A class full of battle-hardened sergeants in combat boots, being taught by a bunch of loafer-clad professors. The subject, more or less: how to be happier.
“It was awkward at first,” said Sgt. 1st Class Michael Bradley, of the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment in Vilseck, Germany. “The first day, there were people who claimed it was touchy-feely.”
But as the 10 days of master resiliency training continued, those feelings faded, said Bradley, who was among the first group of NCOs to go through the first-of-its kind Army psychological course.
“A lot of people said, ‘I wish they’d had this when I came in the Army,’ ” he said. “‘I’d still be married only one time.’ ’’
The Army’s not in the marriage-counseling business, but it does try to keep soldiers alive — and failed relationships are a significant factor in the record suicide rates in the past several years. Additionally, up to 30 percent of troops are beset with PTSD and depression as soldiers have made repeated trips to war zones.
So the Army’s latest response is to require its million-plus soldiers to be trained in “emotional resilience,” or psychological hardiness. The training, led by the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center, teaches concepts such as focusing on what goes right, expressing gratitude, and analyzing and correcting negative views of ambiguous events.
“They teach you that challenges, no matter what, are temporary,” Bradley said, “and that if you apply effort to those challenges, you can overcome them.”
According to the Center’s Web site, Martin Seligman, the center director who is regarded as a founder of positive psychology, says his research shows “it is possible to be happier — to feel more satisfied, to be more engaged with life, find more meaning, have higher hopes, and probably even laugh and smile more, regardless of one’s circumstances.”
But social critics, such as Barbara Ehrenreich, who wrote The New York Times best-seller “Nickel and Dimed,” say that what Seligman markets in his books and classes is, like positive thinking in general, “snake oil” with numerous downsides.
In her book “Brightsided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America,” Ehrenreich argues that positive thinking and too much optimism lead to disasters like the Iraq war and the financial meltdown. She also says the emphasis on optimism means victims end up being blamed for their own misfortunes: they weren’t positive enough.
“If optimism is the key … and if you can achieve an optimistic outlook through the discipline of positive thinking, then there is no excuse for failure,” she writes. “The flip side of positivity is thus a harsh insistence on personal responsibility: If your business fails or your job is eliminated, it must be because you didn’t try hard enough, didn’t believe firmly enough in the inevitability of your success … to be disappointed, resentful, or downcast is to be a ‘victim’ and a ‘whiner.’ ”
Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, the Army assistant surgeon general for force protection who heads up the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, said the Penn program was selected because data showed it worked to decrease depression and anxiety and improve performance.
“It was the only one with a large volume of peer-reviewed studies that proves it’s effective,” Cornum said. “They’ve done this with college students, middle school and high school students, in China, the United Kingdom, Australia and numerous places in America.”
A $117 million effort, it’s the first time Army-wide psychological training has been mandated. But whether it’s the right training is a matter of some debate. While positive psychology is well accepted by many psychologists, some, like Ehrenreich, dismiss it as recycled “power of positive thinking.”
And some who agree it’s had success with middle school students — and that its values of transcendence, community and altruism fit well with military values — still don’t think it will work for soldiers in combat conditions.
“It’s not going to hold up. It’s psychology lite,” said psychologist Belleruth Naparstek. “It doesn’t go into the existential issues of being in combat. It doesn’t have the mojo.”
Naparstek said that positive psychology techniques can’t counter the profound loss, grief, fury and disorientation that combat can bring, such as seeing a friend’s legs blown off by a roadside bomb.
Nor will it help prevent suicide, she said.
“It doesn’t touch the places in humans where suicide lives. In fact, it teaches them to keep away from those places,” Naparstek said.
Cornum said the training does not deny that terrible things happen in combat but should help soldiers develop a “useful” response to them.
“First of all, you acknowledge that a horrible thing happened,” she said. “Acceptance is a part of it. This is how it is. You have to accept things you can’t change. Then it is always up to you how you think about it and feel about it and react to it. That’s up to you.”
“You lose your leg,” she said. “That doesn’t mean you’re no longer smart or no longer pretty or your mother doesn’t love you.”
The Army hopes that the training will help create a force that experiences more “post-adversity growth” from trauma and less PTSD and suicide. “I don’t think it’ll happen year one,” Cornum said.
“Certainly if more people stop seeing a challenge as a catastrophe,” she said, suicide rates should come down.
Gen. George Casey, Army chief of staff, has visited the Philadelphia classrooms where Bradley and other sergeants have undergone their training, and he’s a proponent of the training.
Soldiers are “not coming into the service with the coping skills they need,” Casey told the Philadelphia Inquirer in a story posted on the Positive Psychology Center’s Web site.
But Casey also said most soldiers do not suffer from PTSD.
“In fact, science tells us just the opposite; the majority of people who go to combat have post-traumatic growth. They’re confronted by something very difficult, and they are stronger as a result,” Casey said in a military press release.
Some psychologists view remarks like Casey’s as an example of the regrettable but routine downplaying by the military of inconvenient truths about the psychological tolls of combat.
Psychologist Bryan Welch wrote that during the Gulf War, military psychiatrists dismissed concerns about the psychological health of troops’ children when their parents left them to deploy. Now, he said, the military is doing it again.
“In truth, the military has once again retained the positive psychologists, this time to help it use limited mental health resources to suck one last measure of devotion from a bone-weary combat force, many of whom have already been through multiple deployments,” Welch wrote on the Huffington Post Web site.
While sergeants are being selected to go to the training, and new recruits will get lessons from their drill sergeants, other soldiers will be participating first by completing a confidential questionnaire — the Global Assessment Tool — to determine their strengths and weaknesses in several “fitness” areas: emotional, social, family and spiritual. Follow-up training would vary with the soldiers’ scores.
In the meantime, just as many sergeants became fans of his training, Seligman became a fan of the sergeants.
“They are not these grizzled, mean, obsessive-compulsive people,” he said.
“Rather they’re, for the most part, 40-year-old black and Hispanic kids — they were kids — who were war heroes, who worked their way up through three deployments. And their highest characteristic is capacity to love and be loved.”