Toward a Positive Psychology of Coping with Anticipated Events

Article excerpt

Many people appear to be quite resilient to significant stress suggesting that they may possess an orientation to events and life that is resistant to such threats. We propose that one significant aspect of this orientation is the tendency to view adversities as something that can happen to anyone and is reflected in the tendency of people entering uncertain contexts to prepare by imagining a range of possible outcomes, both desired and undesired. This preparatory work facilitates the immediate implementation of effective problem solving and support seeking strategies should the desired outcome seem in doubt. We refer to this orientation as the realistic orientation and review evidence suggesting that such an orientation is associated with realistic ? but not unrealistic ? optimism and smooth adaptation to adversity.

Keywords: proactive coping, realistic orientation, optimism

Research on the psychological dimensions of human stress has been rooted historically in clinical psychology, where, understandably, the concern has been with alleviating distress and faciUtating adaptation (SeUgman & Csikzszentmihalyi, 2000). Presented with clients suffering from debilitating grief, depression, anxiety, chronic pain, and a variety of other distressing conditions with psychological aspects, psychologists' attention focused on ways to understand stress and coping, and how they might help alleviate the distress they saw in their clients. Psychologists' attempts to understand what it means to adapt were therefore based on the experiences of those who were seeking help. As has been noted, such an understanding may lead to a view of coping and adjustment that does not apply outside of the help-seeking or clinical domain (e.g., Taylor & Brown, 1988). As research turned to understanding how people who do not seek treatment adjust to adversity and grow, a positive psychology of human adaptation was born.

Positive psychology represents a branch of psychological science concerned with understanding the development of well-being, virtue, and resilience. Our perspective is that well-being, virtue, and resilience are achieved by complex strivings that are not attributable merely to being optimistic, focusing on the positive, and expressing positive emotions. Rather, well-being, virtue and resilience come by a variety of means, some of which include thoughtful reflection on a wide range of positive and negative personal experiences (past and present), by pursuing intrinsically meaningful and challenging goals, and by developing a realistic understanding of oneself (one's abiUties, strengths, weaknesses) and the context or environment in which one finds oneself (Colvin & Block, 1994). This is not to say that optimism, focusing on positive, and expressing positive emotions are not involved in the development of well-being, virtue, and r?sinent outcomes, but rather that they do not tell the whole story. Thusly, our notion of positive psychology does not ignore or downplay negative thoughts, negative emotions, or doubts. Indeed, a number of studies suggest that active processing or contemplation of negative and threatening information plays an important role in health, well-being, and personal growth (e.g., Davis & Morgan, 2008; Niederhoffer & Pennebaker, 2009; Larsen, Hemenover, Norris, & Cacioppo, 2003).

The focus of much of our work concerns the processes by which everyday people appraise and respond to the particular meanings engendered in major stressful events and situations (e.g., Davis & Morgan, 2008; Davis, Nolen-Hoeksema, & Larson, 1998; Davis, Wohl, & Verberg, 2007; Davis, Wortman, Lehman, & Silver, 2000). The death of one's spouse, for instance, carries many meanings (the loss of a soulmate, the loss of shared memories, perhaps a loss of faith or hope, the shattering of dreams), and each one of these meanings represents an issue that may need to be addressed in coping with "the loss. …