When Disaster Strikes

Mamaroneck after Irene

Hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, fires, floods, volcanoes and terrorist attacks.  In just the past year these disasters have all hit somewhere in the world.  We’ve had every kind of disaster you can think of short of an attack of zombie hordes.  This time, the disaster came pretty close to home for me with Hurricane Irene sweeping along the entire Eastern Seaboard, and my small town of Mamaroneck, NY was one of many engulfed by the massive storm (see picture, taken down the street from my house.)

I was lucky.  My house is up on a hill, well above sea level.  The only tragedy I have to confront is the inconvenient loss of everything in my refrigerator and freezer (our power has been out for over 48 hours now.)  But all around me, in lower lying areas, people were not so lucky.  The combination of rainfall, high tide on the New England Sound and storm surge sent millions of gallons of water flowing through the streets and into peoples’ homes.

Of course it could have been much worse.  As of the last report I saw, Irene had only taken 35 lives on its rampage up the coast.  This is nowhere near the magnitude of tragedy that occurred on September 11 (next week I will write about that in honor of the ten year anniversary coming up,) and it pales in comparison to the devastating earthquakes in Japan experienced earlier this year where some 18,000 people lost their lives.

But as I sit, hunkered down with only the glow of my laptop and a few candles to illuminate my living room, I can’t help but ponder the aftermath of some of the horrific recent tragedies.  What good is positive psychology when disaster strikes?

Positive psychology is not only the science of happiness, but the science of the best things about life and people.  Sometimes, it is the worst possible times that bring out the best (or when we truly need to be at our best.)  This is by no means a comprehensive list, but here are a few things from the study of positive psychology that can be useful in times of trauma:

1.  Resilience.  People are more resilient than we often realize.  Marty Seligman, the founder of positive psychology says that while we hear a lot about post traumatic stress, reactions to stress are actually normally distributed.  Meaning a small percentage of people experience post traumatic stress, most people bounce back from trauma and return to their baseline levels of wellbeing, and a small percentage of people actually grow stronger as a result of the trauma (post traumatic growth.)  Based on this idea, the U.S. Army has been rolling out resilience training to all 1.1 million of their soldiers (see my article on Comprehensive Soldier Fitness here.)

2. Meaning.  During times of intense trauma and tragedy it can be difficult to find meaning in the situation.  The wrath (and the randomness) of Mother Nature, in particular, can seem particularly cruel and without reason.  Dr. Paul Wong, an expert on meaning in positive psychology has developed tools to help people find the therapeutic benefits of connecting to meaning, including this 12-step guide created for survivors of the Asian tsunami.   A sense of meaning and purpose is one of the foundations of psychological wellbeing.

3. Leadership.  After September 11, the Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship published a series of essays on “Leadership for Trying Times.”  Articles describe a variety of strengths and virtues that are important in times of crisis, including compassion, hope, courage, forgiveness and creativity.

4.  Creativity.  Steve Dahlberg from the International Centre for Creativity and Imagination wrote this piece on the power of creativity after Hurricane Katrina.  “Creative Problem Solving” is an important strength for people to use to see a way out of the current situation and to imagine a brighter future.

5.  Hope and optimism.   People who do well in traumatic situations are those who are able to stay in tune to a more positive future and to see the positive in spite of the tragedy.  Victor Frankl, for example, found a sense of meaning and purpose during his time in a concentration camp.  He described “Tragic Optimism” as the ability to remain hopeful in tragedy by working towards future goals.  Marcello Spinello (Psychology of Wellbeing guest blogger and mindfulness expert) gave me a great quote from Mr. Rogers (from the famously positive children’s television show.)  “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” 

This week, in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, I already ran into one of the helpers.  Jim Killoran, from Habitat for Humanity, who somehow seems to know (and be loved by) almost everyone in Westchester County, was down at the flood zone recruiting volunteers in preparation for rebuilding and cleanup.  He was exhibiting all of the virtues on the list above.  It’s amazing how one man, armed with compassion, hope and leadership, can create community in the wake of disaster.

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8 Responses to When Disaster Strikes

  1. DocDreyfus September 1, 2011 at 10:41 am #

    Wonderful piece. It resonates with a chapter on Lessons from Disaster in my recent book LIVING LIFE FROM THE INSIDE OUT: WHO YOU ARE MATTERS. Some people experience only the tragedy of natural disasters, while others are able to see the potential for growth and the reminders that as human beings we are connected to one another and with our environment. As a Los Angeles resident I have witnessed the power of earthquakes. And I have experienced the power of a community to pull together and dig out of the rubble, forging relationships between people where none existed previously. Similarly, I am seeing a similar phenomenon in Vermont as people pull together, building an even stronger sense of self and a more bonded community. Disasters remind us that we are interdependent upon one another. http://www.livinglifefromtheinsideout.net

  2. charles wills September 5, 2011 at 11:25 am #

    Your 5 points hit the nail on the Head!
    In 1988 Huricane Gilbert left us in Negril, Jamaica with no electric from Sept.10th till Dec.24th,
    Talk about living your top 5 points, easy to laugh now about it, but not then. Enough stories to write a book about it. The one that stands out is when the Meat store owner came with a few bad men and demanded I give them my gas generator which was in the very first few days only one of two in the entire town.

    (Pay it forward) Two days prior which was the day after the storm which had winds of 120mph I decided to use my freezer and generator to make small bags of ice for the 50 or so familes in my area up the hill from Pee Wee’s Restaurant so at least they could have a cool drink in this hot and difficult time. You see ice in Jamaica is like gold in the USA.
    As word spread quickly that the bad men were at my house and threatening to take away everyone’s little piece of Joy, within about 15 minutes over 100 people had gathered with Machetes to chase them away..Entanglement is a beautiful thing and if not for thinking of some of those 5 points the Ice maker would have been taken away..

    As your Mom said “‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” and they will come back to Help You…

  3. Jeremy McCarthy September 5, 2011 at 8:42 pm #

    Thanks Doc Dreyfus, your book looks interesting. I just watched this video of David Rendall talking about his new book “The Freak Factor” http://www.daverendall.typepad.com/.

    What makes him interesting is he promotes the idea of people embracing and highlighting their weaknesses as that is what makes them unique. He has cool examples of people and businesses who have been successful by using their weakness as a strength. A very different perspective but sounds aligned with the idea that “who you are matters.” Let me know what you think.

    Thanks for reading and commenting.

  4. Jeremy McCarthy September 5, 2011 at 8:44 pm #

    Thanks Charles, that is a great story of good karma (pay it forward!) I can imagine a little ice could go a long way towards good will in the hot climate of Jamaica!

  5. DocDreyfus September 7, 2011 at 12:28 pm #

    Regarding Rendall’s “Freak Factor”, embracing one’s weaknesses sounds a lot like making lemonade out of lemons. And whose to say what is or is not a weakness? Rendall talks about weaknesses. Perhaps a weakness is only relative to some arbitrary standard. For example, men have been encouraged to be strong implying that being vulnerable is a weakness. Yet vulnerability is required for intimate relationships. Hence, this “weakness” is a strength when it comes to bonding in a relationship. Being short maybe a weakness when it comes to basketball but not if one is a jockey. Rendall’s ideas are VERY compatible with the ideas that I expressed in LIVING LIFE FROM THE INSIDE OUT: WHO YOU ARE MATTERS. http://www.livinglifefromtheinsideout.net

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