The Neighborhood Is Wherever We Are: The Positive Psychology Of Mr. Rogers
A stunning moment in the feature film Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood — about the impact Fred Rogers had on a reporter assigned to write a profile of him — happens in a scene in which Mr. Rogers asks the reporter to take a full minute to think about the people who “loved you into being.” The two men are in a restaurant and all the people at other tables in the scene also slow down as the film goes silent, as if to cue the whole world to take this pause and reflect. In a powerful parallel, the filmmaker who made the HBO documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor about Mr. Rogers’ life and work asks the interview subjects — Mr Rogers’ wife, sons, colleagues, admirers — to do the same exercise, allowing the long silences as they each go inward. There is palpable emotional impact to these onscreen moments that invite the audience to take the same pause and reflect on those people who touched our lives. This pause allows the images and emotions evoked by these people to rise up fully and take mental and emotional focus. The effect can stay with a person for days. Imagine what could happen for people who take the time to do this on a regular basis.
“Do you know how long a minute is?” Mr. Rogers once asked his viewers. Then he set a timer so everyone could experience a minute together. A mindful pause, even if it is simply to become more aware of time itself, is a kind of “yes” to whatever is happening within ourselves. This “yes” is an acceptance of who we are in that moment, of what we suffer and what we celebrate. This pause, this “yes” is enough space/time to shift from a reactive response to a stress-inducing thought or event to a more authentic and effective one. Even if, in that pause, we become more aware of grief or pain, saying “yes” and giving it time is how we love ourselves.
These psychological tools Mr. Rogers encouraged people to use now have research to back up their value. A study published in the Nov. 25 issue of the journal Personality and Individual Differences found that having “felt” experiences of being loved “is associated with improvements in psychological well-being.” In an interview published on Science Direct, researcher Zita Oravecz states that she built this study on “something that we’ve seen in the literature on mindfulness, when people are reminded to focus attention on positive things, their overall awareness of those positive things begins to rise. Similarly, just by paying attention to those everyday moments of felt love, we may also increase our awareness of the overall positive aspects of love in our daily lives. This effect replicates in both studies, implying that raising awareness of felt love in day-to-day life may itself be an intervention that raises levels of felt love over a longer period of time.”
Directing our attention to those who have loved and supported us is one of many techniques the field of positive psychology refers to as “savoring” or “taking in the good,” according to Dr. Rick Hanson. “A large part of experiencing our positive emotions is cultivating the capacity to slow down, being open minded, and choosing to really take in the many micro-moments of our lives,” write Phoebe Atkinson, LCSW, TEP, and Nancy Kirsner, Phd, MFT in “Positive Psychology and Psychodrama,” — a chapter in the new book Action Explorations: Using Psychodramatic Methods In Non-Therapeutic Settings. As psychotherapists with the highest level of training in psychodrama and certified in Positive Psychology, Atkinson and Kirsner design and facilitate interactive, dynamic experiences that explore the internal “neighborhood” we bring with us and teach techniques that focus attention on what heals and empower us going forward.
The live interaction and in-person encounter aspects of psychodrama, improv and action methods are needed now more than ever, when our “neighborhood” can include people we rarely see — as well as some we will never meet in person — but impact us through social media, as well as a world shaped by rapid, unrelenting change and an onslaught of news and “information.” The external pressures of today’s world require an even greater effort to sustain a positive internal “set point,” one that can be found in the inner quiet of what Mr. Rogers described as “a noisy world.” He wanted people to experience themselves in the silences, and in the “white spaces between the paragraphs” of books:
Experience is the operative word. Through creative, conscious experiences we can learn to direct our attention to the positive animating forces we carry within.
Atkinson and Kirsner specialize in unique and creative applications of the research into Positive Psychology field, which emphasizes tools and practices that focus on “what’s strong rather than what’s wrong.” Research shows that human beings have a survival-related “Negativity Bias” — meaning more brain activity is dedicated to noticing and responding to problems and stress than to what is going well — that can then be reinforced by an outer world constantly reminding us of ways that we come up short, or might have reason to feel threatened. “Because of our Negativity Bias, most of us have a tendency to focus on our weaknesses as more important for our growth,” write Atkinson and Kirsner. “Findings in the strengths’ literature have shown that it is actually the opposite. It turns out that people who focus on their strengths are disproportionately more engaged and successful than others.”
Among the techniques Atkinson and Kirsner describe in their informative chapter involves thinking about and sharing a story about “you at your best.” Emphasize the strengths expressed in this story — resilience, perseverance, kindness, generosity, creativity, honesty, fairness, courage, among many others. Identify the people who support or evoke these strengths. Their “Positive Emotion Action workshops” bring positive truths, often hidden by worry, stress, and problems to solve, not only to the top of one’s mind but to a shared, lived experience with other people, providing a powerful boost of galvanizing energy that can stay with a person for days. Practicing these skills and tools on a regular basis can make those necessary shifts from self-protective, defensive reactions to the pressures of life to creative, expansive noticing of what rich resources lie within and around us.
The “you at your best” exercise illuminates that our “neighborhood” is right where we are. It includes people and experiences from our past, as well as those with us right now in the present moment. We can populate our inner life with people who have gifted us and define ourselves by our strengths. We can fill those silences with awareness of love and support. We can be positive Mr. Rogers would approve.
Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, CPAI is a consultant/trainer and writer/performer. Her company Lifestage, Inc provides workshops and classes on Applied Improvisation, storytelling and creative techniques for mental health, health care, education and human service professionals. She is host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a game wrapped in a storytelling show.