It is easy to feel powerless against the recession. Headlines are rife with doom, and we have control of almost none of it: unemployment, the housing market and the national debt. In this constant stream of negativity, it is easy to focus on what we do not have control of and forget about what we do have control over.

How can one person feel worried sick while the next person is not? Why is one person depressed about the layoff while the next person is actually happy about it? The answer lies not in the circumstances but how we handle it.

I, myself, have been laid off during this recession, and I have struggled with depression and pessimism for most of my life (see “My Story: From Suicidal to The Happy Therapist“). Therefore I can deeply empathize with clients and students who tell me their story, which is usually peppered with words like “stuck,” “trapped” and “can’t.”

It is important to acknowledge sadness, hopelessness and worry. These feelings are not merely uncomfortable emotions — they are guideposts to feeling better; a divining rod to their belief system. In the very first class of Happiness 101, I tell students not to slap a plastic smiley face over their pain but to feel it and learn from it.

Positive psychology teaches that each emotion is feedback to us about our underlying belief system. It is here that we find choice and empowerment. For instance, if a man feels shame because he was swept away by the latest wave of layoffs, he might have an underlying belief like “If I am not providing for my family, I am a failure.” You will notice this belief statement leaves little room for extenuating circumstances — for instance high unemployment rates.

We do not have control over the world or national economy, but we do have control over our own belief system. In this example if the man replaced his belief with “As long as I am doing my best, I am okay,” instead of feeling shame, he might not only feel hope but possibly pride because his focus is on his efforts and not the outcome.

Whether suffering job loss, death of a loved one or a personal failure, we can always choose how we weather the storm. In his famous book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Nazi concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl wrote, “the last of the human freedoms: to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

James Dean said, “I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sail.” You might imagine that one person who believes he is helpless against the storm of the recession would have a very different feeling than the person who believes, “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.” (“Invictus,” William Ernest Henley)

After people have told their story and properly honored their feelings, they might be open to discussion about what they do have control over, rather than lamenting about what they do not. In the above example, this hard-working American had no control over being laid off. He can continue to apply for jobs but have no control over call-backs. He can do well in the interview but still not get the job.

Research has proven (Dan Gilbert, “Stumbling on Happiness”) that when people feel that they have no control, depression often follows. This is why it is important (at the appropriate time) to turn discussion toward what one does have control over.

In session, I challenge phrases like “I’m in a rock and a hard place,” “there’s nothing I can do” and “I am trapped.” Invariably I find that there are many choices — all at varying degrees of attractiveness.

For instance, the unemployed man might believe that his only option is to just keep applying for (local) jobs and pray that something comes through. When brainstorming, he might find several other options including: filing for bankruptcy, taking a job out of state, renting out the basement, filing for unemployment, asking for loans from friends, moving in with mom and dad and/or starting his own business. This man might find all of these options to be unsavory, but I have found that depression immediately begins to loosen its grip when we explore what is possible rather than lament over the lie that “there is no hope.”

We may not have control over the economy, but we do have control over our pessimism. If you believe that you are born pessimistic, I would like to point out that this too is a belief. Ironically if you believe yourself to be a born pessimist, you will behave accordingly, making no effort to change. Pessimism can not only poison one’s attitude toward braving the economic storm but it can adversely affect decisions that might have helped to pull you out of it.

For instance, if one says, “What’s the point in applying for the job? I’m not going to get it anyway” and he does not apply for the job, then his prediction comes true. Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can, or you can’t, you’re right.” Hope is always a choice.

I have documented the progress of dozens of students and found that those who make the greatest progress are those who turn from hopeless to hopeful during the eight-week course. You can test your own level of optimism at www.authentichappiness.com and start improving your outlook by taking your cues from the father of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, in his book, “Learned Optimism.”

Cultivating optimism is just one of 12 scientifically proven happiness activites suggested by Sonja Lyubomirsky in her book, “The How of Happiness.” Others include:

  • Expressing gratitude
  • Practicing acts of kindness
  • Nurturing relationships
  • Savoring life’s joys
  • Practicing religion or spirituality

Focusing on these activities (which you do have control over) will help you to feel empowered. Focusing on what you do not have control over will likely lead you to feel helpless and disempowered. There is much in this world over which we have no control — including the recession — but we always have control over our own positive attitude. The Nazis could not take it from Viktor Frankl. The recession can not take it from you. You always have a choice.

Frank Clayton, LPC

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Article published in KSL by Frank Clayton, LPC

SANPETE COUNTY — As families gathered in the auditorium of North Sanpete High School in Mt. Pleasant, Utah, they began to discuss the recent rash of suicides in Sanpete County in December of 2011. The small gathering of people were able to recall six suicides in just the last three weeks. The consensus was swift and unanimous: “It has to stop.”

In record time, the small band of citizens planned a candlelight vigil to raise awareness of the growing problem in Sanpete County. Sisters volunteered to organize the vigil, a brother created a Facebook page, a therapist started a grief group and an army of one delivered flyers from one end of the county to the other. The press was contacted.

The mission: Break the silence. The message: Talk about suicide. Ask the question, “Are you suicidal?” Get help.

Utah needs a lot of it. Recently, the Center for Disease Control revealed that Utah ranks No. 1 in terms of the number of residents contemplating suicide. The Utah Department of Health Violence and Injury Prevention Program reported that Utah has the eighth highest rate of suicidefor adults in the nation, and suicide is the second leading cause of death for Utahns ages 15- 19.Therural areas have a significantly higher suicide rates: namely Sevier, Piute, Wayne, Tooele, Carbon, Emery, Weber and Morgan Counties as well as the Glendale, Ben Lomond and Tricounty areas.

The numbers are staggering, but the grief etched into the faces of those people at North Sanpete High School was overwhelming.

Two weeks later, I stood before the Main Library in Mt. Pleasant, adding my candle to the light of nearly 100 residents of Sanpete County. As with all tragedies, they want to know why — why are their loved ones dying? It’s a fair question with an unfair answer: We do not know.

What we do know is that suicide is preventable.

We know what to watch fordepression, drug or alcohol use, moodiness, irritability, giving away prized possessions, anger, isolation, recklessness and language indicating hopelessness, feeling trapped, and considering suicide as an option. We know that a person who takes their life has usually had a crisis within two weeks and is likely struggling with one or more problems with things like physical health, employment, finances, with the law or at school. We also know that there is often easy access to firearms and pills.

We know that help is a phone call away: 1-800- SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433), 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) and the Trevor Project hotline for LGBTQ teens at 866-488- 7386.

We also know that when one person takes their life, it can lead others to follow suit. A young woman at the candlelight vigil shared that she attempted suicide two weeks after her cousin died by suicide. She said, “I thought if he could do it, so could I.”

As counselor Monte Hauck said, “People simply don’t know how to handle things, so they try to take care of a problem the only way they could.”

It is true. When one is thinking of taking their own life, they might see it as the only option — the only way to make the pain stop. This is a result of what positive psychologists call a downward spiral. The further down the hole one goes, the fewer options they perceive — even though, objectively, there are many, many, many alternatives to suicide.

Science has revealed a shockingly simple antidote to the downward spiral: counting your blessings. When one is in the clutches of the downward spiral, pessimism is rampant. By identifying a few positives, one can start to realize that life is not so bad and there is hope. The journey of the upward spiral begins.

Research has proven the pull of an upward spiral to be just as powerful as a downward spiral. Using the “three good things” intervention, the father of positive psychology Martin Seligman helped 94 percent of his depressed participants rise from the level of severely depressed to either moderately or mildly depressed in only 15 days. Considering that this was the only intervention used in the study and that it takes only a few minutes a day, the results are nothing short of miraculous.

This exercise is a staple of Happiness 101, a class using methods proven by empirical research to restore hope, lift depression and offer alternatives to suicide. The free class —which is now awebinar, also offered free of charge to help reduce suicide in Utah — uses simple yet scientifically-proven methods and techniques to help those in the grips of depression see that there is light at the end of the tunnel. For instance, when one makes a pessimistic statement, using the technique of disputation quickly and easily loosens the grip of pessimism. If one thinks, “I’m doomed,” and that thought goes unchecked, then one will have the emotional experience of hopelessness. However, if one simply asks oneself, “Is that really true?” the dark clouds of pessimism are easily broken, allowing hope to shine through.

There is hope. Suicide is preventable. If you are thinking of suicide, please call 1-800-SUICIDE.

To view the article complete with related stories and comments, go to KSL.

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In his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl noted that when fellow prisoners lost hope, they were dead within two weeks. The Nazis certainly cultivated an environment of hopelessness, but Frankl noted that hope was not something the Nazis could take from a prisoner; It had to be surrendered by its owner. The point of Frankl’s gripping story is that we always, always, always have a choice. We can always choose to be optimistic, despite the circumstances.

Optimists live longer, are liked more, make more money, are more happily married and are more likely to get the job and advance in their career more swiftly than their pessimistic counterparts. As you might imagine, optimists tend to be happier, while pessimists lean toward depression.

In her book, “The How of Happiness,” Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky pointed out that depressed people are not concerned that something bad will happen in their future. They are depressed because they forecast that nothing good will happen. Pessimism continues to cultivate their depression.

People are born optimistic and learn to be pessimistic. There is a spectrum of optimism ranging from Pollyanna to Eeyore, with many shades of gray in between. These shades are determined by one’s explanatory style.

When things go right or wrong, how do you explain it? In his book, “Learned Optimism,” Dr. Martin Seligman dissected optimism and pessimism and found three distinct components: permanence, pervasiveness and whether one blames themselves or external forces.

Here’s an example: If I have unsuccessfully tried to sell my car for the past three months, and I say it’s because “I can’t do anything right,” would this statement be true? Of course not. However, if this thought goes unchecked, I will experience feelings of hopelessness. When I used statements like these, it’s insinuated that I cannot ever do anything right, so there is a tone of permanence: that I could not do anything right yesterday, cannot do anything right today and will not be able to do anything right tomorrow. In these situations, I can ask myself, “Is it really true that I can never do anything right?” Even in a bad mood, it is easy to see that this statement is simply not true.

On the issue of pervasiveness, I made a very broad statement after experiencing frustration about a specific situation (difficulty selling the car). When I said, “I can’t do anything right,” I indicated that not only can I not sell my car, I cannot do anything right at work, at home, with friends, at play, etc. In other words, my bungling runs through and through, no matter what arena I may enter. How depressing. How false! Stopping to ask myself what things I do right in other areas of my life reminds me that while I might be having a difficult time in this particular situation, it does not mean I am entirely inept.

Finally, am I blaming myself or forces outside of myself? In the example, the optimist explains her difficulty in selling the car by saying, “It’s not a buyer’s market.” This takes self-blame out of the equation entirely. She is not using the words “I” or “me” in her explanation. Checking this statement for pervasiveness and permanence, it is easy to discern that there is hope because it is insinuated that the poor market for buying cars will pass, and because she used language for the specific situation, she is not proclaiming doom for all of her selling endeavors.

A word of caution about blaming outside forces: While optimists might not blame themselves for bad things that happen (or do not happen), this should be used cautiously. Attributing all happenings to outside forces can have a nasty backlash. If one blames “fate,” “luck” or other cosmic forces, it can result in giving oneself a pass rather than taking full responsibility for one’s actions. In Happiness 101, I teach empowerment with fervor. If you want to be happy, you absolutely must take full responsibility for that happiness.

This has been a crash course in the mechanics of optimism and pessimism. As I wrote in The Eight Steps to Happiness, you must start by being mindful. Become aware of your explanatory style. Catch yourself making negative statements and ask yourself, “Is that really true?” It is very likely you will realize that your pessimistic statement is not true at all and will find yourself feeling more hopeful.

Hopelessness is a serious issue in our state. Utah ranks in the top 10 for suicide in the nation and is thefourth largest consumer of antidepressants in the country. This is why I have been teaching Happiness 101 to the public free of charge for the past two-and-a-half years. It is the reason I am teaching a six-week webinar in October — so people in the at-risk, rural areas of Utah may learn about optimism and other aspects of positive psychology. I want to restore hope to people who are depressed or suicidal and spread happiness.

Hopelessness breeds depression. Hope cultivates happiness. Which will you choose?

Frank Clayton, Licensed Professional Counselor (a.k.a. The Happy Therapist)

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Published on KSL
Let me start by saying a person should never, never, never go off their medications without talking to their prescriber. It is dangerous and potentially lethal.

According to the Behavioral Risk-Factor Surveillance System, Utah is currently the happiest state in the union. It is also one of the saddest. Utah sits right in the middle of the “suicide belt,” which stretches along the Rocky Mountains from Wyoming and Idaho, through Utah and Nevada and down to Arizona and New Mexico. As of 2008, the mortality rates gathered from the U.S. census indicated that Utah ranked ninth in the nation for suicides. In September 2010, the Utah Department of Health declared that Utah was the fourth greatest consumer of antidepressants in the nation with 12.71 percent of residents being prescribed antidepressants.

The problem is that these medications do not work on most of the consumers to whom they are prescribed. Continue reading Antidepressants don’t appear to work for most Utahns

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