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Putting the ‘happy’ in each new year

Veteran psychotherapist shares pearls of wisdom with seniors

Posted: February 7, 2010 10:01 p.m.
Updated: February 8, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Psychotherapist and humorist Judith Harris, standing. gives a lecture at the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center. The talk by Harris, a two-time cancer survivor, was part of the Center's Health & Wellness program lecture lineup.

The expression, “Happy New Year” is something we’ve all said and heard over the past couple of months.

Yet how many of us have seriously thought about how our attitude influences the amount of joy we derive from each new day?

Such perspective-minded pondering was the topic of discussion when psychotherapist and humorist Judith Harris recently presented, “How to put the ‘happy’ in new year” at the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center.

“This isn’t really about resolutions ... after all, we all make them and break them,” said Harris, who has a private psychotherapy practice and also leads several Senior Center support groups. “It’s about a mindset, a philosophy of life, a way of thinking. We all need to have a philosophy of life.”

According to Harris, a two-time cancer survivor, having the right attitude is the key to navigating through life’s unpredictable highway.

“Happiness is a decision, and no matter what’s going on we can decide how to look at it. It’s not what happens but how we react to it,” stated Harris, whose talk was one in the Senior Center’s weekly Health & Wellness program lecture lineup.

Attitude really is latitude
Harris recalled a story about two brothers, one an eternal optimist, the other a doom-and-gloom pessimist. On Christmas morning the negative brother opened his presents and complained there was nothing he liked. Soon after, the optimistic brother was led into a room filled with manure, at which time he happily exclaimed, “Oh wow! There must be a pony in here!”

The difference between the optimist and the pessimist is how we look at things, Harris said.

“The story we tell ourselves is what matters,” she said. “I am not talking about positive thoughts. I’m talking about positive emotions, like appreciation and gratitude, which we can practice every day. This is about how we choose to look at the situation. We all have to look for that pony.”

Harris acknowledged that for many people, 2009 was a bad year.

“There are some years that ask questions and some years that answer them. Well, I didn’t get any answers last year,” Harris admitted. “I’ve been starting to think that Chicken Little was right ... but we have to figure out a way to learn how to ‘suffer in style,’ to find those pockets of joy in the midst of suffering.”

When things go sideways in life, you have to remember that it’s not your fault or your fate, Harris added.

“Like Rabbi Kushner said in his book, ‘Bad things happen to good people.’ You’re not doing it wrong, this is just how life is. If we think our purpose is to be happy we are in for big problems but if we think we are here for a purpose such as to make a difference or to heal the world or make a contribution that only we can make that comes from our uniqueness, then we have a whole different way that we view the world.”

Fine-focusing that view is aided through the application of humor.

“I deal with tragedy every single day and that is why I learned that one of the main things we need to live is courage, and of all forms of courage the most important for me is humor,” she said. “Humor derails your train of thought. Humor always comes from something being wrong.”

Harris offered more pearls of insight, striving to illuminate the human predicament: “I have learned that everybody is normal until you get to know them. I have also learned that the only people who are always happy are those I don’t know well. Something else we need to understand is that everyone comes from a dysfunctional family. No two people can give a child everything that it needs, so all of us grow up with certain gaps.”

Adjusting our expectations of life is critical, she noted.

“Many people feel they have stepped into the wrong story, not what they expected or thought life would be. As we age this is when it hits us the most,” said Harris, a grandmother.

On role reversal and forfeited autonomy
Seniors, particularly those who have lost spouses or suffered some other kind of adverse event, are often looked upon by their children as being in need of assistance and limitations — even those who have not reached that point in life, Harris said.

She urges elders not to give into that dependence and loss of “self.”

“It’s very important for us to fight that because one of the things that happens is when we start to slowly doubt our own abilities, like driving at night, our world gets smaller and smaller,” she said. “Often our children start to think they know better than we on how to live our lives. And out of love they want to protect us but we need to maintain our self-efficacy, the confidence in yourself and your ability ... and we cannot allow anyone to take that away.”

The therapist, who for years has worked with American Cancer Society, and whose Senior Center support groups help caregivers of patients with Alzheimer’s and persons dealing with grief, spoke of how imparting therapy has impacted her own life.

“I don’t do therapy to save others from their craziness. I do it to rescue what’s left of my sanity,” she said. “I don’t sit up there and say, ‘Gee, I have all the answers’ ... but what I do have is 25 years of listening to hundreds of stories of how real people handle real life situations.”

Attendees of Harris’ talk praised her wisdom and sense of humor.

“She makes you think about things in a new way and helps you feel better about life,” stated one woman who attends the Alzheimer support group.

Dolly Patterson, a senior who frequently visits the Senior Center to participate in various social and educational activities echoed those feelings.

“I like listening to Judy. This kind of information is very helpful and something people can use at any age,” she said.   


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