Finding Joy in the Gospel; Positive Psychology and the Spiritual Life

A friend loaned me a book a few months ago that I’ve just picked up again. Christopher Kaczor’s “The Gospel of Happiness” proposes a unique relationship between Christian spiritual practices and this particular psychological approach.  While I don’t intend to provide a review of the book itself, I have been intrigued by the strengths-based approach to mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being that Kaczor highlights.

Often, when faced with mental health challenges, we are tempted to look only at the challenges and sufferings our loved ones, or we are experiencing and seek out ways to alleviate that suffering.  There are advantages to examining the issue at hand and seeking a ‘cure,’ but as most with mental health challenges can attest, a ‘cure’ is seldom possible. Positive psychology, developed in the late 1990s, instead emphasizes a focus on those positive experiences that foster happiness, the building up of unique strengths, the development of virtues, and how they contribute to human flourishing and well-being, as opposed to only treating mental illness and distress. Positive psychology seeks to promote not just the absence of negative emotions and experiences but the presence of positive emotions, strengths, and purpose.

Without stating it expressly, Positive psychology recognizes a fundamental Christian truth; that human beings are indeed “fearfully and wonderfully made” and that the human person is a beautiful mystery with an inherent purpose, meaning, and dignity. When combined with common Catholic and Christian spiritual practices and underlying foundational beliefs, one discovers an even more comprehensive model for growth and well-being.

These can include:

Gratitude: Both positive psychology and Catholic spirituality emphasize the importance of gratitude. Positive psychology encourages individuals to focus on the good things in their lives, perhaps through the use of something like a gratitude journal. In a similar way, our Catholic spirituality invites us to regularly give thanks to our God for all of life’s blessings, big and small. One of my favorite psalms from the Liturgy of the Hours regularly resonates in my heart, providing just such a space of thanksgiving that can be carried with me throughout the day;

“Cry out with joy to the Lord, all the earth.
Serve the Lord with gladness.
Come before him, singing for joy.

Know that he, the Lord, is God.
He made us, we belong to him,
we are his people, the sheep of his flock.
Go within his gates, giving thanks.

Enter his courts with songs of praise.
Give thanks to him and bless his name.
Indeed, how good is the Lord,
eternal his merciful love.
He is faithful from age to age.” – Psalm 100

Mindfulness: Mindfulness, or being present in the moment, is a key aspect of positive psychology that seeks to break the cycle of feeling guilt and shame over the past, or worry and anxiety about an as-yet unrealized future. Catholic spiritual practices, such as rote prayer and meditation, can also promote mindfulness and help individuals stay focused on our God whose name is not I was, or I will be, but “I am.” The Ignatian spiritual practice known as the Daily Examen can be a powerful spiritual tool for discovering the presence of our “I am” God in the regular moments of our lives, helping us to focus on the present moment as a place of gift and grace.

Purpose: Positive psychology encourages individuals to identify their unique strengths and values and use them to pursue a fulfilling life purpose. Catholic spirituality also promotes the idea that human beings, made in the image and likeness of God, have a share in God’s creative, loving, and merciful work here and now and are destined for communion with this same loving, merciful, creative God forever.

Community: Positive psychology recognizes the importance of social support for well-being, and Catholic spirituality emphasizes the centrality of communion with the community of the Holy Trinity and with our human communities through the forging of mutually life-giving connections with others. Through practices such as Mass and service to others, individuals can form strong bonds within the family of faith and experience a supportive sense of belonging.

Forgiveness: Positive psychology teaches individuals to let go of grudges and bitterness and to focus on forgiveness and compassion. Catholic spirituality, especially through the sacrament of penance, also emphasizes forgiveness and the importance of asking for and granting forgiveness. A heart ordered towards seeking a freely offering forgiveness increases its own capacity for mercy and gentleness, including for ourselves, on whom we can often be especially hard and unmerciful.

Catholic spiritual practices and the model of positive psychology can be powerful complements to each other in creating a healthy and sustainable approach to well-being. By incorporating elements of both, individuals can increase positive emotions, strengthen personal characteristics, and enhance experiences, while also cultivating a deeper connection with God through whom we discover a deeper purpose and meaning and the Good news that we are, in every moment, deeply loved and cherished.

Peace and God Bless,

Deacon Eric Gurash

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