Dr Suzy Green – The Positivity Prescription

Dr Suzy Green from The Positivity Institute joins me to discuss her new book The Positivity Prescription. This is a book (and a conversation) that comes at a very timely point in all our lives.

Dr Suzy Green – The Positivity Prescription Introduction

As you know, mental health is a big issue and you may also have been told sometime in your life to be positive. Well, my guest today has dedicated her life to the science behind positive psychology, empowering individuals to be the best they can be. And in the process, deal with many of those mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and of course much more. My guest today is Dr Suzy Green. Now, Suzy is a psychologist, she’s a life coach, an author, a speaker, and an all-round font of knowledge when it comes to the world of positive psychology and the power of positivity.

Suzy is not only a practising psychologist, but she’s also widely published in many respected journals. She’s a senior lecturer in applied psychology at the University of Sydney. She is honorary vice president of the International Society for Coaching Psychology and is an affiliate of the Institute for Well-being at Cambridge University.

Suzy currently holds honorary academic positions at the Centre for Positive Psychology at the University of Melbourne and the Black Dog Institute. And she’s also the founder of the Sydney based, The Positivity Institute, and has just written a book which we’re going to discuss today called The Positivity Prescription. Suzy has literally helped thousands of Australians prevent and overcome mental health issues, and I’m really looking forward to sharing some of her knowledge with us here today. I hope you enjoy this conversation I have with Dr Suzy Green.

Podcast Transcript

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Hello and welcome to Unstress. I’m Dr Ron Ehrlich. As you know, mental health is a big issue and you may also have been told sometime in your life to be positive. Well, my guest today has dedicated her life to the science behind positive psychology, empowering individuals to be the best they can be. And in the process, deal with many of those mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and of course much more. My guest today is Dr Suzy Green. Now, Suzy is a psychologist, she’s a life coach, an author, a speaker, and an all-round font of knowledge when it comes to the world of positive psychology and the power of positivity.

Suzy is not only a practising psychologist, but she’s also widely published in many respected journals. She’s a senior lecturer in applied psychology at the University of Sydney. She is honorary vice president of the International Society for Coaching Psychology and is an affiliate of the Institute for Well-being at Cambridge University.

Suzy currently holds honorary academic positions at the Centre for Positive Psychology at the University of Melbourne and the Black Dog Institute. And she’s also the founder of the Sydney based, The Positivity Institute, and has just written a book which we’re going to discuss today called The Positivity Prescription. Suzy has literally helped thousands of Australians prevent and overcome mental health issues, and I’m really looking forward to sharing some of her knowledge with us here today. I hope you enjoy this conversation I have with Dr Suzy Green. Welcome to the show Suzy.

Dr Suzy Green: Thank you, Ron. Thanks very much for having me.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Suzy, I know we spoke many years ago on another podcast I did, but I’ve been so looking forward to getting you onto mine. And before we dive in, I wondered if you could just give our listener a little bit of a short history of your professional journey that’s led you to this point.

Dr Suzy Green: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I guess I came to psychology as a mature age student in my 20s, and I realized in the very first lecture that this was my calling if you like. And it took me a long time, think eight to 10 years and two children later, I finished my masters and then a doctorate, clinical doctorate in clinical psychology.

But I guess part of my doctorate, the research component was focused on evidence-based life coaching as a mental health prevention intervention, which was so unheard of in those days. And in fact, the head of our department wasn’t very keen on me doing a study in life coaching when all my colleagues were doing depression and anxiety and schizophrenia.

But we were able to really, I guess, challenge him and suggest that our role as clinical psychs is not just treatment, that we have a very important role in prevention and promotion. And we were able to show that, that taking a proactive approach through setting personally meaningful goals and making progress towards them correlates with lower levels of depression, anxiety and stress, and high levels of well being.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Well, I know this life coaching, we were just talking about it before we came on, I know this life coaching, evidence-based life coaching, has been developing over the last 20 years. Tell us a bit about that, because so many people call themselves coaches, don’t they?

Dr Suzy Green: Yes. And look, people have a lot of associations, I guess, with the word coaching. It did come out of sports coaching, I guess, originally, and there are health coaches and life coaches and business coaches. And I guess I was really fortunate because I was able to do my doctorate, as I said, on what we call evidence-based coaching. And at the time the University of Sydney had only just launched their coaching psychology unit in 2000. And in fact, we’ve just celebrated the 20 year conference just last weekend.

And so I was supervised, secondary supervisor was Professor Anthony Grant, who we just very sadly lost a few weeks ago. And so I ended up teaching at the University of Sydney in the coaching psychology unit for 10 years. And I ended up teaching on applied positive psychology because the field of positive psychology was emerging out of the US at the time. And I was able to teach it within a coaching psychology framework. And that’s really been the area that I’ve been publishing on and talking about for the last 20 years.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Well, I know we’re going to talk about that, but before we do, and we hear so much about mental health being a major issue in our society, both nationally and internationally, how are we doing as a nation?

Dr Suzy Green: Yeah. Not great, I think. I think the stats haven’t improved, I think it’s probably still one in five people will suffer from a depressive episode. Anxiety disorders are on the rise, as you know. We do a lot of work in education, we see it in senior high school students. And I think where we have progressed is that we’re all talking about it a lot more.

We have RU OK Day, and I mean, organizations like Melbourne and Black Dog, who I’m associated with, do an amazing job and I have definitely seen a shift in people being encouraged to talk about it. But I think we’ve got a long way to go, around in people actively seeking therapy.

Of course, I like coaching from a proactive space, but I would strongly suggest that a lot of people would benefit from some therapy that doesn’t necessarily have to be a year on the couch like in the Freudian days, but perhaps a series of shorter sessions that as many of my clients have told me over the years, it’s changed their life.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Well, I know personally, I’ve had several experiences at that and I must say there’s something cathartic about having to articulate how you feel to somebody who you’re not connected with because when you’re talking to somebody who you are connected with, you might have to listen to their problems as well. There’s something very cathartic about that in itself, but then the path they take you down can be literally life changing.

Dr Suzy Green: It absolutely can, and I think talking through helps to process it. And of course having someone reflect back different perspectives on it, different ways of viewing it. But I guess I won’t suggest it’s an easy path, I’ve had my own therapy, it’s one of the hardest things I think. It does require vulnerability and courage, but it’s absolutely worth it in the long run.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: I couldn’t agree more. Now listen, you mentioned positive psychology, and I wondered before we dive into your book, I wondered if you might share with us a little bit about positive psychology in general and your work. Well, I think you’ve given us a hint about The Positivity Institute that you’re working in and with.

Dr Suzy Green: Yes, absolutely. So formerly launched in 1998 when professor Martin Seligman, who I’m assuming some of your listeners will be familiar with, but he was the current President of the American Psychological Association, and in his presidential speech he said, “The time has come for psychology to stop focusing on what’s wrong with people and start focusing on what’s right with them.”

And he’s done an incredible job, Martin, of taking not just positive psychology, but psychology out to the world. And there’s a huge movement in education called Positive Education, which I’ve been involved with and we’re now seeing it spread into organizations and into the community through organizations like Action for Happiness.

It is often defined as the science of wellbeing, I’d agree with that, it is, but for me, I prefer the definition by Shelly Gable and Jonathan Haidt, which is, it’s the science of the conditions and processes that lead to optimal human functioning. So it really is the science of us at our best, and it sits on the shoulders of humanistic psychology.

Again, some of your listeners might be familiar with in the ’50s and ’60s, an amazing psychologist like Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow that spoke about self-actualization and the fully functioning individuals. So for me, positive psychology is really more about personal growth and being yet the best that you can be, fulfilling your potential.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: I love it. Well, it’s a theme that we talk about, I talk about in my book, but I think it’s a great structure for approaching how we should be thinking. And which brings us, Suzy, to your book. And I’ve been reading it recently, and I have to say it’s fabulous.

Dr Suzy Green: Thank you.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: The Positivity Prescription. Now, can you tell us a bit about it? Tell us, well, again, why you wrote it. I think again but share with us why tell us about it.

Dr Suzy Green: So it’s funny Ron, after I finished my doctorate, as I said, I taught, I was an adjunct lecturer. I’ve never been a full time academic. I still hold an honorary position at Melbourne University in the PositivePsychology Centre, but I’m really a practitioner. So, I spent years and years working clinically as a clinical psych, doing counselling work and doing coaching, personal coaching and executive coaching. I did for 10 years with organizations like PWC, the Australian Federal Police.

But during that time as a practitioner, I just loved the science. And in fact, my top strengths, which I talk about in the book, are curiosity and love of learning. And so I continued to stay on top of the science and I ended up, at this point, I think I’ve published 20 peer review articles, journal articles. I’ve done four randomized control journals on coaching, and the rest are book chapters in academic texts. So for non-academic, that’s-

Dr Ron Ehrlich: That’s pretty damn good.

Dr Suzy Green: It’s quite funny actually. And then I sort of thought, look, really, I’m doing lots of workshops out there in the workplace, and I’m talking about this and I really want it to go out for the general public. So it’s been a dream of mine for many years to write a book for the general public. And it took me about two years with my busy schedule, but it’s been a joy and I’m really happy. I read it myself in January, I made a couple of little tweaks to it, but I’m actually really happy with it.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: I’m sure you are, and so you should be. It’s a six-week program, you cover mood, motivation, might, meaning, mindfulness and mindset. Now Suzy, I mean, you could have called it the 6:00 AM program, but I guess 3:00 AM may have had a bit of a say on that. I wonder if we might touch on a couple of those things. Like for example, week one is mood, what’s the difference between mood and emotion?

Dr Suzy Green: Yes. So I do talk about it in the book, and generally, we find that most people don’t fully understand. We don’t know much. We haven’t got much of a, I guess even a vocabulary around our emotions. I’ve run lots of emotional intelligence programs over the years, and our vocabulary is fairly limited, but so emotions fleeting, they can shift.

I mean, the four primary emotions being fear, anger, sadness and happiness. And Ekman, Paul Ekman, did some work, he found another two there as well. And then a mood tends to be when you got a sustained emotional state. So particularly coming from clinic side myself, so if you’re suffering, I guess, particularly from a disorder like depression, then you would be experiencing a low mood, which is more around sadness and which then develops into clinical depression.

So mood is sort of more of a sustained, when you wake up and you think, oh, I’m in a good mood or a bad mood. But emotions are a little bit more fleeting. But what I really wanted to, I guess, encourage people to think about, because in positive psychology, for anyone that’s done any reading or been to any courses, it’s very focused on positive emotions. And the reason for that is because we didn’t really do that before positive psychology emerged.

As a clinical psych, I had lectures again on fear, anger, shame, disgust and guilt. I’d never had a lecture on love and joy and gratitude. So it wasn’t until positive psychology emerged, and particularly Professor BarbaraFredrickson’s work on positive emotions, that we now know there are 10different positive emotions, and we know about the ways that we can enhance those positive emotions.

Dr Suzy Green: But I didn’t want people to think that it’s all about being happy all of the time, Ron. So I wanted to talk about the full range of human emotions, and I guess I’m suggesting that as psychologists, we’ve been very well trained to help you with emotions. And look, we use the labels negative, I really struggle with those terms because even negative emotions like fear can be positive when they’re protective of us.

But in the chapter, I do talk about the importance of experiencing the full range of human emotions, but we focus in more on the positive emotions because that’s where I guess the positive psychological science sits. And there are some really lovely activities we can do to boost our positive emotional state, which has been shown to not just help us feel good, but it affects how we function on a day today basis.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Can you give us an example?

Dr Suzy Green: Yeah. So some fantastic studies, I’ll just try and think of the top of my head. And they do, in scientific studies, they induce people into either a positive emotional state or a negative. And they do that through weather, selecting days to run the studies if it’s a really gloomy, rain thunder stormy day, or a beautiful bright sunny day. And then they use music as mood induction as well.

A fantastic study that was done over at University of South Wales actually, using a corner store, just a little shop there, and they had people come into the store on both the positive emotional days and the negative. And then they had a little set of figurines sitting at the shop counter. And as people had made their purchase, left the shop, the researcher stopped and asked them to do a recall. What did you notice was sitting on the bench as you made your purchase?

And those in the negative emotional state had a significantly higher recall of what was there. Whereas, the people in the positive emotional state didn’t actually notice that. And in fact, this is sort of aligned to other research that shows, when you’re in a positive emotional state, your visual perception broadens. So you’re actually seeing more in your environment. You’re up. You’re looking around, you’re not actually noticing details.

So I used to say to my students when I was marking exams, you’d better hope I’m in a good mood because I’ll miss the mistakes. So we know that, again, using those labels negative but particularly fight and flight, fear and anger, draws our attention down to address what we need to address in the moment.

Dr Suzy Green: And that’s a protective mechanism, and very important for our survival. But these positive emotions tend to broaden our, as I said, perception. We’re more creative. There have been some fantastic studies on people coming up with a longer list of ideas or solutions to problems.

There’s been some great work with medical practitioners, doctors, surgeons, actually making faster and better decisions when they’re put into a positive mood state. So I think the message is that, yes, we all know they feel good, but they can really impact on how we, again, function and operate in our day to day basis.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Well, I mean, that is just an amazing observation, because my first reaction when I heard you say that is, Suzy, you’ve got to get down and talk to the Australian government really quickly.

Dr Suzy Green: Oh, yeah.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: I’m being serious. You said positive emotions broaden your visual perception. Now, you kind of think about, not just people making policy decisions, but even doctors in their own specialty sitting in their practices and not thinking holistically about a healthcare problem. You wonder about what…

And this is about change and all of that, which we’re going to talk about as well. And the other thing that I thought was interesting was, I did have followed the work of Martin Seligman, you I think put me onto him many years ago, but originally it was focused on happiness and now to focus on wellbeing, which is interesting, isn’t it?

Dr Suzy Green: Well, I’m actually happy about that, Ron, because I was never happy about-

Dr Ron Ehrlich: You were never happy about happy.

Dr Suzy Green: I wasn’t, because again, I think even though Martin comes from a clinic psych background, I think it was very much. I mean, people want to be happier. It worked very well, I guess, in the early stages. From a marketing perspective, it made the front cover of Time Magazine, the big yellow, happy, smiling face.

But I knew as a clinical psych, that I usually say they lock you up if you walk around with that smiley face all day every day, I can assure you of that. So I didn’t want people to get the message that it’s all about being happy all of the time because it’s just not normal. I mean, those emotions like fear and anger and sadness, there are appropriate emotions to situations that occur in our lives.

And we’d be more concerned if you didn’t experience some of those emotions. It’s just when they go to their clinical extremes. So, for example, when fear becomes an anxiety disorder when anger becomes rage, when sadness becomes clinical depression, that they start to become problematic, but otherwise they’re really normal. And we need to understand that.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: And another term that came up in your book early on, I’ve not read through the whole book, I have to admit that, but it was self-actualization. Talk to us a bit about that, because it gives us a bit of a clue as to how we’re doing this.

Dr Suzy Green: That’s right. And I found, you probably have too, that the term sort of made it out. People are using that term. I know one of my friends said her husband said once he got to a fridge that had the ice cube, you just press and got the ice cube, that he’d reached self-actualization.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Wow, that was easy.

Dr Suzy Green: It was really easy, wasn’t it? But the term has made it out there. But it is based on Abraham Maslow’s work and his hierarchy of needs, which again people might be familiar with that you need a certain basis, particularly around security, food and shelter. Then sort of relationships before you can move up to, I guess, concepts like transcendence and moving beyond the self, if you like.

And Maslow did some interesting… It wasn’t that rigorous, the research, I would say at the time, he basically went and asked a lot of friends and colleagues to report what were the symptoms, not the symptoms, what were the signs of a self-actualized person. So it was a bit of a biased sample, I would say. But then he realized that there was a small percentage, I guess.

But more recently, Scott Barry Kaufman, who was a studentof Martin Seligman, PhD student, he’s been publishing on it. So there’s some great papers that Scott’s doing. You can go to his website, he’s actually got,I think, a new scale where you can look at it. And I’ve been really happy about that because he’s sort of bringing that back, as I said, into positive side, because I guess in the early days it was focused on happiness and now it’s very focused on wellbeing, which is important. But again, for me it is more about the personal growth aspect as well.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Because the kind of… I mean, I’m very involved in nutritional and environmental medicine as well, and in recent years we hear about the gut as the second brain and we all know about mood and food, when we’re both positive when we’re eating well, we feel great. And when we’re feeling crap, we eat terribly. What do you think? How do you work that role into the mental health positive psychology prescription?

Dr Suzy Green: Yeah, I think it’s really important. In my training, we didn’t really cover that at all, and I’m hoping that I’m not, I can’t say for sure whether the newer psych training programs are taking that into consideration, but I know from working with hundreds of clients that would be one of the first things. And in fact, we often, not often, we are required to ensure that there aren’t any physiological issues before we start treatment. So we’d ensure that they’ve seen their doctor, for example.

But one simple, I guess, strategy that we use in our workshops and in our coaching is, we ask people, have you taken your MEDS? Or, are you taking your MEDS? And med stands for meditation, some form, there are various forms as you would know. E is Exercise. Again, some form it’s got to work and fit into your lifestyle. D is diet. And I usually say, eat the food, is it mood food? And then S is sleep. But it is an area that I’ve been learning a little bit more about at the moment, and microbiome as well. And I went to a health retreat. So I’m quite intrigued. But I guess what I’m saying is, you probably are aware that we’ve often set in silos in health having one-

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Well, it depends how positive our emotion is, I guess, as to how visually broadened we’re willing to go.

Dr Suzy Green: Exactly, exactly. So I’d love to see a bit more interdisciplinary conversations happening.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Yeah. I mean, sleep as you mentioned is another one. And I know after a few nights of poor sleep, my brain goes into some very dark places. So I can only imagine, well, I don’t have to imagine, because I’m often surprised when I talk to patients and they’ve been on antidepressants for many, many years and no one’s really addressed the meds, the sleep. Anyway, but then another one that you cover is motivation. And I guess that change is always challenging, not just personally, but as a society. What are some of those challenges to our motivation?

Dr Suzy Green: Yeah. Well, if I think back my parents are still alive at 93, which is amazing, and in their lifetime, and particularly, I guess, in the early stages, you were expected to get married, you’d be married, you’d probably just have one marriage for life. My parents again have been married for a very long time. You’d have children, you’d have one job for life, one career, one job, you’d get a gold watch, you’d retire and then you die. It’s very, very linear. And now we’re living in this VUCA world, volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. We’re talking more about life cycles, I guess than a linear type approach. It’s very complex. And yeah, we need to be agile to not just survive but thrive in that environment.

And I guess it’s also willing to hold some of your goals and aspirations lightly, because if you’re too focused on something, particularly into the longer term because things are changing so rapidly. I’ve just been at this conference and there’s a lot of focus about coaching into the future using artificial intelligence and virtual reality, and the world is changing so fast that we’ve got to be prepared to hold, I guess our goals and aspirations lightly, but as long as we keep our values, they’re the things that I guess underpin our goals ideally. So if you’ve still got the values, if you still live in the values, it doesn’t really matter too much around the goal. As long as the value is being lived through the action or the behaviour, then that’s where you’ll get the flow and effect from wellbeing.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: That’s another interesting one, isn’t it? Because people are the resistance to change. I think they often see change as a rejection of the past and that just frightens them, frightens the hell out of them I think. I mean, I’ve been trying to think about what motivates people to make changes, and finding that balance between a rejection of the past and building into the future is real. But I like that. Maintaining values, you can maintain your values but still change your goals.

Dr Suzy Green: That’s it. And I think you’re right, particularly in workplaces. We see change projects coming in, and I consistently have found over the years that the people implementing the change don’t really give the people that are being affected by it, opportunity to grieve if you like. Or to process the letting go of the old way of being, before reinforcing in many ways, people into the new way of being.

And we really need space and time to process the old. And some of us need a bit more time and space than others. Others are very high on challenge if you like, and they love challenge. But a lot of us really need to process how things work. There’s a great model, bridges model of change, and he talks about the letting go process and the need to be able to process the old ways, sitting in the neutral zone.

So even giving people some time to sit in this neutral zone, which can be quite anxiety-provoking because most of us just want to know what’s happening and what’s going to come up ahead. But if you can sit in that neutral zone and then really think through, and again, this depends on how much autonomy you’ve got, if it’s forced on you, that’s different, but if you have got some autonomy, often you find people will rush into a new relationship or a new job when in fact they’re better to sit in the neutral zone.

And perhaps that’s where they’d benefit from seeing a professional. And then systematically look at, what are all the potential pathways into the future or scenarios? And which one’s going to be best aligned with my values and utilize my strengths? And take a bit more time before rushing into the next stages or phases.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: I mean, you mentioned control, and I think the term, popular term, in the past was locus of control, wasn’t it?

Dr Suzy Green: Yeah.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: There’s a kind of idea of… Well, can you explain the locus of control?

Dr Suzy Green: Yeah. So I mean, this concept of locus of control I’ve found is, again, out in the public now, and historically the research has differentiated internal and external locus of control. So people with an external locus of control feel like things are happening to me. I don’t really have much say or control over my environment or what’s happening. And then people with an internal locus of control feel that they do have some control and that despite something being even forced on them, that they still have some choice. And I guess this concept, rather than being a victim of circumstance, they’re a master of their destiny.

And often when people’s mood does start to spiral, and this can happen in depression, their thinking shuts down, which is what we were saying before when you’re in a positive mood state your thinking is open, you see options and solutions, but as your mood starts to spiral, you can actually see those options. So, you’re thinking, oh, there’s nothing I can do in that external locus of control, when in fact I’m sitting there as the high hope positive coach or therapist if you like, and I can see all these options. But it’s so interesting to see when people’s thinking shuts down and they can’t see options and pathways.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: You moved on from that in week three to the word, you used the word might.

Dr Suzy Green: Yes, a bit creative.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: It was creative. Well, you had to fit it into the 6:00 AM. I thought might was good, because it explores strengths and weaknesses. And I think this is where a lot of people do get stuck, isn’t it? Because, are you a glass half full or half empty person? Well, this is on a personal level, isn’t it? Tell us about might.

Dr Suzy Green: So might is for strength. And strength is one of the foundational pieces in positive psychology. It was one of the first activities that Martin Seligman and his colleague, Professor Chris Peterson did, was to create classification of character strengths. So they looked across to history, philosophy, religion, and they came up with six virtues and 24 character strengths.

There are other strength assessment tools, which I’d term more performance strengths. So assessments like the Gallup strengths finder or strengths profile. And there are, I think, 34 in Gallup, 60 in strengths profile, they’re very work-focused, they’re really great to use in a work context.

But what I really focus on in the chapter on might is the character strengths. And there are 24 of them, they are things like kindness, leadership, love, appreciation of beauty and excellence, forgiveness. And the aim here is not just to play to your strengths.

Now, you can do an assessment and you can discover what your top five, which are more likely to be trait-like if you like, you’ve probably had them since you were a child. But the aim, the overall aim, from my perspective, is to develop the full 24 by the time you leave the planet. I know I’m not there yet, but it’s an ongoing project. But in terms of being a good human being, it’s about developing the full 24 character strengths.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Yes. Well, as I said, there is so much in this book, but anyway, I just wanted to touch on a little bit of it. One other one, the next one is meaning, which I know is part of Martin Seligman’s PERMA model. P-E-R-M, and that’s the M, meaning.

Dr Suzy Green: That’s right.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: And meaning is a big one, particularly in our modern world where we just so seem to be so disconnected, and that’s a huge challenge. Tell us about meaning. How do we get started? How do we sort that one out?

Dr Suzy Green: Yeah, absolutely. There’s so much research on meaning, increasing amounts of research on meaning, overall in our lives, but also meaning in the workplace. And I think what I’m seeing anyway is, particularly with the millennials, they want meaning, they want meaningful jobs. They don’t want to just produce widgets if you like. So I have seen a shift.

Whereas I have seen some, I guess, older populations where they have come from where I was saying before with my parents, where it was sort of expected that you were lucky to have a job, you would do your job, it wasn’t meant to be your whole life. And this is a really key point because, that even though the research shows those that view their work as meaningful report significantly higher levels of wellbeing, the most important thing to remember is that we have meaning in some form in our whole life. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to have it at work.

And I know in my lifetime I’ve had jobs that I haven’t seen as very meaningful, in my early part of my life. So as long as you go in,a lot of people go in and do their job, they come home but their family is meaningful, or the community activities they’re involved in are meaningful, but if you can try and make, and sometimes it’s just a cognitive shift, we call it reframing in psychology. It’s just a different way to view your work.

And there was some great research done with janitors in the US, we call them cleaners here in Australia, at a hospital in Michigan. And they looked and they interviewed, and they categorized them into the cleaners that saw their work as a job. I come in, come out, pay the bill. As a career, I’m only doing this as short term and I intend to develop a career.

Dr Suzy Green: And then that’s what they call a calling, which is actually, I see that this is what I’m meant to be doing and have high degrees of meaning in my life. And much to their surprise, there was a very distinct group of cleaners that saw their job as a calling. Now, that might be hard to believe, but when they interviewed them, these cleaners were going above and beyond their job descriptions.

They were escorting family members to the hospital room, they were shifting artwork to stimulate, perhaps submit energy in the patients, and they didn’t see their job as cleaning, they saw their job as having a positive impact on people’s lives. So it doesn’t really matter what job you have, it’s how you choose to view it.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Yes. There’s reframing that, I love that. And that’s such a great example because I can imagine a janitor doing all of those things, making a huge difference to just cleaning the floors. Another week is on mindfulness, and that’s a term we’re hearing a lot about. I mean, in a way it feels a little less challenging than meditation, but is it just meditation light? Tell us, what does mindfulness mean?

Dr Suzy Green: Well, absolutely. Mindfulness is a form of meditation.There are various forms that have been around for a very long time, but I guess we can talk about a dedicated practice and really if you’re very serious about developing your mindfulness muscle, which is really your capacity to have your attention here in the present moment, and not be drawn too much into thinking about what happened half an hour ago or worrying about what’s going to happen in half an hour.

So mindfulness very simply is about being here in the present moment. But you do really need, and this is from the science and my own personal experience, you need, just like going to the gym, you go to the gym, Igo to the gym once a week, it’s the longest hour of the week, I call it, for time lifting weights, strength training, so that when I have to carry 20 bags of Woolies shopping up three flights of stairs, it’s relatively easy.

Dr Suzy Green:

So if you can look at it the same way, if you have a personal practice, then when you do need to sustain or focus your attention, it’s a lot easier. But there are so many levels to mindfulness. So, at its very basic level, it is just an attention training skill, if you like, but once you start to develop it, you become an observer of yourself, of your thinking, of your emotions, of your behaviour.

So, if you’re trying to change behaviour, I used to say to my clients, you really can’t afford not to do some mindfulness practice because, just in terms of how the brain operates with those neural pathways that fire very quickly, particularly if we’ve got habits formed, if we aren’t conscious at what we call the choice point, at the point where we decide to.

Dr Suzy Green: I usually use the analogy of reaching out for a glass of champagne, which I very much enjoy, but during Feb-fast or Oct-over, if you like, rather than automatically and habitually and unconsciously reaching for the champagne forgetting that I’m doing Feb-fast, I more consciously reach for the glass of sparkling mineral water. So that mindfulness allows us to have that choice point to rather than let the old neural pathway fire to say, no, I’m consciously choosing to do something different.

So, it’s really important for behavioural change. It’s really important for our relationships because I usually say, imagine if everybody’s mindfulness level went up one or two points on the planet, we’d have less arguments, we’d have less accidents, because people would be more mindful of what’s coming out their mouth, of how that might impact on the person in front of them. So look, there’s still some critiques about it, and I know this sort of concept of the MAC mindfulness, that is just being rolled out without much thought. But in the book, hopefully, I bust some of those myths and talk about how it can be used from a well-being perspective.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: No, no, I saw, there are, as there are in every single chapter, lots of different exercises and tasks to go through. Look, it’s such a good read and I’d encourage everyone to go through it because there are just so many helpful hints there. Before we finish Suzy, just taking a step back because we are all on this health journey through our modern world together. And I wondered, taking a step back from your role in psychology, what do you think the biggest challenge is for people on our health journey through life, in our modern world?

The Biggest Health Challenge

Dr Suzy Green: Wow, I don’t know. There are so many challenges, and I think as I was trying to suggest before, it was much simpler when it was linear. We now have so many options, which is fantastic. There’s never been a time in history when there’s so many opportunities. I mean, at the same time, there’s so many challenges that we have to address as a society as well. But that can make it very complicated, particularly when you’ve got all these options. You can do so many different things.

So, I think for me again, it comes down to getting really clear on your values, taking some time out, whether that’s in retreat or through a regular meditative or self-reflective practice to think about, who am I? What matters most to me? How do I want to live my life? And the other thing I think I find challenging is, trying to I guess, meet the needs of the different roles that I play as mother, just recently grandmother, Ron.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Yes, congrats.

Dr Suzy Green: And person, and friend. And so again, I think for me, I consciously take time out to think about, how am I going to move forward? And of course, acceptance, a great level of self-compassion and acceptance that we can’t please everybody all the time and we just basically doing the best that we can.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Well, what a great note to finish on. And Suzy, we’ll have links to not only your book but The Positivity Institute. And so thank you so much for joining me today and sharing with our listener your knowledge.

Dr Suzy Green: Thank you, Ron. Thank you for all the wonderful work that you do. I’ve got a copy of your book, I did see PERMA and Martin Seligman within there, which is fantastic, but yes, thank you so much.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: I thought there was so many points there. What about positive emotions resulting in a broader visual perception? There’s so many things went through my mind when Suzy said that because it goes a long way to explaining why people, particularly in our modern world are so closed off to other people’s point of view. I mentioned government, I’d love her to go down and open up the visual perception of our government, but throughout my life, thinking holistically has been a passion of mine and I’ve often been surprised at how narrow-minded people’s view of the world is.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Now, when I took on a role at the beginning of last year as President of the Australasian College of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine, I warned the board that I suffer from chronic overenthusiasm and optimism. I do have a very positive outlook. And perhaps that’s allowed me, for the last 40 years, to keep an open mind and broaden my visual perception, think holistically, wonder at the world and how interconnected everything and everyone actually is, and perhaps that explains why others may be so resistant to that.

I hope that changes. I like Suzy reference to checking on a patient’s meds when assessing their mental health. Now, you may have missed it but I think it was a really important point that so often is overlooked in mental health issues. And she was not referring to meds as in medications, but she was referring to M-E-D-S which stands for, M meditation, E exercise, D diet.

Now, as I mentioned, the gut is the second brain, it’s where 80% of serotonin, an important neurotransmitter. That’s where 80% of the body’s serotonin is produced, which actually happens to be the target of many medications called SSRI, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, mainly common antidepressants. And of course, there are many other neurotransmitters, and actually, our immune system happens to be in the gut. So diet, the D is a big one, and the S, M-E-D-S, stands for sleep.

Now, that is arguably the big one. And as I mentioned, I’m often surprised at how little attention is paid to this very important point. In fact, I think it’s interesting how practitioners often assess this with their patients, by just simply asking them, “How are you sleeping?” And the patient goes, “Yeah, all right.” and that’s a sleep assessment to too many people. There’s so much more to it than that.

Dr Ron Ehrlich: Suzy also described the VUCA, V-U-C-A, world we live in. I love these acronyms. V is for volatile, U is for uncertain, C is for complex, and A is for ambiguous. Now, another recurring theme of this podcast, in my own book is that, as the world we live in becomes more complex, I truly believe the solutions are remarkably simple. Now, being open to change is also another important point and it’s a function of many things.

We touched on the locus of control. Do you have an external locus of control? Are you a victim resistant to change? Or do you have an internal locus of control? Are you the master of what goes on around you to a greater extent, and so allowing you to be open to change? The other issue that affects our ability, or your ability to change is how you deal with our ambiguous world. And it’s sometimes called the tolerance of ambiguity, open to change or not.

Look, Suzy’s book is really terrific, it’s very practical, it’s a very easy read, and it’s really worthwhile. We’ll have links to that and her Positivity Institute in the show notes. It’s a very exciting year ahead, 2020, clearer vision, I hope so. See optimism, positive psychology in action. We’re also going to have some webinars, some online courses, and I’m in the process of organizing a wellness retreat in the second half of the year with some of my guests that I’ve spoken to over the last two years. Very exciting. And I think it’ll be really inspiring. So, until next time, this is Dr Ron Ehrlich, stay well.


This podcast provides general information and discussion about medicine, health, and related subjects. The content is not intended and should not be construed as medical advice or as a substitute for care by a qualified medical practitioner. If you or any other person has a medical concern, he or she should consult with an appropriately qualified medical practitioner. Guests who speak in this podcast express their own opinions, experiences, and conclusions.