Category Archives: Personal Reflections

Beginner’s Mind (Shoshin) and the End of Spring Break

One of my biggest delights this semester has been reading my happiness students’ homework assignments. They’ve embraced each assignment with what Zen masters might call “Shoshin.”

Shoshin is a Japanese word referring to beginner’s mind. Beginner’s mind involves approaching experiences with an attitude of “not knowing” and maximum openness to learning. If you already know about something (say meditation), your natural inclination will be to close your mind, because you already have knowledge and lived experience about meditation and so there’s less openness to learning. Shifting from an expert (closed) mind to a beginner’s (open) mind requires intent and effort.

For many of my happiness students, some of the assignments have been old hat. Like when I ask someone with a degree in divinity and an active meditation practice to meditate for six minutes a day . . . or when I ask someone who is a faculty in counseling or a psychiatrist to try a little cognitive therapy on themselves . . . or when I ask university athletes to exercise, breathe, and consider the concept of flow . . . or when I ask a bartender to focus in on listening to others.

Despite me offering up some “old hat” assignments, my students have responded as if they were encountering everything for the first time. So. Very. Cool.

Those of you who aren’t enrolled at the University of Montana may not realize that today is the very end of spring break. Although spring is often about new beginnings, the end of a university semester is often about time management and emotional survival. Tomorrow, after a week or so of a “break” my students and I return to our studies to finish the semester. My hope is that we all return refreshed and with a renewed passion for learning, so we can Shoshin through our next six weeks.

This hope isn’t just for my happiness class students. Far too many painful events and situations are out there happening in the world. On top of that, everyone on the planet is facing unique and personal challenges that I don’t and probably can’t fully comprehend. We have these global and personal challenges AND in the Northern hemisphere, we’re experiencing spring. Even though there will be distractions and we will be imperfect, let’s do our best Shoshin and approach all of spring like a sponge, soaking up all the learning we can.

In 1970, Shunryu Suzuki wrote: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few” (from, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind).

Let’s stay watchful and open with a beginner’s mind. This is a new spring, a never before spring, with new opportunities. As James Garbarino once wrote: “Stress accumulates; opportunity ameliorates.” Amelioration. What a great word for today . . . and tomorrow.

Love, Sex, Racism, Suicide, Goal-Setting, Awards, Stories, Burnout, Flexibility, and the Whole Genome at the Psychotherapy Networker Symposium Conference

The View from the Corner

As I type, Steven Hayes, the creator of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), is talking in a variety of voices about mindful acceptance. Earlier, he mentioned something about the whole human genome. In case you don’t already know, Steve is an older white guy. His writing about psychotherapy is fantastic. I really like his Ted talk. I’ve found his question, “What shall we do with our difficult thoughts?” an excellent prompt to reflect on.

Steve and I have a history. I’m glad to say that I’ve mindfully accepted that he missed his supervision appointment with me at AABT (now ABCT) back in 1987 in Los Angeles. Really. I’ve let go Steve standing me up, not because I’m all that good at forgiveness, but because him skipping out on our chance to meet makes for a better story. In fact, in this mindful moment, I’ve accepted him missing our meeting so completely that I have no urge to try to meet him today.

This is my first Networker “Symposium.” I hadn’t realized it was quite the distinctive thing. They’ve got numbers you can put on your badges to represent how many times you’ve attended the Symposium. Although it’s just a conference, it does have a particular flair and feel. From the beginning, there was movement, talk about love and sex-tech, dancing, singing, and learning. The breadth of content and diversity of attendees has been marvelous.

I started the first day with a workshop on Love and the Therapeutic relationship with Sabrina N’Diaye. Later, I took in a workshop on Tech-Sex with Tammy Nelson, author of Getting the Sex you Want. Nelson basically blew my mind. Did you know there are “devices” you can use to remotely vibrate your romantic partner’s genitalia? I didn’t . . . and maybe I didn’t want to. Did you know someone commented in the session that “Dominants” use that vibrating device to issue “commands?” I was sitting next to a professional cuddler and sexual surrogate. She was delightful. Steve Hayes (and Ram Dass) would be proud of the fact that I managed my difficult thoughts by staying in the here and now instead of trying to imagine her work or think about what the dominatrix had shared. Just saying. My mind remained as pure as the water of the Stillwater River.

There’s been lots of talk about racism at the Symposium. That’s a good thing. I’m better for it. The more we can all be less racist or anti-racist and aware of our biases, the better. Of course, while I’m typing this, my almost erstwhile buddy Steve continues to talk (and sometimes mumble). I’m aware (somewhat painfully) that I’m more “like” him in age and gender and ethnicity and can’t help but lament that (sorry Steve). Being an old white guy brings privilege (or advantage, as our first keynote speaker preferred). At the same time, looking in the mirror and seeing myself as just another old white guy also brings along gut-level unpleasantness.

Yesterday’s highlights were listening to Ester Perel (very smart, very articulate, very impressive) and learning more about Susan Johnson and her personal history of growing up in a Pub. We also listened to three young women talk about the couple therapy experiences that changed them. Fabulous.

One of my (many) take-aways from the past two days is for me to NOT be THAT old WHITE guy. I want to be a different white guy. How does that work? Among other things, I will try not to think too much of myself . . . or mumble.

Steve is now trying to get us all to love ourselves. That’s a nice idea. Someday, Steve, I hope to get there. But, to channel our Saturday morning Symposium keynote speaker, Emily Nagoski, most of the time, things just don’t fucking work.

Wait. I know that sounds negative. Among many of her excellent points about coping with burnout, Emily played a cool song (of her twin sister’s), a song liberally infused with the F-word. If you’ve ever experienced technology frustration (which I suppose even happens with sex-tech), you should listen. Here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eottd9Lw8l4 If you listen, don’t think about sex-tech at the same time. There’s no need to thank me for this great advice.

I’ve now abandoned Steve, in favor of one of the darling presenters of the Symposium and PESI. Sorry Steve . . . but I know you’ll mindfully accept your experience of me abandoning you. . . partly because you’ve never acknowledged my existence anyway (see, I’m totally over that 1987 incident).

There’s a woman talking . . . softly . . . without the changing voice routines of Steve Hayes. As she drones on, she mentions that therapy and therapists can be triggering. . . which is interesting given that I can’t find any affect in her voice. I’ve taken a seat on the floor in the back corner of the room and quickly recognized she’s right. She’s right because she instantly triggered me as I walked in the door with her monotone statement that talk therapy doesn’t work for trauma (what about CPT . . . or?). She continued to trigger me with her statement that PTSD was only identified in the 1970s (what about the diagnosis of war neurosis or battle fatigue or the many other earlier versions of PTSD?). And she finished triggering me with her laudatory comments on narrative therapy (does she NOT think of narrative therapy as “talk therapy?”).

I know my job here. Mindful acceptance. Learn what I can. Maybe the learning is about my own triggers or my own internal lament over being an increasingly irrelevant old white guy. Maybe the learning is about how to stay calm and embrace both ends of the constant dialectics and polarities of life.

On the whole, I’m so glad to be here at the Symposium, with Rita, and so grateful to continue learning. The fact that the conference has stimulated some of what Steve would call “difficult thoughts” is a blessing to be mindfully accepted. How else do we learn? How else do we grow? Should we expect to be constantly confronted with easy, comfortable, and affirming thoughts?

I think not. And I accept that . . . in my whole human genome.

The Foreword to The 15-Minute Case Conceptualization

Jon Sperry asked if I could write the foreword for a book he and his dad wrote with Oxford University Press.

Because the truth will set me free, I should admit, I’d never written a foreword before. More truth . . . I went ahead and said “Yes” to Jon because (a) I was honored and didn’t want the opportunity to write my first foreword slip away, (b) the book was (is) cool (it’s “The 15-Minute Case Conceptualization”), and (c) Jon Sperry is one of the nicest guys on the planet.

The book arrived in my mailbox yesterday. You too, can get a copy through your favorite bookseller. For more information, here’s the link to the book on the publisher’s website: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/the-15-minute-case-conceptualization-9780197517987?cc=us&lang=en&#

And for even more information about this excellent book, my first-ever foreword is below.

************************

I’ve needed this book for 30 years.

Just last month (before reading this book), I was standing in front of a Zoom camera, trying to teach the basics of case conceptualization to a group of 23 master’s and doctoral students. All of my fine-grained case conceptualization wisdom was being channeled into a single visual and verbal performance.

“My left hand,” I said, “is the client’s problem.” Pausing briefly for dramatic effect, I then continued, “and my right hand is the client’s goal.”

My new-found nonverbal gestures are mostly a function of seeing myself onscreen, and therefore wanting to avoid seeing myself (and being seen by the class) as boring. To add spice to my case conceptualization gesturing. “Case conceptualization is simple,” I said. “All it is, is the path we take to help clients move from their problem state . . . toward their goal state (I finished with a flourish, by wiggling the fingers on my raised right hand).”

But boiled down truths are always partly lies. Despite my fabulous mix of the verbal and nonverbal, I was lying to my students. At the time, I had thought of it as a little white lie, all for the higher purpose of simplification. And although I still like what I said and still believe in the rough truth of my visual case conceptualization description, after reading Len and Jon Sperry’s illuminating work on case conceptualization, I better understand what I should have said.

Case conceptualization is not simple. As the Sperry’s describe in this book, case conceptualization—even when summarized well—includes multiple dimensions of human behavior along with clinician perception, judgment, and decision-making. I needed much more than a few wiggly fingers to communicate the detailed nuances of case conceptualization.

What these authors have done in this book is the gracious service that great writers do so well: They have done our homework for us. They’ve read extensively, taken notes, and gifted us with elegant summaries of dense and complex concepts. They’ve made it easy for us to understand and apply the principles and practices of case conceptualization.

What I might like best is how they transformed a bulky and inconsistent literature into simple, therapist-friendly principles. They emphasize the explanatory, tailoring, and predictive powers of case conceptualization. I’ve never organized case conceptualizations using those “powers” but doing so was like switching on a light-bulb. Of course, case conceptualizations should explain the relationships between client problems and client goals and shine a bright light along the path, but rarely do theorists or writers make this linkage so efficiently. Their second principle, “tailoring” case conceptualizations to individual and diverse clients, is an essential, idiographic, Adlerian idea. The whole idea of tailoring counters the all-too-frequent cook-book approach to case conceptualization. Tailoring breathes life into creating client-specific case conceptualizations. And of course, case conceptualizations need predictive power; Len and Jon equip us with enough foundational predictive language to improve how we evaluate our own work.

Many other examples of how elegantly the authors have done our homework are sprinkled throughout this book. Here’s another of my favorite examples.

In chapter 2, they take us (in a few succinct paragraphs) from what Theodore Millon described as eight evolutionarily-driven personality disorders to eight crisply described behavioral patterns. What I love about this is that Len and Jon’s wisdom transforms what might otherwise be viewed as a pathologizing personality disorder system into language that can be used collaboratively with clients to identify contextually maladaptive interpersonal patterns. This is a beautiful transformation because it spins psychopathology into something clients not only understand but will feel compelled to embrace. The process goes something like this:

  1. Therapist and client engage in an assessment process that touches on the client’s repeating maladaptive behavior patterns. These behavior patterns are palpably troubling and far less than optimal for the client.
  2. As all clinicians inherently know, touching upon clients’ repetitive maladaptive behavior patterns can activate client vulnerability. This is a primary challenge of all counseling and psychotherapy: How can we nudge clients toward awareness without simultaneously activating resistance? For decades, psychoanalysts managed this through cautious trial interpretations. Solution-focused therapists dealt with this by never speaking of problems. Gently coaxing ambivalent clients toward awareness and change is the whole point of motivational interviewing.
  3. When addressed in a sensitive and non-pathologizing way, deep maladaptive behavior patterns can be discussed without activating resistance or excessive emotionality. This is a critical and not often discussed part of case conceptualization. Len and Jon illuminate a path for gentle, sensitive, and collaborative case conceptualization.
  4. When clients can feel, recognize, and embrace their maladaptive behavioral patterns in the context of an accepting therapeutic relationship, insight is possible. In the tradition of Adlerian therapy, when insight happens, client interest is piqued and motivation to change spikes. Good case conceptualizations articulate problem patterns in ways that compel clients to invest in change.

I’m not surprised that Len and Jon Sperry have produced such a magnificently helpful book. If you dig into their backgrounds and conduct a case conceptualization of their personality patterns, you’ll discover they wholeheartedly embrace Alfred Adler’s work and consequently, much of what they do is all about social interest or Gemeinschaftsgefühl. Len and Jon Sperry are in the business of helping others. Reading their book has already helped me become better at teaching case conceptualization. I appreciate their work, and, no doubt, the next time I begin waving my hands in front of my Zoom camera, my students will appreciate their work too.

John Sommers-Flanagan – Missoula, MT

Banned Books, Critical Race Theory, and My Cold, Dead Hands

Book banning and book burning is an old strategy designed to control information. Stephen King—the famous author and Twitter presence (https://twitter.com/StephenKing)—recommends (I’m paraphrasing here) that everyone rush out and buy and read banned books, because they contain important knowledge.

I’ve been disappointed at efforts by state legislatures, governors, school superintendents, parents, and others who have been involved in book banning, as well as any or all of the above who have suggested that critical race theory (CRT) shouldn’t be taught in colleges and universities (it’s not really taught in any formal or in-depth way in K-12 schools, but even if it were, why not?).

CRT, books, and other sources of knowledge offer perspectives. A couple days ago, I received an email from a professor and student offering me feedback on a paragraph in our counseling theories text. From the student’s perspective, the paragraph felt anti-Semitic. I pulled up the paragraph on my computer, read it, and although I didn’t see it exactly the same way as the student, she had an important point—the passage could be taken in a negative way. I emailed the student and her professor and thanked them for the feedback, noting we’ll change that paragraph in the next edition.

One goal that Rita and I have in writing textbooks is to be inclusive, accessible, and non-racist/non-sexist. Although I’m sure we always fall short of our ultimate goal, in isolation and without feedback from others, we could never even come close to or make progress in accomplishing our inclusiveness goal. We were grateful to receive the feedback. Another goal we have is to keep learning. This experience, and many others, leads me to think that there may be no better way to learn, than to listen to the perspectives of others. Why not? Where’s the benefit in closing our ears and being defensive.

Just to be clear, I’m opposed to banning books; I’m opposed to limiting the teaching of CRT; and I’m opposed to other people trying to control information available to me and others. My best guess is that when other people try to control information, they probably fear the information. Why? I don’t know, but IMHO, putting our collective heads in the sand (this brings to mind the movie, “Don’t Look Up”) is NOT a particularly useful strategy for dealing with fears. 

I teach theories all the time. At the University of Montana, I’ve taught Theories of Counseling and Psychotherapy nearly every fall semester for many years. Rita and I have a textbook on theories of counseling and psychotherapy published by John Wiley & Sons. All the hubbub over CRT has convinced me that I need to commit myself to teaching more CRT concepts in my theories course. Like all theories, I’ll treat it like a theory we can learn from.

Last week we had a visit from a university faculty person from a state where professors are being coerced into not teaching CRT. Hearing him talk about this experience made me wonder how I’d handle it if I was told I shouldn’t teach CRT at UM. Obviously, I don’t know my exact response to that scenario, and I hope it never develops, but my best hypothesis, based on a little personal theorizing, is that I’d get fired or go to jail before I agreed to NOT teach CRT, because it’s a theory, a perspective (and not the only one), from which we should all strive to learn.

I know I’m being overly dramatic, but I strongly believe that learning from the perspectives of others is a good thing. I don’t plan on stopping. To steal (and modify) an old line from the NRA: I’ll give you my banned books and theories when you pry them from my cold, dead hands.

Just saying.

How on Earth Could Suicide Rates Go Down Along with the Onset of the Pandemic in 2020?

Last week I got to be part of an amazing conversation with Paula Fontenelle and Stacey Freedenthal. Paula and Stacey are experts in suicide prevention, postvention, and treatment. You can easily find them and some of their great work online using your favorite search engine. They both have books out. Paula’s is: Understanding Suicide and Stacey’s is: Helping the Suicidal Person.

Paula invited Stacey and I onto her podcast (which is also a video production). We all sat in separate rooms in three different states (Oregon, Colorado, and Montana) and talked about, “How on earth” it could be that pandemic-related mental health stress and distress is up (the research says so), and yet suicide rates in 2020 dipped, for the first time in two decades? What a great question!

Between the three of us, we had many answers. That’s good, because death by suicide is always influenced by many factors (in the scientific world, we like to say that suicide is multi-determined). Our answers are speculative, but I think it’s good to be speculative, as long as you admit to the fact that you’re being speculative.

The most fascinating of many fascinating explanations for the recent reduction in suicide rates was our “in real time” discovery that the pandemic relief checks went out in April of 2020. That was important because, year-after-year, the CDC reports that April is nearly ALWAYS the month with the highest suicide rates and in 2020, it was the LOWEST. Why is April always linked to high suicide rates? No one knows for sure, but Paula, Stacey, and I talk about potential explanations for that too. As T. S. Eliot wrote:

“April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.”

If you’re interested in suicide-related phenomena—not everyone is—you should listen or watch Paula’s “Understand Suicide” podcast. You can watch any of the episodes for great info, but for our episode, here are the links.

To watch: https://youtu.be/fPrDdQg7G_E

To listen: https://bit.ly/3KrJILO

Have a great weekend.

What the Research Says* about Happiness Classes

I was just now finishing up the Moodle (not Poodle) shell for my upcoming Happiness class. While working, I noticed one more person added into the course. . . so there’s still time . . . and I know some of you have been thinking about it.

Whether you take my class or not, you should consider some form of a happiness intervention with yourself. I’m not saying that because I promote toxic positivity. Instead, although I think we should all explore our pain and deepen our understanding of ourselves, we also need tools that will help us feel better on a daily basis and more tools to help us make sure we’re pointed in a direction likely to create meaningful lives.

This leads me to some highlights from happiness class research.

  1. In a small study of 23 undergraduates in a traditional, face-to-face psychology course format, “students reported gains in hope, self-actualization, well-being, agency, and pathway hopefulness, purpose, and mission in life” (Maybury, 2013, p. 62). Note: there was no control group in this study.
  • In a small study of 18 undergraduates (and 20 control participants who took a social psychology course) in traditional, face-to-face psychology course formats, “the positive psychology students reported higher overall happiness, life satisfaction, routes to happiness, and lower depressive symptoms and stress compared to students in the control course” (Goodmon et al., 2016, p. 232)
  • In a series of three studies conducted during a COVID-19 lockdown in the U.K., the researchers reported (a) undergraduates in a happiness course had higher mental well-being than a waiting list control; (b) during lockdown, the happiness course did not have significantly positive effects, but participants seemed somewhat buffered from negative effects because they had higher subjective well-being than a control group; (c) a short (4 week), online version of the course used with “university staff and students produced significant benefits across a range of mental and personal well-being measures” (Hood et al., 2021, p. 11). Note: there was no control group in the third study.
  • In a series of three large studies (n = 500+ for each) of massive open online courses (MOOCs), adult students reported significantly higher subjective well-being than students in an alternative introductory psychology MOOC (Yaden et al., 2021).

We’ve now—at the University of Montana—have collected data on three of our own happiness interventions (one 2.5-hour workshop and two full-semester courses). We have, or will soon, submit these for publication. Our outcomes included:

Study 1 (a 2.5-hour happiness workshop): We had an immediate statistically significant effect on depression symptoms in our workshop group (n = 28) as compared to the waiting list control group (n = 17). At six-months follow-up, over 60% of the workshop participants reported they were still feeling the benefits from the workshop.  

Study 2 (Spring 2020 class; half face-to-face and half online, due to COVID-19): We had several positive outcomes for our happiness class members (n = 38) as compared to an alternative course control group (n = 41). Positive outcomes included: (a) greater perceived friendship support, (b) greater hope, (c) fewer/less intense negative emotions, (d) better total health, including better sleep and fewer headaches, and (e) slightly improved mindfulness.  

Study 3 (Spring 2021 class; all online): Again, we had several positive outcomes for our happiness class members (n = 36) as compared to an alternative course control group (n = 34). This time, the positive outcomes included: (a) fewer/less intense negative emotions, (b) higher positive emotions, (c) increased hope on both agency and pathways subscales, as well as total hope, and (d) slight increases in perceived friendship support. Unfortunately, we forgot to include the physical health questionnaire.

To summarize, as you can see, happiness classes can have positive effects and that’s why you should still be thinking about enrolling in our happiness course; it begins this coming Tuesday! Click here for enrollment info: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2021/12/29/the-art-science-of-happiness-3-0-with-jsf-is-coming-soon-you-can-sign-up-now/

*In closing, I should mention that I used anthropomorphizing language in this blog’s title. Rest assured, I realize that “research” as a non-sentient activity, is unable to speak, and so if I were to be perfectly honest, I’d say something like “Research says nothing about happiness classes, because research cannot speak.” The reason for my wanton anthropomorphizing is that I’ve noticed this sort of linguistic error in many popular articles that get lots of attention. . . and obviously, I’m trying to attract attention here.

Not Money, Not Power, Just Happiness

 “Never work just for money or for power. They won’t save your soul or help you sleep at night.” – Marian Wright Edelman

Recently, I was struck by the concept of influencer. As far as I can tell, influencers are all about working for money and power; maybe most of all, they’re working for attention.

Today on NPR, I listened to a woman talk about vision boards. I won’t mention her name. She said lots of influencers are using vision boards. Vision boards are all about envisioning what you want to get it to manifest. Other than the fact that vision boards are extremely self-centered, I’ll keep my comments about vision boards out of this blog. I wasn’t surprised that influencers are using all the woo-woo powers they can to get what they want. Okay. I know. I’ll stop talking about vision boards and influencers.

Or maybe not. At least I should acknowledge that all this is terribly Adlerian. When people don’t feel useful, or as if they belong, they can get overly preoccupied with attention, power/money, and revenge. I’m sure Adler would have had something to say about vision boards, had they been around in the early-to-mid 1900s.

Of course, I’m jealous of influencers. Beginning in high school, I had a wish to be featured, as a professional football player, on a United Way advertising. At the time, the NFL and the United Way had a collaborative thing going and I loved the idea of promoting the United Way from a place of power and influence. Of course, my football-playing days ended in 1979, but my fantasies of being able to reach people with the message that mostly we should focus on helping each other still deeply resonates in my soul. It’s too bad so many influencers are all about superficial qualities like fashion and appearance.

I do have tiny bits of influence here and there and I hope I try to wield that influence in ways consistent with my initial wishes to be in one of those old United Way adverts.

For this week and next week, you’ll likely see my pathetic efforts to be an influencer. I want people to enroll in our Art & Science of Happiness course at the University of Montana. I believe engaging in the class can make people not only feel happier, but also begin experiencing less depression and more engagement in meaningful lives. Here are a few comments from previous course participants.

From a young man who described himself as depressed: “After a couple of weeks of participating and attending class I noticed that the slides and the activities really helped me out. I was able to finally have someone explain what feelings I was going through, why I felt this way, and what we could possibly do to improve. At first, I didn’t think any of this was going to work, but after trying meditating and positive thinking I noticed my overall mood was changing.”

From a young woman who really loved savoring: “One of the most influential activities for me was the activity on savoring. I found that mutual reminiscing had a really positive effect on me. After mutual reminiscing with my friends, I gained a lot of gratitude and appreciation for my friends and the experiences I have had in my life. This activity had a really positive influence on me and is something that I plan to try and do often after leaving this class.”

From a young woman with plans to be a teacher: “This semester of the happiness class has been really wonderful for me. I have two big take-aways. The first applies to my personal life. In class, we learned about how to build new habits, something that has helped me to progress this semester. The second take-away relates to my career. I am pursuing life as a teacher, and being in this class helped me expand my ideas about what we can teach.”

From a young man missing his family during a lockdown: “COVID-19 pandemic changed many things in my life. It changed how I was learning and prevented me from joining my family during Ramadan. But, looking at my situation: I am isolating partly to protect my health and mainly for other peoples’ health. And that is one of the pillars for being happy when you believe that others matter.”

From a 30-something woman who likened the course as a trip down the Yellow Brick Road: “I have grown as a person that was made all the more valuable because I was able to do it with the help of so many. I deeply appreciate the people I came to know through this process. This class will only help people as it gives us the knowledge and skills to appreciate ourselves and the others in our life as we gain a better understanding of what true happiness looks like.”

This last testimonial reminds me of something I said last year. That is, you should consider signing up for happiness class with a friend. Or maybe not. Because if you don’t sign up with a friend, you’re likely to leave with one.

Here’s are the deets on the class and how to enroll:

When

The course is offered “live” on Tuesdays/Thursdays from 1pm to 2:20pm, beginning on January 18, 2022, ending the week of May 9, 2022. However, because the course is fully online via Zoom, you can also take the course asynchronously.

How to Enroll

To enroll as a community member, go to: https://www.campusce.net/umextended/course/course.aspx?C=627&pc=30&mc=&sc and follow the instructions.

To enroll for University of Montana credit, login to Cyberbear: https://www.umt.edu/registrar/Registration/Class%20Schedules.php. The course is COUN 195. The CRN is: 33330.

2022: The Year of The Big Truth

If 2021 was the year of the Big Lie, given humanity’s tendency to swing like a pendulum, 2022 should be the Year of the Big Truth. That sounds nice. Let’s embrace truth and facts. Let’s not embrace Kellyanne Conway’s philosophy of alternative facts. But things don’t just happen. We have to make it happen. We need to, as Jean Luc Picard (aka Patrick Stewart) used to say, “Make it so.”

I’ll start.

Below I’ve made a list about what’s mostly true and mostly indisputable about the novel coronavirus (AKA COVID-19, and its variants).

There really is a virus that was identified and labelled as COVID-19. As is often the case with complicated things, the precise origins of COVID-19 are not known, and are likely unknowable. If you go online and read of someone claiming that COVID-19 was developed in a Chinese laboratory, unless you’re reading a legitimate and documented confession from someone directly involved in creating COVID-19, you’re reading something that somebody just made up. Not knowing all the facts is difficult to live with, and in the space of uncertainty, many people will make up stories. The stories might be an effort to explain something (e.g., because I can see the horizon, the earth is flat) or it may be to intentionally deceive. We have to live with the truth that there are things we do not know, including the exact origin story of COVID-19. To avoid conspiracy theories and behave like mature adults who want to contribute to the well-being of society, we should not, in the elegant words of Dr. Cordelia Fine, make shit up.

COVID-19 and its variants are highly transmissible. Our neighbors just informed us they “have the flu.” That may or may not be the perfect truth. They may have COVID. Either way—flu or COVID—I’m keeping my distance. The COVID-19 virus is virulent, and the flu sucks. You can argue the specifics, but COVID-19 is a remarkably transmissible virus.

Upon contracting COVID-19, you may have very minimal and possibly zero COVID symptoms. Some people—even people over 80 and with significant health issues—have had no noticeable COVID symptoms at all. Maybe their test was a false positive? Or, maybe their individualized response was negligible? My father, age 95, bedridden, with a variety of heart and lung ailments, is healthier now—after having tested positive for COVID-19.  

In contrast to my father and other luckier victims of the viral vector, COVID-19 makes other people moderately ill, gets others very ill, and kills the rest. COVID-19 killed my mother and several other people I know. Recently, Rita talked with someone who had seven family members die from COVID. The hard truth is that individuals have highly variable responses to a COVID-19 infection; it’s a hard truth because Americans and other humans don’t do well with variability. We like things to be simple and predictable. On average, the vast majority of people infected by COVID are not terribly ill. On the other hand, with about 824,000 Americans dead over a 24-month period, COVID-19 may be unpredictable, but it’s also consistently lethal.

Despite famous people who famously minimized COVID-19, saying it would magically go away, it hasn’t. COVID-19 has proven itself to be very persistent. Sure, the media loves a hot crisis and COVID-19 feeds the media’s need for constant crisis, but COVID’s persistence is not simply media hype.

Although it’s good to be skeptical, the preponderance of the evidence points to the likelihood that COVID-19 death estimates are just as likely to be underestimates as overestimates. Some COVID-minimizers question the death rate estimates from COVID-19, thinking they’re inflated. But there’s also evidence they’re deflated. Other minimizers argue that many COVID-related deaths have occurred in nursing home patients who, like my mother, would have died anyway, in the next year or two. Given all the other evidence pointing to COVID-19 as a legitimate medical crisis, questioning death rate estimates and quibbling over who’s dying is mostly a method to avoid thinking about 824,000 dead Americans and 5.44 million deaths worldwide.

Whether you “believe” in the transmissibility, lethality, or death rates is up to you. We should all try to remember that personal beliefs are not facts; in “fact,” thinking our personal beliefs are facts is the root of many problems. To be intellectually honest means, at least in part, that we don’t go out looking only for evidence to support our pre-existing beliefs. If we do, that’s called confirmation bias. . . which is just fancy scientific terminology for getting good at lying to ourselves.  

Speaking of lying, to describe COVID-19 as a “mild flu” is simply untrue. Not only is the mild flu rhetoric a lie, it’s a big lie that can and does cost people their lives. If you’ve spent any time working, volunteering, or hanging out in medical settings, you can see with your own eyes that COVID-19 is having an immense, dreadful, and potentially catastrophic effect on the healthcare systems and healthcare workers around the world.  

Medical journals and medical authorities have the best information available about COVID-19. Although their information isn’t perfect, and it’s consistently changing, legitimate medical professionals still give us the best information we have. People who write medical journal articles and people with medical degrees are way smarter than most of the rest of us. If you’re REALLY SERIOUS about “researching COVID-19,” you should read medical journal articles. It’s just as easy to Google the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association, the British Medical Journal, and other top-tier medical journals, as it is to Google fringe conspiracy theorists who make up shit from their own demented imaginations. Seriously. The Big Truth Here: You should trust physicians who have taken the Hippocratic oath over COVID-19 deniers and conspiracy theorists who’s only oath is to do whatever they can to get attention and feel more important than they really are.

COVID-19 minimizers or deniers do not have your best interests at heart. Believe them at your own risk. Or, better yet, choose to not believe them. If you’re the sort of skeptic who looks for cracks in the arguments of legitimate medical research, be sure to use equal rigor to look for cracks in the arguments of people like Candace Owens, Tucker Carlson, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Laura Schlessinger. Take a minute to contemplate who you think is more interested in your (and all Americans’) well-being. Take another minute to contemplate who you think has underlying financial motivations to deceive you. In the end, the CDC, Dr. Fauci, and the World Health Organization are better sources of useful, health-promoting information than COVID-minimizers or deniers.

I’ve written all this and just now realizing I haven’t even gotten to the issues of wearing masks and vaccinations. Obviously, there’s more to come.

Please join me in working to make 2022, The Year of the Big Truth.

What’s Happening at the Montana Happiness Project: The 2021 Annual Report

Montana Happiness Project – 2021 – Year End Report

Despite global exhaustion from wave after wave of the coronavirus pandemic, and despite immense national and local loss and suffering, amazing examples of resilience continue. At the Montana Happiness Project, we believe in facing, validating, and working through individual and collective pain and suffering. We believe everyone needs time and space to be with, and gain insight from, their emotions. This is one side of the truth of living.

On the other side is the need to stay strong, positive, and resilient. Although it’s human nature and therapeutic for individuals and communities to be with their emotions, we also benefit from focusing on strengths, positivity, gratitude, and kindness. In an ideal world, we do both. We take time to be with our painful emotions and learn from them. We also intentionally turn toward wellness and happiness. This is part of the balance that facilitates well-lived lives.

The year 2021 remained challenging for many Montanans. This brief Year-End Report describes activities associated with the smaller and larger ways in which the Montana Happiness Project made efforts to nurture wellness within our Montana communities. To summarize our activities, we’ve organized this report into several sections: (a) Happiness Funding, (b) Bimonthly Activities, (c) 2022 Goals and Organizing Principles, (d) Outcomes, and (d) Gratitude.

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Just in case you don’t want to read the whole 7 page report, I’ve pasted the Executive Summary below.

Executive Summary

In our first complete year of operations, the Montana Happiness Project, L.L.C. provided substantial contributions to wellness awareness and happiness promotion throughout the state of Montana and beyond. Highlights of 2021 include: (a) reaching well over 1,000 Montanans with high-quality educational presentations on suicide prevention and happiness promotion; (b) offering seminars, classes, and trainings viewed by over 50,000 professionals around the globe; (c) delivery of a 2½ day retreat for 15 professionals committed to implementing a strengths-based approach to suicide assessment, treatment, and prevention in Montana; (d) data collection and continued scientific research on the effectiveness of strengths-based suicide assessment and treatment workshops for professionals, happiness classes, and happiness workshops; (e) initiation of collaborative programming with the University of Montana, Families First Learning Labs, and other community organizations.

If you’d like to read the whole report, send me an email (john.sf@mso.umt.edu) or message me here and I’ll get one out to you.

Have a great day.

John

Wishing You a Fantastic Holiday Season – And Lifelong Learning

For the past ten days I’ve been contemplating a witty and profound holiday greeting and blog post that would lift moods everywhere and inspire greater wellness. Sadly (or happily), the profound words did not emerge from my brain, perhaps because my brain–like many objects at this time of the season–preferred to remain at rest. The universe seemed to be saying something like, “Let there be inertia.” Who am I to dispute messages from the universe?

And then, in the midst of my stare-down with inertia, I read that today is Day 2 of Kwanzaa, the principle for which is “self-determination.” I don’t know much about Kwanzaa, and so I did a bit of reading and discovered that Day 2 involves the lighting of a candle that represents the principle of Kujichagulia (aka self-determination). Self-determination can be taken a few different ways, including the process of defining, creating, naming, and speaking for ourselves.

I have no intention of engaging in cultural appropriation here, but instead, my desire (in a Bertrand Russell sort of way) is to continue to embrace new learning—which seems to me as a nice antidote to staying at rest or remaining inert. Learning a bit more about African-American culture . . . as well as other cultures . . . strikes me as a good thing, and is consistent with what I hope for in the coming year.

In my momentarily state of naïve idealization (unfortunately, this too shall likely pass), I wish you all the best for Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, and other celebratory holidays. I also wish for more learning, more openness to the ideas and cultures of others, and more of that social fabric that Alfred Adler called Gemeinschaftsgefühl. And, to paraphrase the great positive psychologist, Chris Peterson, remember, “Other people matter,” which, of course, means that because you’re an “other” person to everyone else, you matter too.

Be well,

John S-F