SHELF AWARE PODCAST
Learned Hopefulness by Dan Tomasulo, PhD Interview
TIME TO FIND HOPE
I had a fascinating conversation with Dan Tomasulo, PhD about his newest book Learned Hopefulness, The Power of Positivity to Overcome Depression which came out on June 1st. Honored by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers on the issue of depression Dr. Dan is the incoming Academic Director and core faculty member at the Spirituality Mind Body Institute (SMBI), Teachers College, Columbia University, and holds a Ph.D. in psychology, MFA in writing, and Master of Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. He authors the daily column, Ask the Therapist, for PsychCentral.com, and developed the Dare to be Happy experiential workshops for Kripalu. His award-winning memoir, American Snake Pit was released in 2018.
FULL TRANSCRIPT OF EPISODE
Today we have Dr. Dan Thomas Hello. He is passionate about positive psychology and focusing on hope in his latest book, Learned Hopefulness. He is part of the core facility at the spirituality Mind Body Institute. Teachers College Columbia University and holds a PhD in psychology and MFA in writing, and is the first licensed psychologist in psycho dramatist to graduate from the Master of Applied Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania. That is quite a mouthful, but basically means this is really your passion, what got you into hope and positive psychology?
Dan Tomasulo 1:27
I think the most powerful thing that had ever happened in my life was a downward turn. About 10 years ago, I went to a really, really, really rough time. And this is nothing worse than a depressed psychologist, you know, I, I was in supervision of my own therapy and everything else, but as you listen to people tell you what’s been troubling them, you know, be thinking to myself, hmm, you you think you’ve got something to worry about, you know, I think I didn’t actually say that out loud. But this idea of having so many tools, so much education and so much available to me to help me feel better, and absolutely nothing was working. And I was kind of stunned at that point, I was like, this is, you know, I’m really in a crummy spot, and I’m dragging myself through the days. And one of my very best, actually, my very best friend could tell that I was not in a good spot. And he invited me to the first international positive psychology Association Conference in Japan, with Marty Seligman and I said, I really don’t want to go see 2000 really happy positive psychologists. I’m miserable, I’d like to stay miserable. And he paid no attention, you know, got his tickets. We went there. And I was originally trained as a researcher before a clinician, and when I, I saw what they had, I was stunned. Because nothing that nothing in psychology was even close to doing what they were doing, couldn’t couldn’t even hold a candle to the results they were getting. And so I just started to do some of the very simple exercises that they were promoting about increasing positivity, increasing a positive mood, and it literally helped me pivot helped me change and I was within maybe 30 days, I was a changed person and I was like, wow, I got it. I gotta go learn about this. Because whatever they’re doing, I want some of it and I wanna, I want to pass that on.
So this was a personal transformation for you.
Unknown Speaker 3:51
Without a doubt, I, you know, I didn’t really need any more of the credentials with the academic stuff. I had. The intro as you know, I had plenty of that already. But I went back to school because they had a master’s in applied positive psychology. And so there was this beautiful blend between science really good science and scientific interventions that were aimed at not just helping people feel better, but sustainably better. see most of psychology has been focused on trying to ameliorate suffering trying to take care of our pain was actually based on the medical model, you know, you come in and you you have pain or cut or some kind of broken bone or whatever they fixed the bone you’re done, right. So psychology adopted this and for, you know, its entire history was aimed at reducing pain but it was quite truthfully a colossal failure. 80% of people with Depression relapse. Now think about that if you had a business, and you invented a product that broke down every, every 80% of the time, four out of five times, you wouldn’t be in business long. But for psychology, they kept trying to look at, you know, fixing what’s wrong . And it’s just not the approach that work. When they started asking the question, what happens to the 20% that don’t relapse? What are they doing? Well, they were not only using some of the traditional methods, they were deeply, deeply invested in finding new ways to bring a fresh perspective and to think about possibilities in our life and importantly, develop relationships and positivity.
Of the 20% of people who are using these practices. Can you tell us a little bit about what they’re doing that actually helps
Unknown Speaker 5:59
I certainly can. Because I, I noticed that the thing in me that transformed was my sense of hope. I went from feeling really hopeless to hopeful. And it was like, Hmm, well, what’s going on here? I had use all these other techniques and weren’t really working. What am I doing that that’s helping this transition take place. And so I started doing a pretty deep dive into the existing theories on hope. And so one of the very first things I noticed was that it’s like the parable of the three blind men holding the elephant each, each person holds on to a different part of the elephant. The one who holds on to the tail says, “Ah, I know what it looks like. It looks like a rope” but the one who holds on to the leg says “it looks like a tree” and, you know, the person who holds on to the ear says “it looks like a bird”. And as I looked at the different theorists, I realized that most of the theorists were operating in very different arenas. So who was in a medical environment and trained in medicine who was in a social psychology environment trained there who was in a business environment who was in a clinical environment. And when I looked at all the work, instead of trying to pick one theory, I said, What if there were all right? What would the elephant look like? What would hope look like? And sitting with that way of thinking, really was very exciting, because it’s like, oh, my goodness, how could this thing look like a bird look like a rope and look like a tree? Well, if it functions this way, so I started asking some different questions, and went back to look at high hope people, what was research on high hope people versus people who were low in hope, and what I was able to find is tha there was a very distinct difference in the choices that would be made by people with high hope. The people with high hope were like right down the line, looking for possibilities. They were noticing the good, they were cultivating positivity. They were using strengths. They were adjusting their goals. They were engaged with purpose and they were cherishing others. And if you look at low hope people, they were they were not doing that – they were really stuck. They their choices, their decisions, is it boils down to seven decisions that people make. The seven decisions they were making were decisions that limited their beliefs. They were seeing things as fixed and unchanged. They were focusing on the negative. They were settling on habits of negativity and concentrating on weaknesses. They were not engaged judged or challenged by anything, and they didn’t have a sense of meaning or purpose and they remained isolated. So if you look, you could see these two groups sort of split based on their belief system, their choices. If they believed that there was a possibility, they would then start to look for possibilities. If they believe they weren’t, they wouldn’t. And so you started to appreciate what, what happens there.
Explain positive psychology when people have a reaction to the word “positive”.
Dan Tomasulo 9:40
Yeah, you know, positive psychology kind of gets a bad rap. But that we’re all about “think happy thoughts” and that kind of thing. Where nothing could be further from the truth. We’re looking for a well balanced mind our whole mind. You know, if If I’m trying to get across the railroad tracks and the gates are coming down, this is not the time to be optimistic. You know, it’s like, there’s there’s real issues. And they were real adversities that you have to honor that. The problem is that we have been wired for negativity. There’s something called the negativity bias. It basically means that our perception has been tinted in such a way that we’re going to notice and highly prioritize something negative. Why do you think the news is always about negative things? Because it’ll capture our attention. If you were in the city and you saw a woman helping an elderly man across the street, you might be aware of this lovely act of kindness. But if a cop is giving somebody a ticket, a parking ticket ticket and that guy’s voice escalates and gets in the cops face and you start to see an escalated problem happening that’s going to hijack your brain. So we we have that tendency. And what we’re doing in positive psychology is saying, Yeah, listen, pay attention. But if you have chronic negative thoughts, repetitive negative thoughts are one off negative thoughts is really just important to pay attention to. But chronic negative thoughts, repetitive negative thoughts are the things that pull us down into a downward spiral. Positive Psychology teaches you how to challenge those thoughts, first of all, and second of all, to start editing positive emotions. It’s not just the words you say to yourself, it’s actually stimulating positive feelings.
And I like how in your book, you talk about the difference between Yes, we’re acknowledging the reality of whatever situation we’re in, but that you’re also having Having to work it’s not natural for humans to pay attention to that good and to look for something that isn’t a repetitive negative thought.
Dan Tomasulo 12:10
One of the exercises and learned hopefulness is to look back over the last 24 hours. And to do a gratitude review, this is another part of the exercise that I’ll leave a little bit of a mystery, because it takes a while to explain but at the end of the day, in this particular exercise, I demonstrate how your natural mind works. And it’s a phenomenon whenever I do speak into things or whatever, people I ask them to explain, you know, their day, and when they do, there’s really almost nothing positive, but then we use a trick. We use a way of literally looking at it through the lens of gratitude, and all of a sudden there’s real stuff that was in planes. gets identified and highlighted. And once it gets highlighted, now you have a chance to harvest a positive emotion. It’s yours, you had it already. All we’re doing is recalling it, we harvest it and bring it into the moment and then we savor it, we stretch it out. I’ve likened negative thoughts to pebbles and positive thoughts to feathers. So that when you have a negative thought, it’s like this, this pebble you put on that side of the balance beam, but if you put a bunch of feathers on the other side, you know, the, the question would be Can Can they really balance out or tip the scale in their favor? The short answer is yes. But you need a lot of them. That’s what the training is. That’s the Learn hopefulness part is we’ve learned from people with very high hope that they are constantly looking for ways to build themselves up and, you know, give themselves a bit of a boost.
So one of the practices I saw and you have a video of it on your website, if you want to view it yourself, it’s Dan tomasulo, calm, da NTOMASULO calm the virtual gratitude visit. I thought that was great in you tie in your drama and and bring in all those theories. Tell me more about how you do a virtual visit with yourself, especially if you’re locked in home alone.
Dan Tomasulo 14:30
Sure, sure. Well, there’s a couple of different layers to this. And so thank you for asking. You know, when I when I first when I first went back to school, and you know, I was, I was clearly the, what’s the right word, I was going to say all this, I was clearly the most mature person
age wise in the class, and so going back to school and being with people who were just so bright and so quick, you know, but they didn’t, they didn’t know all the tricks. So that was good too. I could bring some of my tricks to it. But one of the first things we studied was Marty Seligman, original research in this area, which was called the gratitude visits and very, very beautiful piece of research, where he had his students go out and deliver a letter of gratitude to someone. And then they measured you know, how how people felt then giving the letter receiving the letter, there was all kinds of iterations of this downstream. But ultimately, what they found out is that the feelings that came from expressing gratitude were enormous. And if I remember the numbers right there people who had been not doing well, those who had some depression, actually had a really good bump in the scores. They went up their sense of well being went up, and then they stayed up for a solid month afterwards with no interventions. So now we’re talking about that stuff between, you know, this, this other view of psychology. We’re only trying to remove the problems or ameliorate the suffering, and then finding out that if you engage in something positive, that’s what the 20% are doing to kind of stay that way. And I remember reading it until, you know, starting to talk to Marty cuz I was, I was the first psychologist with training in psychodrama. To that he led into the program, which was just a lovely gesture on his part. And I remember talking to him and I said, Marty, this is a fantastic intervention, but we could really open this up because people have gratitude for folks who have passed on. For people who aren’t available to them anymore, could have been a childhood friend. It there’s a million different ways that we can express our gratitude. But when we add the element of psychodrama and use an empty chair, to represent the person that’s no longer with us. It this is the thing that that really awakens our positive emotions, but it also awakens other emotions. You know, just to take a side note for a second is everybody understands what a catharsis is, even though this purging of negative emotions, but when you’re wrestling with positive emotions, you get a catharsis but it’s a different kind. It’s called the catharsis of integration. So instead of the emotions trying to move out, you’re actually trying to retrieve them and bring them back in And capture them. So the process is different. And when you take in a positive emotion, it’s actually trying to find a place to land inside of you, you know, most of us, you know, some good news happens. We’re like, Yeah, great. Now you’re on to the next darn thing, you know. But but but with particularly gratitude, when I started to experiment with this method of having an empty chair across from you, and, you know, expressing yourself to that person, then reversing roles, becoming that person receiving it, and then coming back here, chair, that’s the simple, straightforward version of it. But there’s a video when they’re lovely opportunity I had with tal Ben Shahar, who ran the largest class ever at Harvard. In positive psychology, he invited me to do with him. So I have that video on there, which is kind of exciting and what What inevitably happens is that people do it, they get kind of choked up in the process. But that’s very well known. Now I’ve done enough research with this and understanding of it that what will happen is when you confront that positive feeling of really, who that person was in your life, what they mean to you, and then you, you play the role of receiving that and then come back to your chair, and very often chokes people up. And the reason why, and it’s not uncommon for people to cry and when they when they do that, is that’s the catharsis of integration. It’s like releasing this positive emotion that’s been either truncated tamper down, held back, unexpressed mean different things. And what happens is people have this tremendous sense of wholeness and relief and joy that happens. Just a quick story. So I did, as you mentioned before I teach at Columbia. So I’ve, you know, used a lot of the experimental methods there in order to train students, clinicians and people interested in spiritual growth. But every semester, my dear friends, Alex, look there and did learner teach the Science of Happiness course at NYU, and they invite me in to do a demonstration of the virtual gratitude visit and is 500 students, and it’s done in vivo. That’s the way we do it with psychodrama. We actually do a drama right there. And so I do a little lecture on what gratitude is how it works, blah, blah, blah. And I’ve done this now for, I guess, 1010 years every semester. And when that happens, every single time the entire class is crying and last year, Someone was coming. A researcher was coming to, to see me do this thing, whatever. And they came a little bit late and I was already into the thing. And they could see the door open in the in the back of the amphitheater. And when he came in, everybody is crying. And there’s a person on stage and they’re really feeling full. And it’s a very powerful emotion. But it’s also very soothing. People feel really good that they’re able to integrate this. And he walked in and everybody’s crying. And I could hear him say, Oh, I’m sorry, I thought this was positive psychology. Now you’re in the right spot. So so that that stuff always fascinates me. How do we integrate our emotions, it’s not about one or the other. It’s often about holding both
and that is exactly what I picked. The video because I even got choked up watching it. Oh yeah, a stranger towel discussing all of this and you walking him through that. I know it’s psychology can sometimes get a little intellectual we stay in our heads. And I thought this was just brilliant to bring it into the room and bring it into the moment. And in your book, you walked through it, but that video really made it come to life.
Dan Tomasulo 22:27
One of the things that I’ve been working on is, you know, the my last book was a memoir called American steak pit. It’s about my role in helping to deinstitutionalized Willowbrook. I opened up their first experimental group home to see if we could move people out into the community and a actually, so I’m trained as a writer so I actually wrote the screenplay forward as well. So what’s happened is the screenplays done very well. It’s one like I don’t know, 30 something awards at the film festivals. And so I’ve been trying to move into unscripted as well as scripted use of transformation. So that we can tell really powerful stories of people who have transformed and that’s what American sacred was about. But we can also do something in vivo, like the virtual gratitude visit, where in a space of time that you would have for a traditional kind of reality or non scripted TV show. You could see people actually transform and just what you’re talking about before is that when you witness somebody go through that. You go through that to the the mechanics for there, this phenomenon called elevation. Jonathan Hyde from NYU A lot of research on that. And it just basically means that we’re not only wired for negativity, we’re wired for moral goodness. So when you see somebody do something authentic and really dynamic, you’re you just get filled up. And so well, you know, my hope is downstream to create the series of these exercises and video shows where people can see that and get a benefit themselves.
Well, I hope you get some time to do that, because that was probably one of the most powerful videos I’ve seen. Oh, man, it’s pretty easy to get me to cry out of gratitude or joy. Kind of tougher to get me to cry out of unless it’s acute grief. Um, but, you know, now that I know that it’s cathartic to cry for joy. I’m gonna totally justify this.
Dan Tomasulo 24:54
Yeah, yeah. good thoughts of integration you did. That’s it. We’re not just getting rid of Without getting rid of it, we’re bringing it home.
What is it like to have a book coming out on hope during a pandemic?
Dan Tomasulo 25:08
Yeah, you know, the whole time that you write a book you trying to do the best thing you can. So at least in my field, it’s about something really applied. And that idea was so like, Alright, if this this looks like this, people could use this. The research is really good, the application is good. And then all of a sudden, you know, this is about you know, how hope can help depress moods, how hope can help with empowerment, how hopefully, and it was like, boom, where you you know, one of the things we’ll talk about it guess is that hopes the only positive emotion that requires negativity or uncertainty in order to be activated, so it’s like well, check, check these. These are the two most ubiquitous emotions now. around the world. So it really does usher in the need for hope.
So tell me a little bit I like to ask authors a little bit about their writing process. Did you have a favorite chapter to write?
Dan Tomasulo 26:12
Oh, yes, yes, yes. Yeah. Yeah. You know, but I this I’m gonna date myself very quickly. I was. I was a real fan of The Honeymooners with Jackie Gleason and Nord, Connie, Our Connie. Arguably, I mean, there’s a few people obviously, Jerry Seinfeld and Steve Martin. But art Carney was really one of the first true comic sensitives and I spent the part of my career anyway, in comedy and studying comedy. And he was like, he was just like, oh my goodness, he lives in that space. And when when I used to see our carny get ready to write a note. I don’t know if people know that scene. But you know, Jackie Gleason would say, Okay, I want to write this note and he’d sit down Get the pen and paper, and then he would stretch himself out and shake his hands off. he’d pick the paper up, he get ready, then he go make a cup of tea, he’d come back and then I have Mark Carney living in my head. Because when I sit down to write, it’s like, Okay, I need 47 things ready, so that I can figure out where the periods go in this set. So that’s, that’s my, my, my process. But what I’ll what I’ll say about that is I’ve been writing for a long time now and I used to fight that a lot. A lot and even buried myself a bit. It’s like, come on, you only have two hours. You got to sit it you got to write you’re spending, you know, 45 minutes getting ready and you know, what are you doing? But then I looked at it in a different perspective, use some of my my own medicine. In that what I was really doing, why would all these things happen right at the moment I’m about to be creative or take this deep dive? Well, it’s because my brain is shifting gears. And instead of seeing them as distractions, instead of seeing them as things that are holding me back, maybe their ways of me incubating, maybe their ways of me, just, you know, like, before runner runs, they stretch a little bit. Well, I had a very, you know, I had a mini epiphany, I’ll say that, you know, I would sit down, get ready to write. So I gotta answer this email or I got it. I got to do my to do lists or what I call positive psychology. My job is, but that’s another story. So it’s a, you know, it’s this idea of getting ready, getting ready, get ready, and then I realized, Oh, don’t fight this because what’s happening is I’m writing An email. So it’s not the same kind of writing as creative writing, but I’m starting to get access to that part of my brain. I have to maybe send out a notice to my students. So we’re maybe a little more thoughtful about what I want to say and, and what I realized, if I honor that time, I’m warmed up in a different way. And so I’ve stopped fighting it and actually the time gets less, and I dive in much quicker. So if there’s a a trick for writers that would, that would be the one.
So does it feel like a different part of your brain when you’re writing versus doing therapy or anything else? Oh, absolutely.
Dan Tomasulo 29:45
Oh, yeah. And I can’t. I have. I have a writing room. I’m in my writing room now. And I when I come in here, there’s, you know, the space is set up in a very particular way. Like this, and it’s not that I can’t write, I can write in the middle of a, you know, lunch unit or a coffee shop or downstairs outside, I could write anything. But But when I know I have to take some time, and I got to get, I’ve got to take that deep dive. This is the place that I’ll come to ultimately. But there’s different kinds of writing, you know, I have a daily column, I have a weekly column, I have a monthly column, I write books, and then I have academic reading, which will completely destroy your brain. So, so none of the none of them are the same. When I do my Well, it’s a very, it’s a whole different part of my brain, because the blog is called learn to hopefulness Hartley and so there’s just a take some of the new research and hope and deconstruct it and then have a takeaway for it. So that’s giving me a little bit of a blend between the Academic and the takeaways, when I’m doing my ask the therapist column, so for last 10 years, but a daily column as the therapist on psych central with my lovely co co authors, there we go. There’s four of us, we get 2500 questions a month, and there’s about 10 million readers for psych Central. So what happens is you’re getting lots and lots of questions, and most of the questions but, you know,
my girlfriend cheated on me my wife cheated on me my boyfriend cheated on me My husband
and I got a dog the dog cheated on me I got a goldfish goldfish. I think it’s looking around you know, it’s it doesn’t matter what country it comes from. It’s it. So that kind of writing is very different because it’s we respond to you know, you’ve been asked a question, you come back. So when you break those answers. You’re, you’re thinking more about a response. And versus like the blog in a book or a story. But when I do therapy, I have tried. I have a lovely office about 15 minutes from my home. And I’ve been there. I’ve been in practice 35 years and I’ve been in this office almost 25. And, you know, it’s, it’s, it’s quiet, it’s all like that. I cannot write one word there. I can’t write in an email in like, my brain is like, No, no, you’re you’re here for a different reason. And I have tried, I have really tried and I get in there and my brain needs to play doh. So I just have to keep two separate places.
What made you decide that the time was right to write? Learn hatefulness.
Dan Tomasulo 33:00
I was very, very, very lucky.
Right after I graduated the MAT program, Marty Seligman asked me to join the faculty and become his assistant. And I was like, Really? Yeah. I was, I was beside myself. But a gave me access to the latest stuff beyond what I learned that year as a student because every year, he brings in the hottest researchers in the field, the top people and on the faculty itself. You got Angela Duckworth, Adam Grant are, you know, part of that James Kowalski. I mean, you got rock stars that are in the band, you know. And so every year I was there, and then a couple of years ago, and Modi’s original work was in a phenomenon called low helplessness. And he and Steve Mayer kind of coined that term, because they were able to show that originally, animals exposed to aversive stimuli for an extended period of time, who couldn’t control themselves at all. And meaning they couldn’t shut it off. Nothing they did mattered. Once they learned helplessness in that environment, when they were put in another environment, that it would have been very easy for them to escape the aversive condition or, you know, if it was not hard to do, they could have done that. They didn’t, they gave up and they were being compared to animals that had the exact same abrasive thing, but they had control over it, they could hit a leverage federal fish shark or they could do these these other things. And so the concept of learned helplessness came about Pretty much in the late 60s. And then in the mid 70s, there was a book that was written and by Morty that just blew the world or away really changed the face of psychology. So now many people can change the pace of psychology what he’s done it at least twice. So he did that. And everybody around the world adopted the new theory. It destroyed behaviorism and a good chunk of psychoanalysis as well, in terms of functionality, not that those theories don’t have value, but it was this learned helplessness that was underneath a sense of depression. And a couple of years ago, because it was, you know, his assistant, they invaded about 40 people to come to the 50th anniversary lecture, where he and Steve Mayer, his roommate from from Penn Who had done all this work back then? Well, they still been working on it, steam had still been working it, they’d still recent research in it, and the 50 year follow up. I remember being in this lecture hearing what they were doing, and they said we were completely wrong. And I was like, What? The whole world’s fed Following this, he’s No, we didn’t have fmris. Back then we didn’t have a way to look at what was going on in the brain. Here’s what we’ve discovered that when you’re exposed to something negative, and aversive for an extended period of time, and you can’t get out of it, your brain kind of shuts down. You’re not learning anything. So it’s like my laptop here or or my cell phone away. If my phone gets too high, the laptop gets to what what will happen it will shut off just to preserve itself. We do the same thing. And then when you’re in another condition A lot of people don’t know. But in the original research, about a third of the animals who couldn’t get out of their first one did get out of the second one, they were reporting the phenomenon with about two thirds of the animals who couldn’t do it. And so, you know, what were they doing? Well, it wasn’t that they unlearned something, because there was nothing that was actually learned. But what they were doing is assessing the future. They were looking forward. They were really assessing whether or not they could control the current situation in some way. And I remember sitting there, I was like, Oh, my God, this is it. Because this means that we’re not just looking at the past to change the future. We’re asking ourselves a very different question. Do I believe I can control my future. And if the answer to that is yes, then you’re going to have hope. And if the answer to that is no, you’re going to have depression. And it’s almost that simple. And I remember being in the lecture and they wrap it up by saying, and so we call this loop we found in the brain between the dorsal repayed nucleus and the prefrontal ventral medial nucleus you know that we call this the hope circuit nervous like All right, thank you very much. Good night.
I gotta go write this book down.
That is the most inspirational part of the book when I read it was, it is it isn’t about ignoring things that are going on around you. It’s what are we going to focus on? Changing the past which no one can do? How can you work to make a better future?
Dan Tomasulo 38:58
Very, very true. You don’t bet In the 60s, they had behavior modification, they were trying to modify people’s behavior. What I’m advocating for is belief modification that, you know, to challenge your belief system. And I’m sure you saw some of the exercises in the book about looking at things one way and then learning to look at them another way, it’s the same, it’s the same stimulus, but you start to train yourself like the high hope people do to challenge your perception. You know, there’s another way to look at this is really what the people with high hopes are saying to themselves, when they get a follow up with something that is a versus
I think it’s very appropriate as a quarantine read. So it throughout the book, there are multiple, multiple exercises and, and instructions and guidance on things that you can do. So go ahead and pick up a copy. Dan, I really want to thank you for speaking to us. What’s one thing you Want to leave readers with about your book?
Transcribed by https://otter.ai