, that optimistic people succeeded better in all professions that we measured except one, that optimistic people had better, feistier, immune systems, and probably lived longer than pessimistic people.”

In addition to this finding which had already caught his attention, Seligman credits his (at the
time) five year old daughter with giving him a new perspective one afternoon in their garden after pointing out to him that he was “a grouch.” With this assertion, she simply told him that there was no reason why he couldn’t change. “Some people talk about depressive realism, the idea that depressed people see reality better, but it occurred to me that maybe any success I'd had in life was in spite of being a grouch, not because of being a grouch; so I resolved to change.”
It was on this new path and through this new perspective that Dr. Seligman realized that the field in which he worked and studied was essentially “half-baked,” as he calls it. “If you think about your own life, your success has not been because you've corrected your weaknesses, but because you found out a couple of things you were really good at, and you used those to buffer you against troubles… It was interesting to me that there was no science for that. All of the science was remedial, correcting the negatives.”

There is so much more to life than “correcting the negatives,” Dr. Seligman has realized; and this is precisely what makes the foundation of his crusade for Positive Psychology such a novel perspective in the broader field of psychology. To be able to present a fresh and truly innovative perspective to such an established science demonstrates exactly the “intellectual distinction” that Freedman describes as a necessity for such recognition as an honorary degree. The science of psychology has accomplished much—understanding victims, their trauma, depression, anxiety, a vast array of mental diseases and disorders, and so on. The progress made toward developing treatments to reduce such ailments has been remarkable; Seligman is not trying to diminish that which is already in place. But, that is simply the "baked" half of psychology, to once again use Seligman’s vernacular.

As of now, psychology and psychiatry “can make miserable people less miserable. That's great... [But] the part that was unbaked [in the study of psychology] was about what makes life worth living? What is happiness? What is virtue? What is meaning? What is strength? How are these things built?” Seligman’s mission soon became “the understanding and building of positive emotion, of strength and virtue, and of positive institutions." He has already been largely recognized and revered for the strides he has taken in this field. For instance, in 1996, Seligman was voted President of the American Psychological Association by the largest vote in modern history. As USC has specified that honorary degrees are also given to individuals “who are widely known and highly regarded for achievements in their respective fields of endeavor,” Dr. Seligman is certainly such an individual.

As Seligman continues to help further along the establishment of the “positive institutions” that he envisioned, he continues to further his research as well. His work is not limited to research facilities or field of psychology alone; he has written, as mentioned earlier, numerous books and articles for all people and addressing the everyday. Since most, if not all, “individual strengths are virtues that are unambiguously psychological,” they thereby “refer to the positive ways in which the individual thinks, feels, or acts.” Seligman has partitioned these strengths into a few broad categories (which obviously include a series of subcategories there within). These individual strengths, therefore, include cognitive strengths, emotional strengths, and strength of will. In addition, but less so at the core of the individual, is relational or civic strength, which refers to social interaction. Finally, however, and what is largely Seligman’s main interest in furthering along, is what he refers to as strengths of coherence. This last virtue is important as it refers to one's ability to combine and use these strengths, or more essentially, to the entire entity that is the individual.

Thus the basis of Positive Psychology, and part of what makes the contribution of this science so original, is its mission to build on each of the aforementioned strengths within every individual—not just those individuals with serious disorders or illnesses—in hopes that the strengthening of these virtues will help to buffer people against most pathologies. Positive Psychology’s goal, then, is more than attempting to understand or correct what is wrong; it is much more preventative than that. Positive Psychology aims to build on personal strengths to make people stronger and more productive as well as making high human potential an actuality. Put simply, Positive Psychology hopes to “reclaim” what the disease model of psychotherapy has lost: “both healing what is weak and nurturing what is strong.” If such a goal, does not qualify as “meaningful work,” as Martin’s chapter on ethics is titled, then I do not know what would qualify.

As idealistic (or even obvious) as such a goal may sound, there are those who cautiously question Seligman and his Positive Psychology, wondering if this is just too simplistic a view to be credited as an entire science within psychology. They raise the point that much of what Seligman suggests—for instance, building upon strengths the individual already possesses—are techniques already implemented in current psychotherapy. In addition to those who are cautious and somewhat reluctant to fully embrace this relatively new science within psychology, there are also those who blatantly criticize this perspective by reducing it to nothing more than a shallow quest for happiness. Such critics are concerned that such a pursuit of happiness will only perpetuate a cycle of constantly striving for more. Happiness, they argue, is inevitably transitory; searching so vehemently for it will only facilitate never being quite satisfied.

While these are all valid concerns, I must (after much research) respond to them. To those who have argued that this view is too simplistic because several of Dr. Seligman’s suggestions are already implemented techniques, I will agree…to an extent. I agree that some of the techniques mentioned may, to some extent, already be in practice. In fact, Dr. Seligman has noted, repeatedly, those techniques which are currently used in psychotherapy. However, he is simply adding to them in ways that will make them more effective for everyone, not just those who are depressed or pessimistic or helpless or ill. He does not wish for psychology to only be about “making miserable people less miserable.” Rather, he also hopes to make normal people even happier and healthier, as well as taking it a step higher to help implement these techniques in ways that will act as preventative measures. His goal is not to correct what is wrong, but instead buffer against it by building upon the good that is already in place. Additionally, to those who criticize Positive Psychology as a shallow pursuit of happiness, I must fervently disagree. Such disappointment and fleeting satisfaction is precisely what Positive Psychology aims to defeat. By harnessing individual strengths and realizing one’s true potential, emotional and psychological esteem and resilience are bound to strengthen, thereby inevitably reducing (and hopefully preventing) self-doubt, depression, anxiety, and the like.

Critics aside, this realm of psychology is, to reiterate, quite pertinent to us all. This field is also exceptional to USC specifically, however, for several reasons. First of all, with a doctoral psychology program that ranks among the top forty programs in the nation, USC's recognition of such an individual would only be fitting. He has impacted the entire field in a powerful way and has left his mark as former president of the APA, as well as with journal publications and books, some of which are required reading here at USC. Secondly, and as stated earlier, Dr. Seligman’s work is profound to the entire university, not just to psychology students and faculty.

In fact, should Dr. Seligman give the commencement speech (as do most university honorands), he would have endless words of encouragement and advice for each and every graduating student. As the very foundation of his studies in Positive Psychology is to help individuals realize their own potential, who then is better suited to talk to graduating students about how to effectively implement what they have learned here at USC into their lives in the real world? Drawing from his own work, Dr. Seligman could effectively speak on the importance of positively focusing on our own personal strengths and virtues, as well as the immense benefits that doing so would bring to us as individuals and to our society as a whole.
Also drawing, once more, from USC's Role and Mission statement, “the University’s mission is to cultivate and enrich the human spirit through teaching, research, artistic creation, professional practice, and selected forms of public service.” This, clearly, summarizes Dr. Seligman's life's work. He, too, stives to enrich the lives of others through his research, teaching others about his findings, implementing these things into his professional practice, and he does so with a dedication to public service that is most deserving of recognition. Awarding Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman with an honorary degree would prove USC's commitment to its mission, as well as honor a man who will prove to be a most prolific figure of our time.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Teenwire.com: The Web's Importance in the Sharing of Reliable Information

The issue of teenagers and sex is nothing new. There will always be efforts made among governments and concerned citizens to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, lower the proportion of teens who have sex, and, at the very least, increase the use of birth control and disease prevention techniques among teens who are sexually active. However, whether the numbers and rates of these issues increase, decrease, or plateau, one constant that remains is the fact that rather than confronting the actual issues at hand, many people instead seem consumed by the numbers. In fact, with the media regularly bombarding us with alarming figures, such the number of teen pregnancies or the number of teenagers having sex, the focus has become misplaced as many parents fear such statistics, leaving other more important facts—such as the importance of educating teenagers to help them make mature, informed, and (most importantly) safe decisions—mostly overshadowed. A noteworthy website, however, that has tackled this mission of providing information and opening the lines of communication is Planned Parenthood’s Teenwire.com. A recent nominee of the prestigious 2006 Webby Awards, Teenwire’s goal is to “provide honest and nonjudgmental information about sexuality in language you can understand with the hope that you will use this knowledge to reduce your risk of unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.” The intention of this article, therefore, is to examine the strengths and weaknesses of Teenwire.com as well as to inspect how closely the site lives up to its goal.

As Teenewire aims to inform and communicate with teenagers, the chosen medium of communication (meaning the internet) is entirely appropriate. Pew Internet reports that “the number of teenagers using the internet has grown … [such that] 87% of those between the ages of 12 and 17 are online.” Since teens’ use of the internet has broadened and increased exponentially over the years, it is not hard to believe that listed among the top purposes the internet serves for teens is that of “obtaining health information.” Inevitably encompassed in “health information” is the topic of sexual health, and, as was reinforced by several recent conversations with my teenage sister and her friends, the internet is one of the most common sources that teens today are turning to with sex-related questions. Unfortunately, many parents fear that talking to their teens about sex will lead to them having sex at younger ages. The reality is, however, that if parents avoid talking to their teens about sex or avoid pointing them in the direction of other reliable sources (if they themselves feel too uncomfortable to talk to their kids), teenagers will turn elsewhere; and “elsewhere” is seldom truthful. Thankfully, however, Teenwire.com provides an “elsewhere” that is truthful, with content that is unbiased, nonjudgmental, and factual.

While Teenwire’s main objective is to educate, the layout or interface design of the website is a vital component to successfully providing information. As Web Style Guide asserts, understanding the “needs and demographics of the target audience is [a] crucial” first step to accomplishing a site’s goal. It goes on to state that “clear, consistent icons, graphic identity schemes, and graphic or text-based overview and summary screens can give the user confidence that they can find what they are looking for without wasting time.” Teenwire excellently adheres to all of these guidelines, as the layout of the homepage is straightforward, easy to use, and even bilingual. Teenwire’s homepage is sectioned off into three columns titled, “Read,” “Ask,” and “Do,” where informative articles, forums to anonymously ask questions, and other interactive ways of sharing information, such as taking quizzes or showing short movie demonstrations, are provided.

Therefore, with such large numbers of users, being able to clearly navigate one’s way through such a website is just as vital as the initial layout of the site. Web Style Guide also stresses the importance of structure and navigation within a site, stating that “web pages need to give the user explicit cues to the context and organization of information because only a small portion of any site (less than a page) is visible at one time.” Adding to this, the Webby Awards maintains that “sites with good structure and navigation are consistent, intuitive and transparent. They allow you to form a mental model of the information provided, where to find things, and what to expect when you click.” Teenwire consistently keeps the reader informed of exactly where they are within the site by two clever methods: first, the main menu and options always remain at the top of the page; and second, the site's pages, as you move through it, are color coded along with the aforementioned sections of the website, such that anything within the section “Read” is blue; “Ask” is orange; and “Do” is green.

Not only does Teenwire make information easily accessible, but the relaxed and informal language of the site also effectively and realistically expresses a level of empathy and understanding that is
hugely important when it comes to communicating with adolescents. As teenagers are notorious for their need for privacy, communication between parents and children often suffers as this suddenly tight-mouthed trend in adolescence is interpreted by parents with suspicion; and teens, in turn, interpret this suspicion or confusion from their parents as simply “not getting it” or, worse, as disapproval and/or judgment. In related articles, Teenwire addresses teens who wish for a better relationship or better communication with their parents. Articles range from topics such as "Bond with your Mom!" or "Breakup Lessons" to "Dealing with Dating Abuse" and "I'm Thinking About Having Sex, but I'd Like to Talk to my Mom About it...How do I Approach Her?" Overall, teens are urged not to be intimidated by the idea of being the one to open up the lines of honest communication with their parents; and Teenwire's advice is not only sound, but is also reinforced by logic that teenagers can understand and respect: "taking the initiative to open up shows your mom that you're interested in communicating with her, and that you actually do value your relationship with her."

Adding to the strengths of this website, and to its credibility, is Teenwire’s authority—its parent organization is the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. As America’s “leading sexual and reproductive health care advocate and provider,” Planned Parenthood has been in existence for over nine decades and has certainly become a leading authority on sexual health for both teens and adults. Both Planned Parenthood and Teenwire.com have generally similar goals, in that they each strive to provide nonjudgmental information, in hopes that knowing strictly the facts will lead to better, safer individual choices. An important facet of this emphasis on the lack of judgment toward the teens who visit Teenwire.com is that it provides a safe-haven for teens in which they feel they can let their guard down and receive truthful, factual information, rather than turning to biased or misinformed sources. Psychologists reinforce this logic, asserting that the first step to remedying any social problem is generally to educate people about the sources of that problem.
A study conducted by researchers at the University of Kentucky also agrees with this reasoning that is the very foundation of Teenwire.com. Their study, which followed nearly one thousand students at 17 different high schools in Kentucky and Ohio from 9th to 11th grades, found evidence that teens are "2.5 times more likely to have sex by the 9th grade if [they] think [their] friends are having sex—whether or not they really are,’ says Katharine Atwood, assistant professor at the Kentucky School of Public Health.” In fact, although less than one third of the teens in the study had actually had sex, more than two thirds of the teens interviewed estimated that most, if not all, of their friends were sexually active.

As much as Teenwire strives to provide all aspects of sexual health information, I do believe that there are a few things which, if added, would only enrich the site and its content that much more. For instance, though it may not be a glaringly obvious point of interest to all teens, I do believe that studies, such as the Kentucky study mentioned above, would be nothing but beneficial to teens. How many of us at 15 or 16 years old would have been SO relieved to find out that a majority of our friends were lying about their sex lives?! Though Teenwire does address health facts and statistics as well as more emotionally-focused issues like self-esteem, I would like to see more studies on peer pressure misconceptions and the like. This, too, is factual information and could be extremely helpful, provide a sense of relief, or even just be plain interesting.

In addition to adding such statistics to the content of the site, I offer one last suggestion to Teenwire.com—that anyone and everyone be able to anonymously ask questions. Within the "Ask" section of Teenwire.com, one must be a registered member to “Ask the Experts” or even post comments on questions/comments that others have posted on the site. This request to be a registered member, I am sure, serves a purpose—perhaps as a safety measure to prevent bizarre or inappropriate questions or even simply to track activity in the site—but I propose that either an anonymous forum for non-registered users be opened or that the need to register simply be removed. Though anyone can make up a completely random, untraceable nickname, the thought of being linked to any sort of name can and does deter some teens from asking questions.

These critiques aside, however, Teenwire.com’s strengths far outweigh its weaknesses, and the site absolutely and effectively lives up to its own expectations. Making efficient use of its tools—from web page layout and color schemes to multimedia and hypertextuality—Teenwire.com sets an excellent example of what reliable, web-based information sharing should encompass. After exploring the site, for even a few moments, one can certainly see why Teenwire.com was nominated for a Webby Award. Its goal is to provide useful, safe, unbiased, and factual information; and that is precisely what Teenwire.com does.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Celebrity Obsession: An Epidemic

When I sat down over the weekend to write this post, I had an entirely different topic on my mind. However, something in the background noise of my apartment complex suddenly grabbed my attention. I overheard a fragment of a conversation that made me seriously ponder an embarrassing epidemic of my generation.

“Whatever, she’s such a bitch. Plus, everyone knows she’s a total coke-head. And she’s so freckly! Ew!”

This accusation was retorted with a fervent,

“No way! I don’t believe you.
Lindsay Lohan is, like, so chill. Even if she’s done drugs, so what? (Both girls giggle here.) Seriously though, I’ll admit it: I SO want to, like, hang out with her! I love her!”

My immediate reaction was an emphatic shake of my head while rolling my
eyes at the level of that conversation. However, I must admit that I would be lying if I said I didn’t have a few People or Us Weekly magazines scattered on my living room table. I then decided to do a little research. The number of celebrity-related (or blatantly celebrity-OBSESSED) sites was astounding to me. Why are we so intrigued by these people we’ve never met? What is it that attracts so much attention that borders on obsession and leads so many of us to talk about these celebrities as if they are personal friends?

While skimming over a few of these celeb-stalking sites, and although most (if not all) fell into the “pointlessly trivial” category, one in particular caught my eye;
this one was especially pointless. It was a six shot segment of Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale… drum roll, please! …walking. When I saw that such an anticlimactic picture received over 40 comments, I was compelled to post a comment myself. I instead had to email my comment to the site because I am not a registered visitor. I’ve yet to receive a reply, but have posted my comment below:

"I find it interesting that so many people have found this one, very mundane activity thought provoking enough to incite them to make so many comments. Based on the combination of these comments, some filled with harsh judgments and others with jealous adoration, it leaves me concerned with our generation’s obsessive intrigue of the lifestyles of the rich and the famous. If one can judge from the way someone is sitting in a picture that he must not be a good father, then, unfortunately, I’m afraid that too many of us have lost that distinction between our own lives and the lives we read about in the tabloids. This blurring of realities has, in the past, driven people to do some very frightening things, and at best, caused many to maintain unrealistic expectations of their own lives while living vicariously through perfect strangers (yes, beautiful and rich, but strangers nonetheless)."

A bizarre and serious example of this blurring of realities (though it has recently become the butt of many jokes) is the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie bodyguard scandal. The article posted “
Aspiring Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt Bodyguard/Stalker Hybrid Arrested” from the Defamer website explains that Pitt and Jolie’s bodyguard, Nelson Mercado, lied about his profession and previous experiences, claiming that he was a Department of Homeland Security agent. Mercado had fake credentials, forged registration, and a car specifically customized to reinforce his bodyguard façade. I again felt the need to comment on this story, but again ran into some technical difficulties in regards to posting my comment. So, once more, here is what I posted:

"To those who have defended their compulsive upkeep on the latest celebrity gossip, this story is a blatant example of what those who criticize our generation’s obsession with celebrities are worried about—the inability to separate and distinguish the lives of the famous from our own realities. Celebrity gossip has become much more than the harmless banter many try t
o brush it off as. It has totally permeated our lives! Everyone from trashy tabloids to the local news to CNN has covered celeb-related stories. Psychologists are legitimately concerned about this obsessive focus on the lives of others, and Mercado is a perfect example of why. What may have begun as a trivial interest can easily spurn a little more interest and intrigue, which can easily ignite a level of infatuation, which can even more easily lead to total obsession. Once a person is obsessed, reality has gone out the window; there is no more distinguishing truth from fantasy. Many people who have become obsessed with stars have themselves so emotionally attached to these people that though they are perfect strangers, they believe they know these celebrities deeply. Mercado did Pitt and Jolie no harm; rather, he wanted to protect them because of some unfounded bond he felt for this family."

Though Mercado is an exreme example of this detriments of celebrity obsession, this epidemic is real and, in fact, truly does not hit any one of us too far from home. Everyone has a sister or a neice or a cousin or a daughter who at least knows who
Paris Hilton or Britney Spears is. The majority of them probably know much more, such as Britney’s children’s names. I bet most of them could tell you that Britney’s husband is a bum and that she deserves better. Does this same majority know the capital of the United States of America? How many US Presidents can they name?

In other words, in the status-obsessed and media driven world we live in, it has become all too easy to obtain information about and focus on celebrities and their lofty, glamorous lifestyles. Because obtaining such information has become all to easy, as we see it whether we try to avoid it or not on television, in grocery stores, on sidewalks, etc, it has become that much easier to also form a level of bonding with those that we read about. Whether it is empathy or jealousy, people feel they can relate to these strangers in some way.
Cosmos Magazine offers some insight as to why this has become so common: “as family and community values are crushed by the cult of individualism and an omnipresent media, perhaps fantasy relationships are becoming easier to form than real ones.”

Perhaps this is a reason for the growing epidemic of celebrity obsession; or perhaps it is simply that we have grown so bored with our own lives that we have turned to the lives of strangers to keep us guessing. Either way, it is high time that our generation turns the focus of our daily lives back to reality, back to legitimate and substantial relationships, and away from the delusions of such an obsessive focus.

Monday, September 11, 2006

9/11 & Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Beating the Odds

Today is a day that our nation will always mark with somber reflection. Upon reflecting myself, I found numerous pictures, poems, and articles remembering all who were lost on this day, five years ago. As saddening as every photo, article, or song may be, I did find something that, despite the ugliness of 9/11 and its aftermath, was somewhat uplifting. I found this bit of optimism in a very unexpected place--while looking at a study of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder rates after 9/11.

First, to clarify, post-traumatic stress disorder is really a psychological consequence of exposure to highly stressful events that a person experiences as traumatic. By definition, this experience must involve actual or threatened death, serious physical injury, or a threat to physical and/or psychological integrity. There are a number of possible symptoms associated with PTSD, but the most common symptoms are intrusive thoughts, nightmares, flashbacks, numbing, chills, agitation or irritability, and all at a level which interferes with a person’s ability to engage in normal activity.

From a psychological standpoint, 9/11 has obviously offered a large grounds for research on this disorder, as the above definition of PTSD is clearly applicable to the horrific events of that infamous day. Moreover, 9/11 has actually proven to be quite important to study, because it was a major event that affected a very large, very diverse population. This is key in psychology because most other events, such as natural disasters, tend to affect smaller and very specific populations. In contrast, the diversity of those affected by 9/11 allows psychologists to see what aspects of PTSD are constant despite other cultural and mental variances, what patterns or trends may develop in relation to the disorder, and what seems to help relieve those experiencing the lingering symptoms of PTSD.

There have been numerous studies performed to understand as
many of the mental impacts of 9/11 as possible, and generally, most of these studies have shown that the impact was certainly widespread, but not prolonged. Almost 8% of the population, overall, experienced PTSD, and more than 20% of those who lived close to the towers also showed signs. Follow up studies performed less than one year later, however, showed that the PTSD rates fell and, in fact, returned to the baseline rates. In other words, the attacks inflicted a very acute, very intense sense of trauma on people as a whole, but these effects were quickly resolved.

I found these rates extremely interesting and almost puzzling. How could such a traumatic event, one that brings me--a West Coast student who's never even been to New York--to tears each time I see a memorial or documentary on 9/11, not cause the, very often, long-term effects of PTSD? Many people seemed to display symptoms of the disorder, which is only expected after such trauma, but soon after, almost all returned to their pre-9/11 states. Such quick dissolution of PTSD among so many people was a point of interest to psychologists as well, and another set of studies was soon performed. These studies showed, according to Dr. David Spiegel of Stanford, that there seemed to be two kinds of cognitive responses to the attacks that determined how long people remained afflicted with PTSD. These cognitive responses were: 1.) those who fervently wished that things could “go back to the way they were” before the attacks, and 2.) those for whom 9/11 served as a catalyst in rethinking their priorities. The latter proved to be doing much better and handling their stress much more efficiently than those who wished everything would return to “normal.” Dr. Spiegel’s study also showed that community support played an enormous role in the resolution rates of PTSD. People who had a larger social network fared better than those who had smaller support systems and/or felt the need to hold their grief in.

It is unfortunate that it took a disasterous event like 9/11 to bring us together as a nation, but after the attacks, the United States had truly never been so united. The unification of strangers who were helping each other as if they were family, undoubtedly played a role in the declining prevalence of PTSD. The rallying support of an entire nation helped those with smaller support systems feel like they did have a larger social network to rely on after all. Rarely is something as intangible as resilience able to be seen in empirical research, but such follow up studies have proven that, at the end of the day, America was not defeated. Americans did not let 9/11 shatter their faith or control their lives. And such resolve is worth a closer look.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Positive Psychology: Changing Victim Mentality to Productive Mentality

The latest concept to make waves in modern psychology is a phenomenon called Positive Psychology. Its novel perspective has been credited as a movement with the potential to “change the face of psychotherapy as we know it." As its name implies, positive psychology is simply that—the study of what makes individuals healthy, happy, and good. Sound rather banal? Well, to understand why this actually is such a unique perspective in modern psychology, one must consider the field’s history.

Ever since Sigmund Freud popularized the notion that individuals could be treated simply by talking about their problems, his legacy of psychotherapy has had an unarguably profound impact on modern psychology. Unfortunately, however, treating mental illness has become the primary focus of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, as a result of Freud’s intrigue of what was wrong with people. With such a dysfunction-obsessed focus, each successive generation has seemed even more concentrated than the one before it on all that is bad and wrong with people as individuals. This has leant itself to the defeatist outlook that so many of us are merely a product of the wrongs done to us by others and the misfortunes handed to us by the universe. Such negativity has turned into a working definition of self-identity for many individuals. This terrible trend of “victimology," as many today refer to it, has set off a phenomenon of entire generations of individuals not knowing how to or wanting to take responsibility for their own lives, and an entire field of study focused on only a partial, not to mention, quite negative aspect of that which comprises the human person.

Spearheading the efforts to bring to light this concept of positive psychology is a well-known psychologist and former APA (American Psychological Association) President, Dr. Martin Seligman. After reconsidering the idea of “learned helplessness”—an outlook that “nothing I do matters or ever will,” which people and animals often develop after failing several times at something—Seligman decided that if one could be taught to feel bad, perhaps they could be taught to feel good. For Seligman, this effort is much more than just spreading optimism; he has devised “successful methods for teaching the skills of optimistic thinking to potentially depressed adults and children." In other words, “Seligman showed that you can literally change the minds of pessimistic people in a relatively short time, thus getting really good outcomes for preventive therapy,” says psychiatrist and resilience researcher Steve Wolin.

Therefore, rather than dwelling on that which has inhibited or hurt us, what has slowed us down or held us back, we should instead be asking ourselves, what abilities, strengths, and potentials within us can we draw on to create a better life? For just in asking this question, we are already en route to our answer.