Poetry in medical practice, art as therapy

WATTS+1[1]-filteredArt as therapy?  Poetry as healing? Take a look at the wonderful video I’ve linked to below by Dr. David Watts, which shows how the good and gentle doctor who was the force behind the “Healing Art of Writing” conference I attended a few years back, uses poetry in the practice of medicine.  This is really something.  In this age of “managed” care I really would like to clone Dr. Watts, and distribute his healing gifts to every physician on the planet, especially since I’ve run into quite a few who are his opposite number.  Here’s the link:

Also interesting, I heard today on NPR author/philosopher, Alain de Botton discussing his “controversial” new book, written with art historian, John Armstrong.  It’s called Art as Therapy.  The book proposes that just looking at familiar masterpieces can be therapeutic, and talks about how art can help us manage the tensions and confusions of everyday life. The book suggests that art has seven functions, to teach us about such things as love, hope, suffering, and remembering.  For example, Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter helps us “focus on what we want to be loved for;” Serra’s Fernando Pessoa reminds us of the “importance of dignity in suffering.  Hmm.  Interesting.  

Henri Matisse Dance (II), 1909

Henri Matisse
Dance (II), 1909

 Guess which of the functions of art this painting by Matisse represents? Okay, I’ll tell you:  HOPE!  

On NPR, deBotton said he had been given the project to actually rearrange the art in a certain museum in the Netherlands, not according to the standard way, usually by date or artistic “period,” which he says is a nonsensical way of arranging it.  Instead, he’s working on arranging the art according to its psychological effect on the viewer.  And he gets to put new captions on the paintings too!  

Well, of course art is therapeutic. Creativity is the source of all healing. Doesn’t seem controversial to me.

Wow! We control 40% of our own happiness


Harvard's Dan Gilbert

Harvard’s Dan Gilbert


So in preparing for a talk I was giving on “emotional well being,” also known as “happiness,” I watched some TED talks by important psychologists (the kind of people asked to give TED talks), and I heard Dan Gilbert of Harvard ask the following question of his audience of thousands:

In which of the following scenarios would you predict you’d be happier?

    1) You win the lottery


    2) You become a paraplegic

It’s a trick question, of course.  Most people think the answer is obvious: You’d be much happier if you won the lottery. Who wants to be a paraplegic? No one, of course.  But according to Dr. Gilbert, the answer to the question is that one year out, the lottery winners and the paraplegics are about equally happy.


See, I told you it was a trick question. Its explanation can be partially found in the following formula, offered by Dr. Gilbert, Dr.Sonja Lyubomirsky at the University of California, Riverside (whom I once interviewed for an article I was doing for BottomLine), Dr. Martin Seligman at University of Pennsylvania, and many other researchers in the newer branch of psychology known as “positive psychology.”

Happiness = 50% “genetic” + 10% circumstantial + 40% “self-created.”

The 50% is also called the “happiness set point” and it’s the point to which people generally return, all things remaining equal. In other words, based on your genetics, and it seems to me this would include both biochemical factors and certain factors (such as trauma, neglect, abuse, and poverty) from your formative years, if you tend toward depression (or emotional volatility, or unhappiness, or whatever), you will basically always return to that same set point.

So this means that even if some event or circumstance in your life, such as the birth of a grandchild, winning the lottery, or making a fortune in your investments, causes happiness, and even if some other event in your life such as becoming a paraplegic or enduring the loss of a loved one causes you unhappiness, in the long run that will account for only 10% of your level of happiness because all things remaining equal you will eventually adjust to the new condition and basically return to your previous happiness set point.

But all things don’t have to remain equal. These researchers and others have shown scientifically that your own “intervention” can control as much as 40% of your own “happiness.”What are these magical interventions that can help you be happy?  They cover three areas: Pleasure, Engagement, and Meaning.  

Here too is another trick question.  Most people think “pleasure,” which comes with things like social interactions and sex, make you happy, but it turns out that pleasure-seeking activity accounts for the smallest part of that self-created 40% of happiness.  This becomes obvious when you think about people who collect superficial friends or keep looking for Mr. Goodbar.

“Engagement” is a bigger happiness factor.  This means finding work or a passion that engages you completely to the point that while doing it you have the sense that time has stopped.  I achieve this most fully when I write, but you can also find it in any creative activity or work.  It’s called:


And then there’s “meaning,” which has been found to be the biggest contributor. It means knowing your strengths and using them to achieve a purpose higher than yourself. This would include altruism, working for a “cause,” and/or religion or other spiritual pursuits.

In looking back over my life, which in a few months heads into its 60th year, I realized that all this completely accounts for the weird fact that despite having experienced an inordinate amount of loss and suffering, including the worst of the worst, the loss of my son, I am now “happier” than I’ve ever been, probably even 40% happier. This is because over the last 20 years, since the loss of my son, I have engaged in activities and a process that has helped me put things in perspective, be grateful for what I have, let go of much of my own ego-driven worry about “success” as a writer, and allowed myself to simply “engage” in the writing process. I’ve also realized that my writing (which also involves study) is what helps me make any sense at all of this complicated life, and so it doesn’t matter, really, what the writing outcome is, whether 50 or 20,000 people come to my blog, or my books have sold 1000 or 100,000 copies. I write–and engage in other creative pursuits, including most recently taking up playwriting– because it gives me “flow.”

As for “meaning,” I find it in part by helping people as a therapist, and in my philanthropic pursuits, such as the program my husband and I started in memory of our son to help toddlers with special needs. Now if you’d told me the happiness formula when I was in the thick of my grief, I would probably have walked away in a rage, but now I really do think the happiness formula above accounts why so many people who’ve suffered serious losses, such as the loss of a child, have eventually managed to survive and even thrive and self-actualize, and dare I say it, find “happiness” by developing or joining some cause that makes “meaning” out of that loss.  Consider the Newtown parents’ drive for gun reform, or Candy Lightner who lost her daughter to a drunk driver and in 1980 founded MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), or Gloria Horsley, who lost a son and who along with her daughter, Heidi, who lost her brother, started Open to Hope, a foundation to help people who’ve experienced great loss.

So then, happiness is to a great extent (40%, at last count) what you “make” when you don’t get what you want.  Which is very often in this life.

Next post: What can you do to actually raise your level of “happiness?”   

PS:  I took a course in grad school on “positive psychology” but all this never really clicked for me intellectually and I didn’t really understand how my own life happiness trajectory is proof of it, until I started really studying it in order to create a presentation about emotional wellbeing. Which proves something else I heard another psychologist say in a talk a few weeks ago.  Paul Bloom of Yale said: If you want to appreciate fine wine, STUDY wine or take a course in wine and learn all about it, don’t just go out and buy the most expensive bottle of wine you can find and expect an appreciation of fine wine to come upon you magically.  Which translates into: Writing a presentation about happiness made me happy!


Surviving 9/11: A few thoughts after the anniversary

On Sunday for a while I watched the reading of the names at Ground Zero. It brought up my own recollections of that day, of course.  We lived directly on Long Island Sound at that time, and had an amazing, unique view across the water to the lower half of Manhattan Island. That day was so clear you could practically see the windows in the Towers, which rose in the distance like a number eleven on steroids.

We were building our home at the time, living in a cottage on the property.  That morning, fifteen or so men, mostly of Portuguese ethnicity, were putting on the roof shingles.  I was in the cottage watching the Today Show when they cut to the scene.  Katie Couric said, “A small plane has crashed into the World Trade Center.”  Didn’t even vaguely look like a small plane to me.  How could Katie even say that with a straight face?

In the first of many reality checks of the day, I went outside to affirm that what I was seeing on television was actually happening, or maybe vice versa.  Indeed it was real; you could see the first tower burning across the Sound, smoke rising up into the sky in a huge dark plume that already dwarfed both towers.  The fifteen Portuguese roofers were standing on the plywood up there, transfixed.  And silent, except they had a radio going, a newscast, I think–in Portuguese.  A few of them looked at me, maybe wondering if they should continue.  I didn’t know.  I went back into the house just in time to see the second Tower hit. I began to make my check-in-with-family phone calls.

When the first tower fell, I happened to be outside looking at the actual view, and it seemed like a disappearing act from that 20ish mile distance. One moment, two buildings; the next, one.

An hour or so later, our neighbor across the street came over, distraught.  His wife was working at the time in Tower 2, 84th floor, and he hadn’t heard from her. (She did manage to make her way down, though lost many of her colleagues, and this couple went to memorial services for months.).

All day long, strangers kept stopping by the house just to just stand and witness the thing from our vantage point, the plume of thick dark smoke spreading like a halo over Manhattan.

Ten years later, as I listened to all those people read the names of their dead, I couldn’t help thinking of my own loss, though it had nothing to do with 9/11. (How could I help it when James Taylor played a song I used to sing to my toddler son, You Can Close Your Eyes?) It seems to me that the reading of names stems from a deeply human, universal need to bring the dead back into the world of the living. I know I feel grateful when someone mentions my son or speaks his name. And too, I found it deeply moving to hear each person offer their personal thoughts, prayers, and feelings, which seemed mostly unscripted and authentic to me. So rare nowadays. Everywhere we turn, we find ourselves inundated by so much that is packaged and canned that it seems we have been unalterably changed as a people, possibly unable to identify what should be obviously false. Maybe Katie Couric unquestioningly repeating what she had been told, that a small plane had hit the tower, was some kind of watershed 1984 moment.

In the aftermath of all this, the Bruised Muse would like to express a thought or two about our survival not as individuals who’ve suffered loss, but as a country. Get ready, since this is a rant.

A few days ago a report came out that the United States of America had spent 3.3 TRILLION dollars (that’s Trillion with a T) on the two main wars we’ve engaged in since 9/11. Supposedly, we went to these wars because of 9/11, the Bush Administration touting the idea that we had to be on a war footing. Yet most if not all of the ACTUAL victories against the terrorists, before and after 9/11, have been either special ops or police work.

  • Whatever the reason the Bush Administration wanted the Iraq war–maybe Rumsfeld wanted to test his new war toys or theory, or Bush the younger wanted revenge–it should be clear now to anyone with any critical thinking skills at all that the war was scandalously, monumentally unnecessary. It amazes me that all these years later, no one has been called to pay for the lies they told to convince the country to support that total bait and switch operation.  Worse, that Administration was so effective in telling their lies that many American citizens, voting citizens, apparently STILL believe there was some relationship between Al Queada and Saddam Hussein. The only problem with democracy is that anyone can vote.  Which of course is also its main strength. Yet a huge problem now, in my view, is that our population has become so gullible as a result of ever more sophisticated packaging and canning (ie marketing/pr) that in the absence of a skeptical press (not a polarized press, but a skeptical one), Americans who can’t or won’t educate themselves can STILL vote.
  • And then there’s Afghanistan, which I supported in the beginning, although I thought they should have put more money and special ops personnel into cornering Bin Laden at Bora Bora, which they would have if they hadn’t been set on their Iraq bait and switch. But it’s TEN YEARS LATER, and I recently heard a NY TIMES reporter on NPR ((than God for NPR and the NY TIMES, what’s left of it) that things are worse than ever there. Consider the attack just today on the US embassy there.

I mention all this because, I’ll say it again, WE HAVE NOW SPENT 3.3 TRILLION. Isn’t THIS a HUGE part of the reason we’re now bankrupt?  Are we so lost that rather than speaking the truth about why we’re bankrupt, we have a group of politicians of apparently growing influence proposing (and the people BUYING) that the way out of bankruptcy is to give more money to the richest of us, cut programs that give food to babies, take the people who’ve just gotten health coverage off again, and roll back all the regulatory progress we’ve made in the last fifty years?

THIS will save the country? What country? Do they really think that unregulated corporations interested only in profit will police themselves?  Do they REALLY want to be poisoned by the water, air, food? Or maybe they LIKE the idea of seeing another Triangle Shirt Factory fire?

It’s bad enough that a miserable creature like Ann Coulter can get away with saying on national television that the she’d never seen so many enjoying their husband’s deaths as the 9/11 widows; my guess is she’d actually revel in seeing little girls jump out of windows (as long as they’re liberals jumping).

But my goodness, where are we as a country when they can call a moderate like Obama a SOCIALIST and so many believe it, share it, like it, tweet it?

And when on a nationally televised debate of so-called mainstream Republican candidates, all except one says he (or she) doesn’t believe in climate change or evolutionary science. Which of course, means non-belief in every interconnected branch of science too, from archeology to zoology?

And when on the same debate the moderator asks the leading candidate if we should let a thirty year old uninsured person die because he doesn’t have health care, and the candidate says “Yes.” AND THE AUDIENCE GOES WILD IN SUPPORT.

Well, calling Barack Obama a socialist is truly laughable, but these people are, plain and simple, extremists, and they seem to me to want the country to go back to a time when the people gathered in the town square to watch the hanging. They’re all saying they’re scared of Obama, they want their country back.  Is THIS their country? A country that cheers on the idea of letting a 30 year old die because he doesn’t have or can’t get insurance?

Honestly, we should ALL shudder at the thought of someone like Rick Perry (or Sarah Palin or Michele Bachman) as President. These people, for all their patriotic blathering, don’t even seem to believe in democracy, they seem to support some kind of fundamentalist, anti-intellectual, anti-science theocracy. I’ve been reading Eric Larsen’s book: In the Garden of the Beasts. In Hitler’s Germany, the takeover of a government and a people was gradual and insidious.  Demagogues start by subtly whipping up underlying biases and fears, and then offering easy answers that people cling to to allay those fears. And no one notices the true implication of what’s happening until until it’s too late. This should chill the blood.  Electing some of these people could easily turn us into those who attacked us.

Okay, I’m done now.

MY TAKE: Butterflies and Bull. Channeling Messages from the Dead?

A few days ago I went to see a performance by “channeler” Roland Comtois, when he appeared locally before a group of about forty parents who’ve lost children.  I’ll admit up front that I’m very interested in this sort of thing, but highly skeptical.  My novels, including the two I wrote before I lost my son, Michael, at the age of three, employ supernatural elements.  My heightened ambivalence in this case stemmed from factors over and above my usual skepticism about all things supernatural, spiritual and/or religious.  First, I’ve done quite a bit of research on psychic phenemona, originally in l988 for my novel, A Reasonable Madness” and more recently and specifically for “American Psychic,” the novel on which I most recently worked (but haven’t finished), which took its title from one of its characters, a television psychic and channeler.  As a result of my research, I am well acquainted with the methods people like Comtois and John Edwards use.  One such trick from the many in their remarkably similar bags: They fill the air with a lot of general talk with a few specifics thrown in, then carefully watch the audience for positive reactions to the specifics, and zoom in on the reactors who have freely offered directional cues. This strategy is very effective with people who want to believe and don’t realize or care that they’re providing cues, and no doubt would be particularly effective with a group of people so hurt and full of need to “see” their children again. Which brings me to my second ambivalence.  On the one hand, as someone who lost a child myself, I certainly can’t object to anything that brings relief to such pain.  On the other hand, if channelers like Comtois are consciously using tricks such as the one I describe above, I simply can’t justify exploitation for money.

Comtois impressed me somewhat by announcing that he wouldn’t keep the $25 per person everyone had paid to see him, but rather return it to be put back into the sponsoring organization’s fund. (This is a modest fee anyway; some of these people changes hundreds of dollars.)  On the other hand, I’m sure he charges for most other performances, since this is apparently how he makes his living (along with writing books).  He may have been to some degree humbled by the level of loss in the room.

As for his performance, it looked–at least to me, although certainly not to the other parents in the room–like standard issue generalizations made somewhat more specific using audience cues, as described above, and I found his filler, a steady stream of reassurance to parents that their deceased children were “settled,” and/or “happy,” just awful–basically telling people what they want to hear.  The session was enlivened by Comtois’s odd mannerisms and by constant references to his mother, whom he admitted several times thinks he’s “crazy.”  Hmmm.  Which is worse: crazy or charlatan?

To all this, Comtois added what is apparently his signature technique.  Prior to the performance, he writes “messages” in magic marker on lilac paper printed with the words “Channeled Message for the Soul” along with his name, number and website. The messages, which include crudely drawn pictures, are dated anywhere from several years ago to as recently as the day of the performance.  For this part of the performance he does the same thing described above, finds someone in the group who reacts to his carefully chosen generalizations, zooms in, makes some educated guesses using cues provided, and then says something like, “Yes, I have a message for you.”  At which point one of his two assistants “finds” the message he’s already written from within the pile.  The pile is thick, and judging from the papers he waved around before handing them to the parents for whom they were “intended,” were mostly general scenarios one would expect to fit the horrific, emotional stories of any group of parents who’ve lost children, like a pool or an ambulance.  Ugh.

On the other hand, as far as I could tell, he did convince most of the folks in the room, and judging from the reactions comforted, reassured and impressed nearly all of them, even if I thought most of his comments were laughably general.

On the other hand, I’ve done write-to-heal sessions with some of this same group and knew quite a few of the loss stories of the parents in the room, and there were a few specifics that did impress me, like the women to whom he said something about seeing her son polishing cars (her son restored old cars), and a few other “manner of death” stories I don’t feel comfortable naming here.

So what do I make of a performance that I thought was chock full of generalities with a few impressive hits, a performance that, as one parent told me, “blew him away?” I think I’d have to say what I would have said before I saw Mr. Comtois. It’s certainly possibly some people can “channel” psychic energy, or even messages from the dead; I’ve had moments of what I’d call “transcendence” myself, although these are not moments I’d ever try to convince anyone else about.  But NO ONE can do this reliably and consistently enough to fill two hours, over and over, and so performing channelers must count on being able to exploit audience gullibility and psychological desperation using fillers, tricks, and bait-and-switch techniques to supplement the occasional “real message,” random hit, educated or audience-assisted guess.  So do I think Mr. Comtois is crazy, as his mother apparently does, or do I think he’s a charlatan?  He may not be a charlatan. People can convince themselves of all kinds of things.  I’ve seen this in my psychotherapy practice and everywhere in life.  As a psychotherapist, I’d resist calling him crazy, although generally speaking we diagnose people who hear and see things we don’t (ie with auditory and visual hallucinations) as schizophrenic.  Then again, I don’t know him like his mother does.

On the other hand, here’s what happened when he finally came to me.  I tried to hide my skepticism, but apparently he picked up on it and avoided me.  Sensitivity in this regard is certainly not surprising, and is probably a requirement for the job.  He didn’t come to me until the end, when he was forced to, as he was going around the room, receiving photos of people’s children, making comments, and calling for last questions. I said I didn’t have any questions, and he said, “Are you sure?” or something like that.  I said that I too had lost a child, but that I didn’t have any questions.  He asked if I had a photo.  I said I didn’t. He asked what my child’s name was.  “Michael,” I said.  “How did he die?”he asked.  “A seizure,” I said. “How old was he?” Roland Comtois asked.  I said, “Three and a half.”  He said, “Talk to me at the end, I have a message for you.”

When I approached him after the performance, he asked me if I was a believer, and I admitted I was a skeptic.  He leafed through his pile of lilac papers, picked one, folded it and handed it to me, saying “This is a message from your son. Don’t open it now, open it later.”  (Likely he didn’t want me, a skeptic, to renounce or deny his message in front of the believers.)

The purple paper said, “I SENT YOU ALL THE BUTTERFLIES.”

Fifteen years ago, after our son died, we released butterflies during a service for him.  I wore a butterfly pin for years, as a tribute to Michael. Butterflies are, of course, a commonly used symbol of death and rebirth that might have meaning for anyone suffering from loss.  On the other hand, one day early in the spring of 2008, and then again in 2009, HUNDREDS and HUNDREDS of monarch butterflies landed all at once on a tree in front of our house. I came out to watch them every day, to marvel at my tree so beautiful in full bloom of monarchs with their distinctive orange and black markings. And then one day a few weeks later, the monarch’s left to continue their annual migration south. Do I find Comtois’s butterfly message amazing?  Not amazing.  Interesting, I’d say.

On the other hand, here’s a bit of info from a nice website about the INDISPUTABLY amazing natural (rather than supernatural) migration of the monarch butterflies.

Monarch butterflies are the only insect that migrates to a warmer climate that is 2,500 miles away each year. The monarch butterflies can’t stand the freezing winter and will spend their winter hibernation in Mexico and some parts of Southern California where it is warm all year long. If the monarch lives in the Eastern states, usually east of the Rocky Mountains, it will migrate to Mexico and hibernate in oyamel fir trees. If the monarch butterfly lives west of the Rocky Mountains, then it will hibernate in and around Pacific Grove, California in eucalyptus trees. Monarch butterflies use the very same trees each and every year when they migrate, which seems odd because they aren’t the same butterflies that were there last year. These are the new fourth generation of monarch butterflies, so how do they know which trees are the right ones to hibernate in?

Birds on the Wires (vs. Mutant Parakeets)

I’m posting the video below just because it’s lovely.  And because it reminds me to appreciate the beauty and wonder of nature, even in the pack of mutant parakeets that are always screeching outside my house.  How did the mutants get there, you ask?  Well, apparently a truck transporting parakeets crashed on the highway and the birds escaped. They somehow found their way to the huge lights of the ball fields near our house. There in those lights they built their nests; warmed themselves through many a harsh, cold winter; and grew stronger, heartier, and greener with each passing year.  Twenty years later, the birds have not only been fruitful and multiplied; they’ve mutated into a brand new species: PARAKEETUS GIGANTUS.  About a year ago, the birds’ nests having become condominium complexes necessitating ballplayers and spectators to duck and cover from incoming PARAKEETUS GIGANTUS POOP, the City, in its infinite wisdom, decided that species PARAKEETUS GIGANTUS was no longer welcome on public property and destroyed said nests.  At the same time, a bird loving neighbor decided to hang multiple bird feeders on her property, and word quickly spread among PARAKEETUS GIGANTUS: “HEY! THERE’S REALLY GOOD GRUB OVER AT THE JONES!”  Well, guess what?  Hundreds of the mutant green suckers are now living at the Dorf’s house–multiplying in Dorf trees, pooping on Dorf cars, and squawking in Dorf ears.

But I do love nature.   Enjoy!

Birds on the Wires from Jarbas Agnelli on Vimeo.