Smile through your tears

"Positive psychology" is a developing field in Israel, intended to find meaning and happiness despite trauma, tragedy and loss.

PROFS. DANNY BROM (left) and Yoram Yovell 311 (photo credit: JUDY SIEGEL-ITZKOVITCH)
PROFS. DANNY BROM (left) and Yoram Yovell 311
Clinical psychologists and psychiatrists who treat victims of trauma are generally a gloomy bunch, engrossed in treating victims of terror, catastrophes and other harrowing events.
The disciplines failed to realize for too long that such experiences – while obviously not desirable – cause some victims to grow stronger emotionally, and that everyone can be helped if they are can find meaning in their lives and give of themselves to others.
A special public event at 8 p.m. Sunday at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, called “Giving and the Path to Happiness: Does Science Have Anything to Add?” is aimed at belatedly raising this issue. The speakers – who will raise funds to benefit the Herzog Hospital’s Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma (ICTP) in the capital – include University of Haifa psychotherapist and neuroscientist Prof. Yoram Yovell and ICTP director and clinical psychologist Prof. Danny Brom.
Yovell and Brom gave a pre-event interview on the relatively new topic of “post-traumatic growth” to The Jerusalem Post at Yovell’s private clinic at Moshav Shoeva, outside Jerusalem.
“The paradoxical thing is that our center, which treats victims of psychotrauma, has organized an evening on happiness,” said Brom. “It’s the first time, and a sign of development in the field, that for so many years only looked at pain and the black side, not the positive side. Now we are including this subject in our research.”
Although Israel has a larger share of trauma victims – what with its people’s Holocaust past, its wars, terror attacks and too-high rate of road accidents – than many other countries, little thought has been given to this issue by professionals.
YOVELL, A graduate of the MD-PhD program of the Hebrew University Medical School and the Weizmann Institute of Science’s neurobiology department, spent a decade studying psychiatry at Columbia University and training at New York’s Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research. Then he returned to the university in Haifa, becoming co-director of its Institute for the Study of Affective Neuroscience (ISAN), and a training and supervising psychoanalyst at the Israel Psychoanalytic Institute in Jerusalem, where he is on the teaching faculty.
“The movement for post-traumatic growth was initiated not in Israel, but by Prof. Martin Seligman,” said Yovell. Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, laid the basis for positive psychology. However, it developed slowly and is only now becoming accepted here.
“We psychologists and psychotherapists were taking care of unhappiness and looking at pathology. Questions about happiness used to be dealt with by philosophers and religious/political leaders,” said Yovell. “It is no coincidence that the American Declaration of Independence idealizes the ‘pursuit of happiness.’ Today it our field.”
Positive psychology researchers like Seligman, added Brom, “found that after trauma or serious disease, relationships are valued more and become more intimate. He developed the concept of learned or acquired hopefulness. Many people develop a future perspective, wanting to do something more meaningful with their lives. Some change careers, saying they don’t want to waste time on things they don’t enjoy or are not meaningful.”
According to Yovell, “we professionals were not misguided in neglecting the subject for so long. But we were wrong in thinking that we had done all that needed to be done. Many people are unhappy, not because of psychiatric disorders, but because their expectations from life are unmet. Sigmund Freud once said that the goal of psychoanalysis is to convert neurotic misery into everyday unhappiness. He got a lot of important things right, but we shouldn’t canonize him. He didn’t think we should do things beyond restoring functioning. I think that if he were alive today, he would be interested in positive psychology. He was a scientist.”
Yovell conceded that “so far, positive psychology hasn’t really added anything to human knowledge, such as what is happiness. The study of it involved handing out questionnaires: ‘Rate whether you are happy from one to five.’ This is shallow and superficial. While this has done a service, it hasn’t helped us structure our lives.”
The psychotherapist noted that “people who are religious – whatever their religion – have been found to be happier than the secular. This apparently is because they believe they are doing what God wants. Religious Jewish men, however, have been found to be happier than their female counterparts.”
Perhaps, he suggested, it is because the women have more burdens, including taking care of the men.
“Making fortunes doesn’t make people happy, even though as a culture we are devoted to the pursuit of money,” said Yovell. “Many studiesshow that this is not the way to happiness. If you have your basic needs met and feel empowered, there is very little to gain from lots of money.”
If one happens to become a millionaire or a billionaire like Bill Gates, “giving most of your money away is best for you,” he continued. “There were always philanthropists who gave, but today it is a trend. They choose not to pass their fortune on to the next generation, but to redistribute it. This is a healthy thing, because it gives them more meaning and happiness.”
BROM ADDED That among among families struck by terror, there are more who decide not only to mourn, but also to devote themselves to others. An example is the family of Koby Mandell – a boy who was murdered, along with his friend, by terrorists while on a hike near his home. – His family set up a foundation to bring joy to victims. “This is fighting terrorism with kindness. It doesn’t mean they suffer no pain, as people with post-traumatic growth may still have post-traumatic symptoms. But they find meaning.”
Israelis’ tendency to complain about everything from how much they make to politicians, they average very high on international comparisons of happiness.
“We are seventh-highest, way ahead of people in the US, where the pursuit of happiness usually means the pursuit of possessions,” said Yovell. “Israelis generally have more meaning in their lives, and much more family closeness. You can’t run away from your mother here.”
He noted that “happiness and misery have traditionally been studied as if on a uni-dimensional scale, but this is not accurate. You can have several scales, and even PTSD symptoms, but still be happy. It can even constitute successful mourning. You have to work through your grief until you’ve put it behind you. People can move on without forgetting what they went through; still feel loss, but be happy by being helpful to somebody else.”
“If there is a terror attack, everyone goes into survival mode. It’s fight or flight,” said Brom. “But it also has a strong bonding aspect. Facing a threat, everybody comes together. We have been in survival mode for so long that bonding – with its advantages and disadvantages – has become a strong force in our society; we’re all in this together. The things that promote happiness are connection, friendships, relationships. We wouldn’t choose wars to create that, but people reorganize themselves in different ways even during an emergency. Suddenly, we appreciate human beings and want to be connected.”
The ICTP, aware that Ethiopian Jewish immigrants lost most of their social frameworks when they came, has been trying to set some up here.
“Russian Jewish immigrants suffered less from this. They were so massive in their numbers that they started their own neighborhoods,” continued Brom. “But Ethiopian immigrants suffer from loneliness. Men, especially, lost their place. As a society, we are not taking care of that enough.”
Asked what a psychoanalyst or clinical psychologist who works in trauma would do if kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Schalit were to be freed tomorrow, Yovell said the first thing would be for him to “bond with his family. Not everyone who has been through severe trauma needs treatment, but we certainly will need to embrace him.”
As for his parents, Aviva and Noam Schalit, they are doing the best for their own psyches by leaving their home in the Galilee and sitting in the protest tent – and even on the curb – near the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem. “They are active. They are doing something,” said Yovell.
Brom has adopted a tradition he learned from a friend to increase the feeling of meaningfulness: to give blood on the anniversary of a loved one’s passing.
At the Jerusalem event, Brom will show a short video prepared by a combat unit in gratitude for what the ICTP did after their discharge – organizing trips overseas for them to discuss the loss of their comrades.
“Before our involvement, they had never talked about such intimate feelings,” he said. “We have [enabled them to do] this abroad on short vacations [funded] by Diaspora Jewish communities. They feel better because they are told they are heroes. It creates meaning for them about having served in the army.”
At the Cinematheque, Yovell said, he plans to simply spell out what has been learned in the field of positive psychology.
“I will also make concrete recommendations,” he adds. “I am not claiming they are applicable to everyone, but they are to most people most of the time.”
He cited University of Washington psychologist and marriage/parenting researcher Prof. John Gottman, an Orthodox Jew who devoted himself to studying happiness in relationships.
“So much nonsense has been written about happiness in popular selfhelp books. But John took young people in their first year of marriage for a long scientific study,” he explained. “He spent time with them in their cabins during their all-expense-paid vacations. They agreed to be videotaped.”
One might think they were acting – saying and doing things they wouldn’t do if alone – but it’s “hard to act for a whole weekend,” said Yovell. “John observed their interaction and then followed them up many years later. He tried to find predictors of divorce, or whether they would stay together for 20 years. This was a much better method than retrospective studies that show correlations, not causality, which prospective studies do.”
Gottman found that the amount of fighting by a couple doesn’t correlate with divorce. “What’s important is how they fight, if they used cynicism or sarcasm. Being quietly sarcastic is a strong predictor of divorce. If one member wants to end the fight while the other continues to pounce on the other, it is also a very strong predictor of divorce,” explained Yovell.
He said Gottman became so good at this that if he saw just a fiveminute tape of such weekends, he could accurately predict whether the couple would be happily married 20 years later.
Among Yovell’s tips: “Every day before leaving the house, tell your spouse what you’ll be doing; your spouse should tell you the same. It takes only 10 minutes a week. Then, at the end of the day, turn off the TV, stop doing chores and have a 20-minute chat without the kids about how the day went. This is sharing. Also, find a way every day to show your spouse appreciation and, if possible, admiration. It has to be genuine, but don’t exaggerate. Do so even if you’re very angry at each other. Showing physical affection – it doesn’t have to be sex – will be very helpful. Then, finally, every week set a date with your partner to go somewhere or do something together. It doesn’t have to be a movie or a restaurant; you can just take a walk.
“All these suggestions,” he concluded, “are scientific results of positive psychology studies.”