* Police officers Gary Felice and Prince Jones were the first to respond to a house fire on De Leon Street in Tampa, Florida. When they arrived, they heard what every emergency worker dreads—screams for help from inside a house engulfed in flames. Through a window, they could barely make out the silhouette of a man stumbling and falling, just short of escape. Felice and Jones frantically tried to break down the door, which was secured with burglar bars. It took five minutes of tugging, pulling, and smashing before the door finally gave way, but by then it was too late. The man was “curled up like a baby in his mother’s womb,” said Jones. “That’s what someone burned to death looks like.” 1
The next day Gary Felice saw a picture of the victim in the paper and realized that, to his horror, he had known him—it was Tommy Schuppel, forty-two, a popular X-ray technician at a local hospital. The fact that Felice had seen his friend die haunted the officer, so much so that he had trouble eating and sleeping. His bosses sympathized and wanted to help, so they did what many police departments do: they scheduled a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) session for Felice.
The premise of CISD is that when people have experienced a traumatic event they should air their feelings as soon as possible, so that they don’t bottle up these feelings and develop post-traumatic stress disorder. In a typical CISD session, which lasts three to four hours, participants are asked to describe the traumatic event from their own perspective, express their thoughts and feelings about the event, and relate any physical or psychological symptoms they are experiencing. A facilitator emphasizes that it is normal to have stressful reactions to traumatic events, gives stress management advice, answers questions, and assesses whether participants need any additional services. Numerous fire and police departments have made CISD the treatment of choice for officers who, like Gary Felice, witness horrific events—indeed, some departments require it. It is also widely used with civilians who undergo traumatic experiences. Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, more than nine thousand counselors rushed to New York City to help survivors deal with the trauma and prevent post-traumatic stress disorder, and many of these counselors employed psychological debriefing techniques. 2
Psychological debriefing sounds like an effective intervention, doesn’t it? An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and surely getting people to talk about their feelings, instead of bottling them up, is a good thing. Or is it?
* In 2003, after reviewing all tests of the effectiveness of psychological debriefing techniques, Harvard psychologist Richard McNally and his colleagues recommended that “for scientific and ethical reasons, professionals should cease compulsory debriefing of trauma-exposed people.”
* Research shows that most people have an optimistic outlook on life, believing that they have good prospects in the future and that they are masters of their fates—even if this involves some exaggeration and “spin.” Seeing the world through rose-colored glasses makes people happier and motivates them to try harder when they encounter obstacles in their way.
* the way in which we interpret the world is extremely important. Our interpretations are rooted in the narratives we construct about ourselves and the social world, and sometimes, like the pessimistic calculus student, we interpret things in unhealthy ways that have negative consequences. We could solve a lot of problems if we could get people to redirect their interpretations in healthier directions.
* What kinds of perspectives make us happy? Research reveals three key ingredients: meaning, hope, and purpose . First, it helps to have answers to the most basic questions about human existence and our place in the world, in a way that allows us to make sense of why bad things sometimes occur. Second, it helps to be optimistic—not because positive thoughts magically attract things to us, but because optimistic people cope better with adversity. Third, it helps to view ourselves as strong protagonists who set our own goals and make progress toward them; in other words, to have a sense of purpose. The good news is that there are relatively simple story-editing exercises any of us can do to shape our views in these directions.
* Religious people are happier only if they truly believe and those beliefs are shared by their loved ones. If people have fragmented religious beliefs that are not well integrated into their overall lives, and if these beliefs are not supported by their loved ones, they are no happier than anyone else.
* the Pennebaker writing technique, in which people wait until they have some distance from a problem, then write about it for at least fifteen minutes on each of three or four consecutive days. As we saw, this is a simple yet powerful way of making sense of confusing, upsetting episodes in our lives, giving us some closure and allowing us to move on.
Subsequent research has found that the writing exercise works best when two conditions are met: people gain some distance from the event, so that thinking about it doesn’t overwhelm them, and they analyze why the event occurred.
* Instead of immersing yourself in the original experience, you take a step back and watch it unfold from the perspective of a neutral observer. Then you focus on why you feel the way you do, rather than on the feelings themselves.
* There were thus four experimental groups: (1) those who immersed and focused on feelings, (2) those who immersed and thought about reasons, (3) those who distanced themselves and focused on feelings, and (4) those who distanced themselves and thought about reasons.
As it happened, only one of these groups benefited from the writing exercise: those who distanced themselves and thought about reasons. Only these participants were able to adopt a dispassionate approach whereby they reframed the event and found new meaning in it (e.g., “I see now that my boss’s anger had more to do with his impending divorce than with anything about me, and now that I think about it, I have to admit that I could have done a better job on that report”). And, by reconstruing the event, participants in this group experienced fewer negative emotions, engaged in less repetitive rumination, and maintained a steady blood pressure. As simple as this sounds, it is an easy lesson to forget, because for most of us, our natural inclination is to immerse ourselves in past grievances and upsetting events, engaging in a “he said, she said” internal dialogue that makes us feel bad all over again. The next time you think about an upsetting event from your past, remember to take a step back and analyze it from a distance, and to think dispassionately about why it occurred. In short, don’t recount the event, take a step back and reconstrue and explain it.
* What about when we recall pleasant events? Should we adopt the same distancing strategy, trying our best to understand why something good happened to us? There is a clear advantage to doing so; after all, by understanding why the attractive stranger smiled at us at the party, or why our boss liked our report, we are in a better position to make these events happen again. But herein lies a paradox — just as understanding and explaining negative events blunts their impact, so does understanding and explaining positive events. That is, as we have seen, reducing uncertainty about negative events, and understanding them as best we can, is a good way to bounce back from these events. But the same holds for the pleasures of life: if we reduce uncertainty about them, and understand them too well, we rob these events of the pleasure they bring us.
* people want to understand the good things in life so that they can experience them again, but by so doing they reduce the pleasure they get from these events. Furthermore, the pleasure paradox helps explain why a popular way of increasing happiness—keeping gratitude journals, in which people write about the things in their lives for which they are thankful—does not always work. Although it seems like taking time to stop and smell the flowers in this manner would increase people’s well-being, studies that have examined this technique have yielded mixed results. A few studies have found that keeping gratitude journals makes people happier, but many others have found that doing so has no impact on people’s happiness. The reason gratitude journals can be ineffective, I think, is that people typically spend a lot of time thinking about the good things that have happened to them, and thus by the time they sit down to write about these events they have already achieved an understanding of them and robbed them of some of their mystery.
* Instead of writing about something you are grateful for, like a career breakthrough, try writing about all the ways that that good thing might not have occurred.
* Think about your life in the future and write for twenty minutes, on four consecutive days, about how “everything has gone as well as it possibly could” and your life dreams have come true… But by imagining how well things will turn out in the future, we focus on ways of achieving those goals and think about what we need to do to get there. Indeed, research shows that people who focus on the process of achieving a desired outcome are more likely to achieve it than those who simply think about the outcome itself.