Hopeful in Hell

Fresh Aire Fest speaker Judy Moskowitz stresses positive emotions in difficult circumstances


In stressful periods, including these economically baleful times, the relationship between health and positive emotions is worth a closer study.

At the recent memorial for outspoken journalist and poet Nancy Redwine, I listened with surprise to excerpts from her personal writings read aloud by friends—joyful, funny, flip and poetic journal entries made not long before her death from cancer. She even wrote about gratitude.

“I swing from hot and sweaty to chilled and shivering and back again over and over and over,” Nancy had written. “Lately, I have a few things I could complain about. But that’s not why I’m here tonight. Tonight, I am filled with gratitude for the season.”

A few things to complain about would be an understatement. I struggled to imagine myself in her shoes with anything close to that kind of grace. Nancy had terminal cancer, no job, no car, none of her nice dark hair left after chemotherapy, and her brother had recently died. Yet there she was, writing about what she appreciated about her life. The question that followed me home from her service was, how does anyone under the kind of stress maintain gratitude or any other positive emotion?

“It’s a set of skills you can learn,” assures Dr. Judy Moskowitz, stress and coping researcher at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at UCSF. Moskowitz heads a program of research on the relationship between positive emotions and health. She appears in two morning sessions, Aug. 29–30, at the upcoming Napa Fresh Aire Festival.

“The idea of positive thinking has been a part of pop psychology for a long time,” Moskowitz explains. “But I wanted to examine it from an empirical perspective.” She got this idea while part of a team studying the coping of those under severe stress, each week visiting study subjects and asking them a prescribed set of questions about their stress. But the subjects of the study challenged her research team by asking, “Why don’t you ever ask us the good things that happened?”

That may have surprised the researchers, since their subjects were under severe emotional stress, caring for dying loved ones. But the team rose to the challenge, changed the protocol to include collecting positive data, and thereafter observed that those people who were able to pay attention to positive events during difficulties seemed to cope better.

“So we hypothesized,” Moskowitz explains, “that it was this positive emotion that helped them to cope.” From that evolved the present study in which individuals under severe stress are taught a range of positive practices, from mindfulness exercises to gratitude journals, as a means of improving their ability to cope. “It’s not a magical list and not all the skills are attractive to all people,” Moskowitz says. “It’s a buffet. You don’t have to try them all.”

On the skills, the gratitude journal is one that struck me most because that was what Nancy used to help her cope with terminal illness. According to Moskowitz, the gratitude entries are a daily exercise, and they do not have to be grand or extensive. “It can be really simple,” Moskowitz says. “Maybe just a good cup of coffee you had that day.”

I am enjoying a good cup of coffee right now, and I’m grateful not only for the coffee, but for Nancy’s deeply inspiring example to appreciate the small things and to practice gratitude even in the worst possible circumstances. “Today I saw a variation on the Mystery Spot bumper sticker,” Nancy wrote in her last months. “Cut the thing in half and switch nouns, and it’s a suggestion: Spot Mystery.”

I’ve noticed that whenever I’m on the lookout for mystery, it’s much harder to be consumed by stress.

Judy Moskowitz will be among the presenters at the Fresh Aire Festival, Aug. 28–30, in Napa. The festival is billed as an educational event focused on health and eco-consciousness. For more information, go to www.napafreshairefest.com. For those who cannot attend the festival, Moskowitz recommends two books which more than adequately summarize the science of happiness: ‘Positivity,’ by Barbara Fredrickson, and ‘The How of Happiness,’ by Sonja Lyubomirsky.