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Building Habits of Positivity

January 9, 2019

By Katie Smith

Scott Glassman, PsyD ’13, associate director, MS in Mental Health Counseling, and clinical assistant professor, Department of Psychology, is a glass-half-full kind of guy.

Scott Glassman, PsyD '13, poses with a smiley face balloon.Dr. Glassman is the founder of “A Happier You,” a seven-week program launched at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine in January 2017, designed to enhance a person’s optimism, increase the frequency of positive emotions and, by extension, improve overall health and well-being.

“The evidence for positive outcomes is there,” he says. “Expressing gratitude is associated with less depression, less fatigue, better sleep and greater confidence in caring for one’s health. Feelings of love activate our brain’s pleasure center through the release of dopamine, and laughter has even been associated with improved immune system functioning.”

With the help of Nicole Ryan (PsyD ’20), a fourth-year doctoral candidate in clinical psychology—sporting a hockey puck–sized button that beams, “Happiness Guide”—Dr. Glassman has brightened the lives of nearly 100 participants in the course’s seven iterations. Each week centers on a different blissful tenet, including laughter, strengths and successes, positivity, gratitude, kindness and love, and equips participants with tactics for happiness in the real world.

One such class, catering to PCOM employees, came to a close in late September in a celebration of community, personal growth—and free gifts.

“In honor of our last class,” revealed one participant named Abby, “I brought everyone umbrellas!” The gesture was a reminder of an earlier act of kindness she offered to a stranger on a rainy day.

The class began by sharing some examples of kindness from the previous week—the listening ear of an empathetic friend and Ms. Ryan’s offering a makeup class one-on-one—before diving into the final topic of love. In their activity books, each decorated to depict the participant’s “happiness,” the group reflected on someone or something each person loves and why, and potential ways to express that.

“Loving someone means you start each day with a clean slate,” shared Allana. “It’s not like I won’t love you on Wednesday as much as I did on Saturday. It’s about acceptance.”

As a closing and a takeaway, Dr. Glassman and his team distributed spinners with each course tenet as an option, as a way to prompt yourself to look for the positive.

“Do you have an extra spinner?” one participant, Renee, asked. “I need one specifically for traffic.”

Dr. Glassman’s goal, fostering happier people, is certainly not a hard sell. His methodology is based in positive psychology and the work of Martin Seligman, PhD, the Fox Leadership professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and Dr. Glassman’s former mentor.

Seligman’s 2002 book Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment steps away from the personal states that make life miserable—that is, mental illness—to focus on building those that make life worthwhile. “The time has finally arrived for a science that seeks to understand positive emotion, build strength and virtue, and provide guideposts for finding what Aristotle called the ‘good life,’ ’’ he writes.

His book dives into positive emotions and how to increase them, while tearing down the idea that happiness and altruism are inauthentic. Seligman offers three pillars for positive psychology—positive emotions, traits and institutions—and the relationship between each as a way to navigate one’s meaning and purpose.

“Some of Seligman’s work focuses on the idea of resilience,” explains Dr. Glassman, “the ability to reframe negative experiences or emotions in a positive light. Our weekly evidence-based lessons give students the tools to do that, fostering gratitude and attention to personal strengths and positive life effects.”

In part, the course codifies these practices through behavioral activation: helping participants identify and plan meaningful and enjoyable activities that take a person out of a negative mindset and developing a habit or ritual around them.

Dr. Glassman so strongly believes in sharing the practices of positive psychology that he and Ms. Ryan facilitate a Facebook group of the same name, offering prompts to past participants and interested social media users alike. Users share positive affirmations and answer questions that help them think in positive directions. One prompt, asking the over 1,000 participants to complete a sentence, reads, “I feel fulfilled when ____.”

Ms. Ryan, whose thesis explores physician burnout, thinks the program is vital for members of the PCOM community who feel tapped out. “Burnout can stem from feeling a lack of control,” she says. “If we accept that through a mindfulness practice, it becomes easier to find the humor in a situation or take comfort in an act of kindness.”

The pair believe “A Happier You” has implications for employee and human resources programs, inpatient and outpatient mental health treatment and patients in healthcare clinics—both at PCOM and throughout the country. The most recent group’s exit survey reported improved job performance and satisfaction during the seven-week program.

And what about Dr. Glassman, an expert in cultivating these skills in others?

“This class is uplifting,” he says. “It’s a breather. Coming here every week is a reminder to look at what’s going well, so I keep seeking out the positive in my own life.”