Use Positive Psychology To Change Your Brain in Healthy Ways

Have you ever felt stuck in a personal rut? Maybe not a full-blown crisis, but you’ve definitely been better? Psychologist Adam Grant terms this feeling “languishing,” and a large portion of the population finds themselves trapped in this mental-health twilight zone.

Jared Warren, associate professor of clinical and developmental psychology, has a solution. 

Warren studies positive psychology, or the applied science of well-being. His research objective is to connect people with evidence-based resources for living their best life possible.

“Positive psychology is about being a whole person,” Warren says. “A misconception about positive psychology is that it’s just a ‘focus on the positive, look on the bright side’ kind of naive approach to life, and that’s not at all what it is. It’s recognizing that there’s value in every experience, including the challenging ones.”

Warren’s research, among the research of others in the field, links principles of positivity like gratitude, mindfulness, self-compassion, and savoring to overall well-being. By learning these skills, anyone can take steps to flourish mentally. But, research also shows that simply understanding positive principles will not lead to personal progress.

Warren developed the course for and teaches Psych 349, “Introduction to Positive Psychology.” The curriculum gives students the opportunity to develop an attribute of well-being by practicing that attribute for three weeks. Known as “The 21-Day Personal Growth Experiment,” this assignment moves students from knowing about well-being to living what they know.

Dr. Warren also has a practice as a clinical psychologist at BYU’s Comprehensive Clinic. He says that his research has helped patients at the clinic “because some positive psychology practices are already baked into some of our best clinical approaches.” 

The John Taylor Building houses the Comprehensive Clinic (Claire Moore)

Many tried and true psychological treatments line up naturally with positive psychology principles, such as having subjects actively plan pleasant activities, consider their personal core values, and set goals to become who they’ve always wanted to be.

But positive psychology isn’t just for those struggling with clinical disorders. Wherever people find themselves on the spectrum of well-being, positive psychology can help anyone live a rich, vibrant, and meaningful life. The skills developed by practicing positive psychology build the capacity to handle unexpected stressors and challenges that will inevitably come into our lives.

So, how can you break out of the languishing rut? 

“To change the brain in healthy ways we have to practice,” says Warren. “My wish for the whole world is that everyone could spend 20 minutes a day practicing some of these skills for improving their well-being.”

To work through some positive psychology modules and improve your own well-being, visit the My Best Self 101 website developed by Warren.

Other mental health resources for students include BYU CAPS, the SafeUT App and webinars from the Hope Squad.

The BYU Comprehensive Clinic offers counseling services for individuals, couples, and families in the Utah County area. Services are provided by graduate student interns in Clinical Psychology, Marriage and Family Therapy, and Social Work. These graduate student therapists are supervised by experienced, licensed professionals, and faculty members. Call (801)422-7759 to schedule an intake.

Durham Lecture Recap: Gail Miller on Courage and Giving

Gail Miller, owner of the Larry H. Miller Group, visited the BYU campus on February 10 to deliver the annual G. Homer Durham lecture. Her talk, titled, “The Impact of Community Service and Philanthropy,” gave insights into her journey as a businesswoman and philanthropist.

Gail and her late husband Larry Miller began their foray into business when Larry purchased his first automobile dealership in 1979. Mrs. Miller described how the company continued to grow saying, “One thing after another we were guided through the business world, adding a piece here and a piece there, until we were very engaged in the automobile business.”

In 1986, the Millers purchased the Utah Jazz, which changed their lives forever. As their company grew and the team gained more notoriety, the Millers found themselves living in the public eye and bringing more attention to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and their values than they could have ever expected. 

When Larry passed away in 2009, Gail became the face of the company and took an active role in managing the business. Describing the decision to run the business, Mrs. Miller says, “We had a reputation for being ethical, for being honest, for being fair, for treating our people right and providing good jobs. I knew that I could not let that die, so I gathered my courage and decided to step into a role that I was neither prepared for nor wanted.”

Mrs. Miller felt nervous about the enormous responsibility she faced. She said, “The courage came from knowing that my Heavenly Father expected me to use my talents and my ability as a woman to make a difference.”

While she acted in courage, the transition to leadership in the company wasn’t easy for Mrs. Miller. Working with lifelong businesspeople presented challenges and social discomfort. “I was not respected. I hate to say that, but I was a newbie!” exclaimed Mrs. Miller. “I had to learn to speak up to show that I knew what I was talking about.”

As she gained experience, Mrs. Miller did not forget the values that she and Larry committed to when they started their business, primarily the values of community service and philanthropy. She reflected on the economic crisis in 2008 and 2009 when Larry fell ill. “I told my son, ‘I know that we need to do everything that we can to keep the business alive, but we cannot stop giving.’ We couldn’t give at the level that we did before, but we did not stop giving.”

Mrs. Miller closed with her philosophy on philanthropy by saying, “We have opportunities beyond our capacities when we accept the role of sharing what we have with others. There is so much need all around us but there is so much opportunity to enrich lives and make a difference in this world.”

The BYU Political Science Department sponsors the G. Homer Durham lecture every year, inviting notable speakers to discuss social, political and historical topics. G. Homer Durham served as an educator, General Authority in the Church and as Church Historian during his exemplary life.

What the Beijing 2022 Games Taught Us About US–China Relations

There’s nothing quite so unifying as the Olympics. We watched the world’s greatest athletes compete and experienced the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. But the conversation surrounding this Winter Olympics was a bit more complicated.

Concerns about China’s human rights violations, athletes’ free speech, and the politics of the International Olympic Committee were swirling around like the snow that didn’t fall in Beijing. Eric Hyer, associate professor of political science at BYU who studies China, has a unique perspective on the situation.

Hyer is the coordinator for Asian Studies at BYU. His knowledge and interest in China foreign policy began as a youth living in Japan and Taiwan and continues through his scholarly work, including his latest book “The Pragmatic Dragon: China’s Grand Strategy and Boundary Settlements,” published in 2015.

“The Olympics have always been a political event — that’s just something that comes with the territory — and the Chinese are experts in making a spectacle of national pride,” says Hyer. When China hosted the 2008 Beijing Olympics, they sent the message that China was taking off as a global superpower, a real international leader.

The message was very different this year. With the predominant global economy, China no longer has to prove their power and seemed to be saying, “We are here and you can’t ignore us.” 

“The Chinese have demonstrated now that they’re not going to back down or try to please the United States. They’re going to go their own direction,” says Hyer of China’s global assertiveness in the last decade.

This shift in messaging is especially apparent in the way that Chinese officials are communicating about the human rights violations currently happening in Xinjiang Province. The United States has accused China of committing cultural genocide among the Uyghur population, citing incarceration in re-education camps, restrictions on religious practices, forced sterilization, torture, and forced labor. Chinese officials continue to deny accusations, and refer to U.S. pressures as “political posturing.”

These pressures seemed to be coming to a head at this year’s Olympics, with U.S. officials declaring a diplomatic boycott, followed by Canada, the United Kingdom, Japan, Denmark, Belgium, and India, among other countries. Hyer believes this boycott may not have the intended effect.

“The Chinese seem to be using this as an example of the United States’ diminishing world power. They’ve responded by saying that the United States tried to organize this big boycott and it just didn’t gain much momentum or influence with very many countries, and they see this as an opportunity to show that the U.S. is not as powerful as it used to be.”

As far as the situation in Xinjiang goes, Hyer has watched things unfold for years. During his research on China’s border disputes in 2006, he published a scholarly article titled, “China’s Policy Toward Uighur Nationalism,” that analyzed the relationship between the Chinese government and the Uyghur population in Xinjiang. 

Hyer expressed the dramatic change in Xinjiang since that article was written. As worldwide concerns about Muslim extremists have grown, China has targeted the Uyghur Muslims as a potential threat to national security measures. Hyer says, “The Chinese are dead set on forcing Uyghurs to essentially forget their language, forget their customs, forget their religion, and embrace being Chinese. It’s a project of total assimilation. And in that sense, it’s cultural genocide.”

Unfortunately, Hyer doesn’t foresee China having a change of heart anytime soon. “The United States and some European allies continue to push human rights, but China just doesn’t respond anymore,” Hyer says. “It’s unfortunate but we’re losing traction when it comes to human rights.”

“It’s a dilemma. On one hand, we are really unhappy with the human rights situation in China, and at this particular moment the human rights situation in Xinjiang. On the other hand we would really like to see the Olympic events go forward without any problems so the athletes can have good competition and demonstrate their years of training.” 

While the Olympic games have come to a close, concern about China’s human rights violations should not.

If learning about topics like this interests you, the Political Science department offers major tracks in Global Development and International Strategy and Diplomacy, and the Kennedy Center offers a major in International Relations.

YOU Can Be a Social Scientist

What do you want to be when you grow up? It’s a hard question to answer, made even harder if you can’t picture someone like you in the role you dream of. 

The College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences is hosting monthly “Picture a Social Scientist” events to promote belonging. Each event will feature inspiring social science professionals students can relate to. 

“Our student body doesn’t always look like our faculty, and that creates a disconnect between role models and the groups we want to reach,” explained Mikaela Dufur, associate dean and professor of sociology. “We have such talented students and we just want to make sure that they know they belong in these spaces.” 

The “Picture a Social Scientist” campaign is designed to fulfill two goals: to provide role models in social science for students from underrepresented groups and to help people who aren’t in those groups broaden their picture of what a social scientist is. 

“We want underrepresented students to consider potential pathways they can follow to see themselves in social science. And we want to help change people’s perspective so when they picture a psychologist or a geographer or a sociologist, maybe they’ll picture someone who looks different from them and broaden their own minds,” said Dufur.

The first activity will be a panel this week titled, “Picture a Black Social Scientist,” featuring Sherinah Saasa, assistant professor of social work, Ryan Gabriel, assistant professor of sociology, and Zyon Smiley, a psychology department alumnus who is currently studying for an MPA. The panel will be held on Thursday, Feb. 17, at 3 p.m. in room B192 of the Joseph F. Smith Building (also known as the Education in Zion Auditorium).

Future events will explore themes such as depression and anxiety, neurodiversity, and being a woman or a parent or managing a dual-career family in the social sciences. Students can expect to be enriched by new perspectives and gain insights on their own social science ambitions from each month’s guests.

Celebrate Valentine’s Day With a Free Relationship Checkup

In addition to your regular Valentine’s Day traditions this year, take advantage of the Comprehensive Clinic’s free relationship checkup.

By taking inventory of your relationship, you and your partner can create a deeper connection and build a stronger bond. In a relationship checkup, married, engaged, or dating couples have the opportunity to discover strengths in their relationship as well as new ways to improve. 

Checkups are conducted by graduate interns in BYU’s marriage and family therapy program and consist of three to five 50-minute sessions. In the checkup, couples participate in structured discussion, interviews, and questionnaires. By working together to build a healthier relationship, you’ll be saying “I love you!” in a brand new way.

Call 801-422-7759 to schedule your checkup or visit comprehensiveclinic.byu.edu.

Poor Mental Health in Adolescence Precursor of Rapid Aging

Dr. Terrie E. Moffitt to deliver upcoming Hinckley Lecture

The 18th annual lecture of the Marjorie Pay Hinckley Endowed Chair in Social Work and the Social Sciences is titled, “Surprises About Mental Health Revealed by Following 1,000 People for Decades.” Terrie E. Moffitt, professor of Social Development at King’s College in London and the Nannerl O. Keohane University Professor of Psychology at Duke University will present her research on Thursday, Feb. 3 at 7:30 p.m. in the Hinckley Center Assembly Hall.

Moffitt serves is associate director for the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study in New Zealand, a longitudinal study that has followed a birth cohort of 1,000 participants for nearly 50 years. This study has an unheard of retention rate with 94% of the remaining living subjects still participating.

The latest research from this longitudinal study explores the link between mental health in young people and faster biological aging, the likelihood that the majority of people will struggle with mental health at some point in their life and the value of holistic psychological treatment.

By tracking the life histories of study participants, Moffitt discovered that those who were diagnosed with mental disorders as adolescents also aged quickly. According to biomarkers of physical health, these people aged twice as fast as normal while those with good mental health in their youth showed very little aging.

Moffitt also recognized that over 800 of the 1,000 study participants met the diagnostic criteria for a mental health problem at least once in their now 50 years of life. “If you follow people long enough, almost everybody will have some brush with mental health issues. There’s no room for stigma,” says Moffit.

Many study participants also suffered from a variety of mental health issues throughout their lives. Moffit recommends that mental healthcare providers shift their focus from working through a single diagnosis at a time to doing more to encourage healthy lifestyle skills. This approach can potentially prevent the snowball of other mental health issues in the future and help people enjoy healthier, longer lives overall. “Don’t just treat the one thing that’s wrong today but give them skills they can use to stay healthy the rest of their lives,” says Moffitt.

The lecture is free and open to public. Per university event guidelines, attendees should wear a mask and must provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test. More information is available at https://hinckleychair.byu.edu/2022-hinckley-lecture.

The lecture will be recorded and available for online viewing at a later date.