Celebrating a Season of Positivity

When I think back to the Christmases of my youth, I naturally remember those magical mornings, the tree shimmering with tinsel and the presents awaiting our eager hands (and the arrival of our still sleepy parents.) It’s hard to beat the excitement of these recollections, but there was another Christmas memory that has stayed with me over the years—not the boisterous gift-giving, but a softer experience that has become sweeter over time.

Several years ago, my brother, Ray, recounted it at our mother’s memorial service:

“The United Presbyterian Home in Woodbury – now the Cold Spring Hills Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation – was not exactly a child-friendly place as we grew up. But my mom made it her duty to round up her kids and as many other children and friends as she could muster to get us all to sing carols every Christmas season to the patients there. It wasn’t our idea of fun at first, but after the first time or so, it wasn’t as difficult to get in agreement. We could see the joy in their faces as we sang.

The Executive Director of the home wrote to Mom in 1965:

‘No soul could ever measure the abundance of Christmas blessings which poured into the

Residence during the past two weeks. This Holiday prosperity evolved because you graciously

and unselfishly followed the spirit and deed of the Wise Men, as you opened your treasure and

presented your gifts…It is humanly impossible to adequately express our gratitude to you for

sharing in our Yuletide Season….’“

That’s the kind of Christmas spirit my three brothers and I inherited from Mom, and it’s one I want to hold on to through my old age. Because it’s not only about giving and gratitude, comfort and joy, but a quintessential human need: hope. The world can be a challenging place (to put it mildly) and it seems no coincidence that the religious and cultural celebrations of the season are bolstered by an underlying sentiment of hope—that together, somehow, we will again endure the darkest nights of winter to see the light of spring. 

Still, hope can be hard to find. It often seems to require a positive outlook on life, a sense of resilience that can carry us through hardships and unexpected obstacles. A resolute positivity is something my Dad shared with Mom—and his sons. As a young man, Dad attended New York City’s Marble Collegiate Church, where the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale was pastor for 52 years. Peale was author of “The Power of Positive Thinking,” and my Dad was a big fan of the book, which became a world-wide bestseller in the 1950s and is still popular today. Although Peale was well-received by the public, he was sharply criticized by various psychologists and researchers. Some objected to his anecdotal “case histories” that lacked verified sources and used a biblical approach, invoking the power of prayer and God as “the source of all energy.” Others questioned Peale’s “self-hypnosis” techniques and his understanding of the mind as deceptively simplistic and inaccurate. Nevertheless, I find it interesting that Peale’s message of positivity, while perhaps lacking the rigor of today’s evidence-based research, has spawned a considerable legacy of experts, motivational speakers and professionals exploring the concept of positivity. The field of positive psychology, founded by psychologist Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, has been growing steadily for about 25 years. Positive psychology focuses on factors that contribute to both individual and societal well-being. It studies positive subjective experiences, positive individual traits, and positive institutions; it aims to improve quality of life.

Positive psychologists often focus on eudaimonia, an Aristotelian term for “the good life,” what contributes most to happiness, a well-lived and fulfilling life. Over the last year, positivity has also assumed a prominent place among my 45 Forward podcasts. It was not intentional; it simply emerged organically, as it became clear to me that positivity is a key ingredient to aging successfully in the second half of life.

It not only impacts our sense of fulfillment and purpose in life; it contributes to better overall mental, emotional and physical health—indeed, to a longer life span. It’s not just anecdotal anymore; the science tells us so.

Many of my guests have offered terrific insights about positivity, purpose in life, resilience, and grit—and you can hear them in my 45 Forward archive.

 A few examples:

John Leland, the author of “Happiness Is a Choice You Make,” talks about how older people find a sense of fulfillment and purpose alongside great pain, hardship and loss and how a positive attitude can contribute to overall health and longevity (https://roelresources.com/45- forward-episode-53/).

Carly Roman, who studied at the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center and is currently the Innovation Manager at the Motion Picture and Television Fund in southern California, talks about the positive aspects of aging—and “generativity,” the feeling of meaningfully contributing to another person’s well-being—as well as yourself (https://roelresources.com/45-forward-episode-78/).

And Stephen Post, Director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics at the Stony Brook University School of Medicine, talks about his life work that blends an extraordinary exploration of positive psychology, altruism, love, happiness, and the mystery of the human mind. (https://roelresources.com/45-forward-episode-98/).

So as we celebrate the season of giving and joy and lift up our hopes for the New Year, let’s focus on positivity. Will it make a difference?

It will—I’m positive.

—-Ron Roel 


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