Edith Eva Eger

Choosing Hope: The Life of Edith Eva Eger

Chatting from her home in La Jolla, California, the morning after her 91st birthday, Edith Eva Eger is ebullient as she recounts the celebration she shared with good friends. She cut slices of celebratory tiramisu for everyone but took only a bite herself. “I have really bad scoliosis,” she says, “and if I gain weight that cuts down on my mobility and my freedom.” Her curvature of the spine aside, Edith still goes out swing dancing once a week with 93-year-old Eugene Cook, “the dancing partner and soul mate” she met through her acupuncturist. And she maintains her practice as a clinical psychologist. “I am the happiest I have ever been,” she says. “I feel younger today than I did 50 years ago.” That statement coming from any nonagenarian would be notable. But, in light of Edith’s history, it’s remarkable. She was born in Hungary, and as a teenager in the 1940s she was a serious student of ballet and a gymnast training for the next Olympics. But her dreams of winning a medal for her country were smashed when she was told that as a Jew she was no longer qualified to be part of the Olympic team. Not long after, when Edith was 16, she and her family were herded into a wagon and then onto a train, crowded with Jews, and sent to Auschwitz. While her mother was being sent to the gas chamber, camp doctor Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death,” would order Edith to dance for him. She closed her eyes, heard strains of Tchaikovsky and imagined she was dancing Romeo and Juliet in the Budapest Opera House. As she performed pirouettes, her mother’s last words echoed: “We don’t know where we’re going. We don’t know what’s going to happen. Just remember, no one can take away from you what you put here in your own mind.” Surviving Against Incredible Odds A few months later, Edith and her sister Magda would be part of the death march from Mauthausen to Gunskirchen. As she recounts in her newly published memoir, The Choice: Embrace the Possible, out of the 2,000 famished people who marched, only 100 survived. Many fell into ditches along the way; others, too weak to keep moving, were shot on the spot. The sisters would overcome even more remarkable odds. On May 4, 1945, after a year in the camps, Edith, her back broken—a cause of her lifelong scoliosis—and weighing just 70 pounds, was pulled from a pile of corpses by American soldiers. Few had made it to this day of liberation; of the 15,000 people deported from their hometown, Edith and Magda were among fewer than six dozen who survived. Edith would go on to marry Bela, a Slovakian she met on the train to a tuberculosis hospital. They immigrated to the United States, penniless and not speaking a word of English. She was undeterred. While raising three children in El Paso, Texas, Edith became a teacher, was named Psychology Teacher of the Year in 1972 and, then in her 40s, she earned her doctorate in psychology. “I needed to discover what life expected of me,” she says. She also wanted to understand how people could both meet everyday challenges and survive devastating experiences. “How could I help people to transcend self-limiting beliefs,” she asked herself, “to become who they were meant to be in the world?” A Therapy Built on Choice In graduate school, Edith was inspired by the work of positive psychology pioneer Martin Seligman, Ph.D., and that of Albert Ellis, Ph.D., who is considered one of the founders of cognitive behavior therapy. She developed her own approach to working with patients, which she calls Choice Therapy, for choosing compassion, humor, optimism, intuition, curiosity and self-expression. “Every one of us every day can reach for the Hitler within us or to the love within us,” she says. That means, she says, choosing not only to act with kindness toward others but also toward oneself. “It’s important to pay a great deal of attention to self talk,” she says. “When you go to the bathroom in the morning you can look in the mirror and say, ‘It’s going to be another crappy day.’ Or, you can say, ‘I’m going to honor myself, treasure myself, cherish myself and I can make a difference today.’ Practicing love and kindness can be as simple as making eye contact when you go to the grocery store.” Edith’s own impact has been deep. She’s become a renowned specialist in treating patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders and is a consultant in resiliency training to the U.S. Army and Navy. As Mark Divine, a retired U.S. Navy SEAL commander and author of The Way of the SEAL, has written in endorsing The Choice, “I would take Edie Eger on an op with me any day.” Telling Her Truth Ask Edith how long it took her to write her memoir and she’ll tell you it’s taken a lifetime, “and a lot of pain, a lot of tears.” It wasn’t, however, until 11 years ago, when her first great-grandson, Silas, was born and she was approaching 80 that she thought seriously about telling her story. “I thought one day the book will be in his library for his children to read when they want to know about great-great-grandma.” The Choice has been met with rapturous reviews; The New York Times, for one, proclaimed it “mind-blowing.” But more important than accolades for Edith is the hope that, by bearing witness to her own experience and sharing stories of her patients’ triumphs over trauma, the book will be a tool for healing. “Suffering is universal,” Edith says. “Victimhood is optional.” We’ll all inevitably face some kind of affliction, calamity or abuse. We often have little or no control over these outside circumstances. But, she says, “Victimhood comes from the inside. We become victims not because of what happens to us, but when we choose to hold on to our victimization.” We develop, she says, a “victim’s mind”—thinking and actions that are rigid, blaming, pessimistic, stuck in the past and unforgiving. As for herself, Edith says, “I will not forget my time in Auschwitz, but I don’t live there. I call it my cherished wound, because it’s a part of whom I’ve become today.” Moving Forward Edith Eger on how to break out of a victim’s mindset. Give yourself permission to feel what you feel without judging yourself. “When I work with depressed patients, I don’t try to cheer them up,” she says. “Instead I try to give their feelings of despair company. I listen compassionately. I say, tell me more.” To stop repressing your own feelings try this mantra: notice, accept, check and stay. When a feeling like anger, jealousy or sadness comes up, acknowledge and name the feeling. Accept that whatever is triggering the reaction, your feeling is your own. Check your body response: Are you hot? Cold? Is your heart racing? Is your breathing shallow? Finally, recognizing that feelings are temporary, stay with the feeling until it passes or changes. Express yourself. “Expression is the opposite of depression,” Edith says. “When we force our truths and stories into hiding, secrets become their own trauma, their own prison.” Writing about your deepest feelings, even if you keep these accounts private, can be healing. Pick a time of day when you can write uninterrupted for 20 minutes, and write down whatever painful recollections come to mind, whether they’re harrowing or trivial. “There’s no comparison or competition,” Edith says. “Your trauma is your trauma.” Try out a new vocabulary. Before you can change your behavior, you might need to change how you describe your actions to yourself. Instead of saying “I always do this” or “I can’t do that” say, “Up until now I’ve done this.” Or, “In the past, I was this way.” “You can’t change what you did or what was done to you,” Edith says. “Having unpleasant experiences and making mistakes is part of being human. But we can choose how we live now.”
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Environmentalist Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben Is Trying to Save the Planet

Many of us who grew up bribing our moms to drive us to the movies in the family gas guzzler and merrily spraying ourselves with insecticide at camp had no idea that, molecule by molecule, we were tossing damaged carbon particles into the atmosphere and contributing to a larger global problem. Fortunately, while so many of us were picking out a new shade of petroleum-based nail polish at the dime store counter, Bill McKibben, a tall, lanky kid from Boston, was hiking with his dad through the mountains and falling in love with the beauty of the planet’s forests, lakes, mountains and deserts. What we do matters That love, plus an avid curiosity and a sharp intellect that demanded to know how and who and why about everything, have thrust Bill into the forefront of a worldwide movement to reduce carbon particles thrown into the atmosphere by deforestation, aging agricultural practices, idling cars, home furnaces and fossil fuel-burning industries. His awareness of the sheer physicality of the universe—and how we are impacting it on a daily basis—reached critical mass after he finished college and went to work for The New Yorker in Manhattan. Getting in touch with the physical world “I wrote a long piece about where everything in my apartment came from,” Bill says. “I followed the electric lines back to the oil wells in Brazil and the uranium mines in the Grand Canyon, traced New York’s water system, on and on. It taught me that the world is a remarkably physical place, which is a lesson that’s easy to forget. That set me up nicely for reading the early science on climate change in the 1980s and recognizing the planet’s vulnerability.” It also gave him a purpose, one that drove everything he did from the minute he got up in the morning until he went to bed at night, and lit a passion within him to share what was happening to the planet with every one of us. Passion for the planet Bill’s passion to save the planet also led him to big questions—“How much human intervention can a place stand before it loses the essence of its nature?”—and to a purposeful exploration of one strategy after another: simple living, alternative energy, locally sourced food, birth control, new ways of living off the land. Eventually, his belief that the planet could be saved by such seemingly simple practices led him to take action. So he and a group of friends took to the streets and founded the climate change organization 350.org. In the past few years, the organization, with Bill at its helm, has organized more than 15,000 rallies in nearly 200 countries, including the People’s Climate March in New York just before the U.N.’s September climate change summit. Effective activism The group’s tactics are working. They’ve helped raise the whole concept of sustainability to a national debate and have attracted enough attention that decision makers are hearing the roar. In one case, that roar helped convince the World Council of Churches, which represents 500 million Christians in 110 countries and territories around the globe, to dump its investments in fossil fuels. While some don’t agree with some of Bill’s stances, his efforts have won accolades from others. He received the Right Livelihood Award, considered the “alternative Nobel,” in 2014 and has been named the Schumann Distinguished Scholar in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the 2013 winner of both the Gandhi Prize and the Thomas Merton Prize—and Foreign Policy, a journal, named him to its 2009 list of the 100 most important global thinkers. Bill continues to move forward boldly and with purpose to achieve even more.
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Profile: Christopher Peterson

The late Christopher Peterson, Ph.D., was a renowned professor, philosopher, textbook author—and blogger. His blog for Psychology Todaywas called “The Good Life: Positive psychology and what makes life worth living,” and who wouldn’t want to learn about that?“Other people matter,” Chris said, and it became his signature phrase. When he died unexpectedly at 62 in October 2012, there was an outpouring of grief from former students and friends—a Facebook tribute page was established, Psychology Today created a tribute page from his friends and colleagues and The International Positive Psychology Association’s Third World Congress on Positive Psychology devoted an entire session to celebrating his life and legacy.Academically, he was known as one of the pioneers in the positive psychology field. He officially held the Arthur F. Thurnau Professorship at the University of Michigan, where he taught from 1986 until his death. But he cherished most the Golden Apple Award—given annually to a professor who “treats each lecture as if it were his last”—he received from the student body in 2010.His groundbreakingstudy of optimists and pessimists found that optimists are more likely to outlast pessimists. But perhaps his most important professional achievement was as research director of the Values In Action (VIA) project, which produced assessment tools—a set of surveys—he devised along with Martin Seligman, Ph.D.The VIA Institute on Character is a nonprofit formed to advance the science and practice of character. Their aim is to fill the world with greater virtue—i.e. more wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance and transcendence. And they do this by offering the VIA Surveyfree of charge, across the globe. Understanding and using your strengths contributes to increased happiness and better relationships, among other benefits, according to the website.Chris wroteA Primer in Positive Psychology, an accessible introduction to the scientific study of what goes right in people’s lives—instead of psychology’s traditional investigation of what’s wrong. HisPursuing the Good Life: 100 Reflections on Positive Psychologygathers and updates his blog posts. The book’s format—in short, annotated chunks of two or three pages—lends itself to delightful browsing.“There must be an ancient Buddhist aphorism that makes my point profoundly,” he wrote in late 2009, “but I’ll just say it bluntly, in plain 21st century Americanese: Don’t sweat the small stuff; and most of it is small stuff. Days are long. Life is short. Live it well.”
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Profile image of Martin Seligman

Profile: Martin Seligman

Martin Seligman tells how his daughter Nikki told him she’d been a whiner—until her fifth birthday, when she decided to stop. “If I can stop whining,” she added, “you can stop being a grouch.”Marty has since become a champion of the positive in an extraordinary range of applications, including:Education. In 2002 the Department of Education gave Marty $2.8 million to study implementing positive psychology in a Pennsylvania school system. And in 2008 he and colleagues presented a program integrating positive psychology into the curriculum of an Australian school. He has run the first master’s program in positive psychology since 2005. (This October, the British government is sponsoring a worldwide meeting in positive education.)Health. At the Third World Summit on Positive Psychology in June 2013, Marty astonished his audience with two findings. The first showed the incidence of atherosclerotic disease throughout the northeastern United States. The second showed demographic clusters of people who had used words and phrases on Twitter that expressed anger, hostility and aggression, as well as disengagement and lack of social support. The maps were virtually identical. Marty and his colleagues are working now to assess positive psychology’s impact on physiological health.Military. In 2008, Marty was approached to create a positive psychology program for the U.S. Army. The program has measurably reduced anxiety, depression, PTSD and substance abuse. Marty’s next frontier is prospection—how humans use creativity, free will and imagination to navigate the future instead of being bound by the past.Nikki’s scolding has borne positive fruit.
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Profile image of Sonja Lyubomirsky

Profile: Sonja Lyubomirsky

When Sonja Lyubomirsky left Russia in the 1970s and immigrated with her parents to the United States, there was a lot about her new life that was different. To her, the most striking was how happy Americans seemed.That curiosity bloomed into a brilliant career in psychology, and when Martin Seligman, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyiand Raymond Fowler chose 18 of the best and brightest to join them at Akumal, Sonja was included.Sonja’s researchhas been awarded a Templeton Psychology Prize, a Science of Generosity grant, a John Templeton Foundation grant, and a million-dollar grant (with Ken Sheldon) from the National Institute of Mental Health to conduct research on the possibility of permanently increasing happiness.Sonja was drawn to the desire to publish some of these finds as a popular book.It was not an easy decision. There were colleagues who said publishing “how to” happiness material was premature. Sonja herself says she resisted the idea, concerned about the “seeming hokeyness” of some of these simple interventions.Philanthropic impulse eventually won out. In 2007 she published The How of Happiness, the first book by a highly credentialed positive psychologist (Harvard summa cum laude, Stanford doctorate, professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside) to present the latest research in a how-to format. And in 2013 she published The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, But Doesn’t, What Shouldn’t Make You Happy, But Does.That young girl who was so curious about happiness has helped a lot of people have more of it.
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Profile image of Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi

Profile: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced cheek-sent-me-high), called simply Mike by his friends and colleagues, had dedicated his career to the study of what he called flow, the state of being fully engaged in the activity of the moment that is shared by great artists engrossed in their work, teenagers absorbed in a complex videogame sequence, or new lovers in each other’s company.Son of a Hungarian ambassador to Rome, Mike had spent his fairly idyllic childhood in Rome in the 1930s, but the tranquility of those years was soon shattered by the miseries of World War II. He was surprised to see how successful, self-confident adults suddenly became helpless and dispirited as their social supports were shorn away by war and its aftermath. “Without jobs, money or status,” he recalls, “they were reduced to empty shells. Yet there were a few who kept their integrity and purpose despite the surrounding chaos. Their serenity was a beacon that kept others from losing hope.”These observations sparked the young man’s curiosity. What was it that made some people so resilient while others gave in to despondency?When the war ended in 1945, Mihaly was just 10 years old. In the years that followed, he devoured books on philosophy, history and religion, seeking answers to the puzzle of human nature. He became interested in psychology after hearing a lecture by Carl Jung, who he says viewed the human predicament “with an unflinching yet hopeful gaze,” and immigrated to the United States at the age of 22 to pursue his studies.Mike would eventually find a kindred curious spirit in Martin Seligmanand the two of them would spearhead a movementto a more positive psychology.Now, for more than 35 years Mike has been involved in research on topics related to flow. He is the author of Flow, Beyond Boredom and Anxiety, The Evolving Self and Creativity, and is co-author of The Creative Vision, The Meaning of Things and Being Adolescent. He is the C.S. and D.J. Davidson Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif., and director of the Quality of Life Research Center (QLRS), which he founded in 1999. The QLRC is a non-profit research institute which conducts research on a wide range of cutting edge issues in positive psychology, and provides a forum for scholars from all across the globe to extend their research and studies in positive psychology.
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Profile image of Ed Diener

Profile: Ed Diener

For a man told in his 20s that “you can’t measure happiness,” Ed Diener has certainly carved a career out of the impossible. Starting with his elegant Satisfaction with Life questionnaire(five questions, each answered with a digit from 1 to 7), to the database generated by the Gallup World Poll, which measures a representative sampling from 95 percent of the world’s population, Ed has mastered the art and science of putting accurate numbers to the subjective experience of human wellbeing.He points out that even so-called hard science measurements, like those of physics or medicine, are not as precise or infallible as people often think. “Our measurements aren’t perfect, but they’re pretty good—on a par, say, with GDP.”He recalls serving as editor of the famous “nun study,” published in 2001, that so clearly linked happiness to longevity over a stretch of some 70 years. An entirely different set of measurements is the stream of accolades he has received lately. “In the past couple of years I’ve won virtually all the awards in psychology—the biggest award from APA, the biggest award from APS [Association for Psychological Science], honorary doctorates and so forth.… It’s more proof that the field has become more respected.”He’s quick to point out that for him personally, the awards are rather incidental. “I mean, it’s nice to get external acknowledgment. But you still better love your work.”It takes no special index to see that Ed Diener loves his work very much indeed.
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Profile image of Barbara Fredrickson

Profile: Barbara Fredrickson

When Martin Seligmanfirst encountered Barbara Fredrickson’s work, he bounded up the stairs two at a time. He blurted out to his wife: “This is life-changing!” Marty says that while his daughter had convinced his heart that positive emotions serve a valuable function far beyond simply making us feel good, “it took Barbara Fredrickson to convince my head.”Barbara’s broaden-and-build theory showed conclusively that positive emotions play a critical role in human development. But that didn’t mean negative emotions had no value. Such feelings as apprehension, fear, and even anger and outrage serve vitally important roles. The goal of positive psychology, as Marty has pointed out, was not to sweep all negative feelings under the rug and turn people into unthinking smiley faces but to “aim for the optimal balance between positive and negative thinking.”So what exactly was that balance?For example, Barbara points out that her “positivity ratio” is closely echoed in the work of John Gottman, the world’s leading marriage researcher, who spent years studying the emotional dynamics between married couples. For marriages that flourish, reports John, the ratio of positive to negative behavior and communication is about 5-to-1. Less than that, and the marriage is in trouble; down to 1-to-1 or worse, and you’re in divorce court.“What I was seeing,” Barbara writes in her landmark book, Positivity, describing the moment when the discovery first presented itself, “was no less than a prescription for life and how to live it. This stunned me. It still does.”
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