Helping or harming?

In my particular corner of academia there's a great deal of new research on the factors that enhance or hinder our wellbeing. Some of which I’m finding particularly pertinent right now.

For example, while we've long known that our genes and life circumstances have a big impact on our wellbeing, more recent psychological studies additionally indicate that the way we choose to think, and the way we choose to act, also have a significant impact on how we feel and function. The University of California’s Sonja Lyubomirsky, one key researcher in this field, suggests that as much as 40% of our happiness is governed by our thoughts and actions (Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, & Schkade, 2005).

With this in mind, I’ve recently been relying on a technique I picked up at UPenn, while studying resilience. When I’m trying to decide whether I will do something (get up and go for a run, have another glass of wine, visit the scene of the crash, read the media coverage) or continue to think in a particular way (go over and over again the what ifs of Abi's death) I ask myself “is this activity/way of thinking helping or harming my healing/grieving?” This is not to say I am going all out to avoid thinking about her death, just that we do have a degree of choice in what we focus our attention and energy on; if it's not helping me, I'm not doing it. Sometimes, looking over photos, I sob my heart out knowing it's what I need. At other times, when listening to the girls' favourite music and the ache inside gets too much, I make myself put something else on, or pick up the phone and call a friend. Asking myself the helping or harming question enables me to act intentionally, it's not about avoidance or denial, just taking some control over my experience.

While I'm employing this technique to guide my grieving, the same question can be applied equally effectively to all sorts of everyday aspects of life from stewing over an argument, getting wound up in road rage, to staying up late obsessing over Facebook posts of those who seemingly have a better life than our own. A basic tenet of cognitive behavioral therapy, this particular question originates from Karen Reivich and Judy Saltzberg as part of their resilience training programmes created for students and the US Army (Reivich, Seligman, & McBride, 2011). Many of us have, over the years, adopted habits (ways of thinking, or acting) that aren't necessarily beneficial for our wellbeing, the helping or harming technique is a good device for checking the merit of those habits.
As Reivich writes in her book, The Resilience Factor, "Nonresilient thinking styles can lead us to cling to inaccurate beliefs about the world and to inappropriate problem-solving strategies that burn through emotional energy and valuable resilience resources" (Reivich & Shatté, 2003). Augmenting awareness of our thoughts and actions, and tweaking them, or altering course as necessary, makes it possible to help ourselves protect and promote our own wellbeing. While I’m aware this makes the process of monitoring our thinking patterns and actions sound simple (if you want to learn more the above book is a worthwhile read), I thought I’d suggest helping or harming as a decision-making tool, and leave it for you to let me know how, if, and when, it works.
While I have absolutely no choice in Abi's death, I do, at least to some extent, have some choice in how I grieve. 

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