Eager to reach my destination, I raced ahead of my group, climbing up and down steep hills in the 100-degree heat as the sun beat down on my tired body. Sweating profusely, I realized my water supply was dwindling and began to fret. Would my water run out? Would I suffer heatstroke and deliriously wander off the path?
“Stop!” I told myself, realizing I had a choice about which mental path to take—a way out of this negative thinking. I took a few deep, focusing breaths and remembered to “put things into perspective,” tapping into recent resilience training. I then shifted my attention instead to the best thing that could happen and focused on the most probable outcome. This calming exercise helped me realize I was catastrophizing.
There was no evidence to support the fear that I would meet my untimely death. I had trained hard and survived in the heat with little water in the past. There was no reason why I couldn’t overcome this challenge.
With a fresh mind, I examined my choices. I decided to keep going since I still had some energy and couldn’t be certain whether the group was right behind me or if they had any water to spare. I rationed what remained of my water and plodded onward. Two hours later, I reached the first albergue (hostel), exhausted and dehydrated, but feeling a sense of accomplishment. All of this, and it was just day one of my journey.
I was invited to hike more than 100 miles of the Camino de Santiago, or Way of St. James, the centuries-old path that meanders through quaint European villages to the shrine of the apostle St. James in Santiago in northwestern Spain in the summer of 2009. In preparation for the trek, I hiked Vermont’s Green Mountains to acclimate my body and read Paulo Coelho’s The Pilgrimage to shape expectations.
While prepared physically, I hadn’t envisioned the enormous mental toll of the trip, so I was especially fortunate to have just earned a master’s of applied positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania that I could put into practice.
Positive psychology emerged as a field of study in 1998 at the University of Pennsylvania with Martin Seligman, Ph.D.
, leading the way. At the time, Martin was president of the American Psychological Association. Positive psychology is the scientific study of strengths that help individuals and communities thrive. It celebrates what is good and emphasizes that we can choose to flourish
to live our best possible lives.
That mental training proved invaluable throughout the trek. On average, we hiked 10 hours a day, every day, for nearly a week. I hiked over 100 miles—the equivalent of four marathons—in six days! Not to mention the 30-plus-pound pack, overstuffed despite specific advice otherwise, that I toted on my back.
As I left Ponte de Lima, Portugal’s oldest city, on the first day, I was excited to spot the first yellow arrow marking our starting point. Our group created a game to see who could find the yellow arrows first. We’d find them painted onto tree stumps, affixed to road signs perched high above our heads and imprinted onto centuries-old facades.
These vibrant yellow arrows guided us in the right direction, shepherding us to the Camino de Santiago as they have for millions of pilgrims over centuries. Many times, I feared I had taken a wrong turn and was lost. Just as I’d frantically begin searching along cobblestone streets, dirt roads and wooded pathways for the next arrow, it would magically appear, a beacon assuring me I was on track.
Putting Positive Psychology Into Practice
While we might not have yellow arrows pointing the way, positive psychology does give us important guidance on which mental paths to choose. This marathon hike was a real-world example of how I could choose healthier thoughts and actions, rather than wallow in a helpless state of pity, overwhelmed by negative emotions.
The first two days, we “warmed up” by hiking about 16 miles each day. On the third day, we trekked 25 miles, and then a whopping 35 miles the following day, at which point I almost hit a wall. During the final hour of that day’s hike, every muscle in my legs ached, and I experienced spasms in my feet. And to compound matters, it began to rain. Hard. Too exhausted to stop for even a moment (if I did, I might not be able to continue), I left my rain slicker in my pack and plodded on as the drops beat down on my worn body.
I began to feel defeated. I noticed myself becoming resentful of my fellow traveling companions for plotting such an unreasonably long hike (35 miles!). Then, suddenly I stopped in my tracks. I was at a crucial moment. I could freak out and downward spiral into negativity, or I could change my thinking and do something positive in the moment. Aha! I realized I had a choice.
Focusing on the Positive
I shifted my attention from the throbbing pain in my legs to the beautiful flowers that surrounded me in the vineyards. By broadening my perspective, I was able to marvel at nature’s awesome beauty. I reached for my camera and started snapping pictures of the flowers. Soon, I noticed more and more exquisite flowers that seemed to emerge out of nowhere—tall, regal purple flowers waving in the wind and small, simple, white flowers with delicate petals. As I focused my camera on them, they slowly transformed into magnificently intricate creations. Once I focused on positivity, it moved into the foreground and my pain subsided. The beauty of it is that we can decide which to see.
I also did some anticipatory savoring—another positive psychology concept—of the warm shower that awaited me when I reached the albergue
. I looked forward to the fine albariño wine and a sumptuous meal of sautéed broccoli, green peppers, mushrooms and cannelloni beans that would be prepared by “Chef” Delvino, as we fondly referred to our fellow pilgrim, due to his ability to whip up a delicious meal with a few simple ingredients. I also listened to my favorite classical music, like Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” on my iPod to increase my positive emotions during the particularly challenging times of the journey.
Additionally, I reframed what was happening into a positive experience. No longer did I see the storm as a nuisance, but rather a welcome pleasure, reveling in the cool rain as it soothed my hot, achy body.
It worked! Not only did I finish the last hour of the most difficult day’s journey, but also I mustered up enough strength to get through the following day’s 20-mile trek and the final 10-mile stretch to Santiago on the sixth day. My new Portuguese friends and fellow pilgrims embraced one another and shared tears of joy upon reaching our goal of hiking the long and laborious Camino de Santiago.
It was one of my most rewarding physical, mental and spiritual experiences. I learned how much untapped strength I have. Regardless of how difficult a situation appears, we always have a choice of how we react, respond and feel. I realized how positive choices enable us to push ourselves beyond our preconceived limits, making us stronger than we ever imagined.
What I Learned Along the Way
Many life lessons emerged throughout my pilgrimage and continue to unfold in my life today. I coined the term “overthinking-anticipating-maximizer” to describe how I had habitually lived most of my life. The phrase depicts a thinking and behavioral style that hasn’t always served me well. I now realize this ritualized pattern of living isn’t written in stone. Rather, it’s composed of learned habits I created, but ones I can unlearn by replacing them with healthier habits. While it will take practice, it is something I can change, resulting in a better state of mind.
Here’s a look at each of the three words that have defined my behavior to date:
I tend to think quickly and to excess, which can be toxic. Rather than taking simple, sequential steps forward, my mind travels at such rapid speeds that it often veers dangerously off course, taking me on an arduous route. I realized this self-imposed daily mental race exhausts me far more than any physical race I could ever possibly run. And I regularly long for a “mental holiday.” The hike taught me to slow down and focus on taking one step at a time. Practicing these techniques helps me tame my out-of-control thoughts and experience a more peaceful state of mind and better quality of life.
Anticipating. Being naturally zestful with a tendency to anticipate, I get easily excited about upcoming opportunities and promising events. Simultaneously, this future-focused preoccupation triggers unnecessary anxiety when confronting uncharted territory. I often get mired in negative what-ifs. What if I run out of water? What if I get lost? What if my throbbing toe falls off? Hiking the Camino helped me practice redirecting my attention to what I could do now in the present. Further, being grounded in the present while truly savoring the moment unleashed my potential to experience awe. Now, when my head starts to spin out of control, I ask myself, “What is the smallest positive thing I can do now that will make the greatest positive impact in the moment?” Reminding myself that I have choices helps prevent me from getting stuck in negative thinking traps.
I’ve always prided myself on being the best. After several conversations with psychologist Barry Schwartz discussing his renowned and relevant research, I learned that this intense striving for the best makes me a “maximizer,” as opposed to a “satisficer,” who is content with good enough. When advised to pace myself the first day of the Camino, that wasn’t good enough for me. I wasn’t satisfied with simply getting to Santiago; I wanted to get there first—and in record time. So, what did I do? I ran…uphill! Racing ahead of my companions at full-force not only wiped me out, but also robbed me of opportunities to make personal connections (not to mention share water).
Eight years later, as a married mother with a charming 6-year-old boy, I’m living a vastly different life than the single, free-spirited New Yorker who set out for Santiago. However, the indelible lessons I learned on the importance of slowing down, savoring and simplifying continue to inform the way I live today. Having always been a bit of a speed demon—a fast walker, talker and thinker—I am practicing decelerating my daily pace (to the delight of my more deliberate-minded philosopher husband) and I relish more meaningful moments grounded in the present.
To further hone these healthy habits, I recently completed an eight-week mindfulness-based stress management course, along with my husband, taught by Michael Baime, director of the Penn Program for Mindfulness. Now, I’m taking more intentional steps to carry only the day’s essentials, rather than lugging around yesterday’s regrets or tomorrow’s worries. And with a lighter load, I’m better able to focus my attention on the choices and people who matter most to me, like my husband and son. All the while reminding myself that life, like Camino de Santiago, is not a destination, but a journey to be enjoyed.
Suzann Pileggi Pawelsi holds a master's in applied positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania and is a contributing editor to Live Happy. Her first book, Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts, written with her husband, James Pawelski, Ph.D., comes out in January 2018.
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