Recovery Virtues and Positive Mental Health

The recovery virtues also overlap with some of Jahoda’s conceptual criteria for positive mental health. Under the criterion of attitudes toward the self, the recovery virtues relate to feelings about the self and a sense of identity. Both virtues coincide with how a person feels about himself and imply the self-acceptance of strengths and shortcomings. They coincide in turn with a sense of identity. A positive sense of self-regard helps to integrate aspects of the self through a global, essentially benevolent view of the whole self, as when we say of someone: he knows who he is and does not feel basic doubts about his identity. This can be contrasted with the sense of self-disintegration experienced by those with major depression, schizophrenia, or demoralization.108

Under the criterion of growth, development, and self-actualization, the recovery virtues relate to ongoing and sufficiently stable motivational processes and to investment in living. The forward momentum of a meaningful orientation toward the future does not stop with hopefulness. Or rather, hopefulness does not stop with recovery. Living by one’s deep evaluations and critical interests is not a static state. The self-unity of the recovery virtues and the values and interests by which that unity is defined overlaps with an affirmative dedication to living well by being well, the range and quality of one’s engagement with others, the objects and interests that one considers significant, and participation in a richer, differentiated life.109

Under the criterion of integration, the recovery virtues coincide with a unifying perspective by which one feels that there is purpose and meaning to one’s life. That feeling enables a striving to extend one’s vision of a good life into the future. Like Taylor’s deep evaluations, this perspective might take effort to articulate, but it affords a sense of one’s place in a coherent scheme of things. A unifying outlook on life enhances and guides a strong investment in it.110 This, in turn, along with the motivational facets noted above, integrates meaning in one’s life to involve ideas of self-identity, a worldview, interactions with others, and a fit between identity and worldview, as well as a comprehension of what one is trying to achieve and sustain. We can define meaning in life as “the extent to which people comprehend, make sense of, or see significance in their lives," along with the degree to which they see themselves as having a purpose, mission, or set of overarching aims.111 Baumeister identifies four components of meaning in life that have a conceptual kinship with Taylor’s notion of moral identity: feeling a sense of purpose, having a basis for self-worth, a clarified scheme of values by which one judges right and wrong, and a sense of efficacy (Taylor would refer to “agency”).112 There is some evidence that treating psychological distress enables persons to rebuild meaningful lives. A research agenda for positive psychology should include studies that aim to determine whether enabling persons to rebuild meaningful lives is a means of treating psychological distress. Rigorously conducted trials that compare meaning-centered interventions with validated treatments could assist in determining the potential of concentrating on meaning as a therapeutic aid.113

A successful course of therapy that reflects the application of healing and recovery virtues should enable post-traumatic growth. Remember Linda Logan: while she regained some facets of her pre-depression self, she also developed in novel ways to become a different person. Post-traumatic growth is modeled on the following four requirements: (1) a precipitating and significant disruption to one’s sense of self or worldview; (2) the task of reconstructing a meaningful and coherent view of one’s self and world; and (3) the awareness that one has changed for the better by (4) responding to these challenges.114 Mental disorders and problems in living like demoralization can present these four requirements. For growth to occur, the disruption to one’s identity and worldview must constitute a loss that seriously taxes one’s psychological resources for dealing with it. One must work through and reconcile what the loss means to one’s life, acknowledge that the reconstructed worldview and sense of self is an improvement, and attribute that positive change to having worked through the trauma. Growth results from purposive action, from working through a trauma and pursuing newly set goals for living well by being well. It will not result from merely reappraising a situation, or being the passive recipient of therapeutic guidance and help.115 Clearly, psychotherapy is one context in which this working through can occur. The recovery virtues are especially relevant here, as post-traumatic growth involves “significant, sustained positive changes in major commitments and life goals” as well as changes in self-awareness. It is not just a matter of adopting a “new philosophy of life.” It is a matter of “engaging in and sustaining behavior directed toward achieving new goals.”116 On my account, it is the affirmative, self-loving bond of having, and living by, identity-conferring standards, values, and projects that unify psychological well-being with personal coherence and ethical character.

We see again that some of these ideas are not limited to psychotherapeutic healing projects. Indeed, they resonate especially well with research into positive growth following physical disability. Hopefulness, a focus on developing one’s real or potential character strengths, and the sustained effort of working toward desired states aligned with future happiness are seen as crucial. Still, we should be mindful of the limitations of my account. So far as I am aware, longitudinal studies that track the development of character strengths before and after physical or psychological crises are not currently available. Like many in the positive psychology movement, I believe that some patients not only appreciate, but also effect a recovery by developing certain character strengths or virtues in the process. I also believe that healers who work with physical or psychological disabilities should aim to devise therapeutic interventions that might increase such character strengths.117

I should stress the provisional nature of the catalogue of virtues that I see as relevant to the healing project. Any one of these virtues can be further refined. The epistemic virtues discussed in chapter three are no less germane insofar as some patients aspire to better know or holistically understand themselves through psychotherapeutic exploration, e.g., the co-creation in psychodynamic therapy of a patient’s narrative that both “seems true” and opens up “new possibilities for living a better life.”118 I also stress the overlapping, interdependent nature of these virtues in praxis. Hopefulness and perseverance arguably thrive together. Through mutual synergy, I see the problem-solving virtues of focus as going hand in hand with imaginative flexibility.

I do not propose an isolationist approach by which virtues relating to epis- temic and generic ethical fields are distinguished by sharp and final divides. Like Swanton, I see the various fields of the virtues as integrated in the practical truth of right action at which virtue aims. She posits inextricable and often contested connections between the fields of the virtues, which integrate them in the broad normative sense of responding to the demands of the world with practical wisdom. Persons who possess sufficient degrees of practical wisdom in numerous fields of virtue are necessary for their integration. As such, to portray a single trait as a virtue can involve consideration of its relevance to the different fields in which it is applicable, e.g., epistemic and generically ethical ones. Thus open-mindedness can have both epistemic and generically ethical fields of application. Swanton argues further that “at a deep level of analysis virtue is aimed at practical truth and not merely at ‘moral’ or ‘epistemic’ truth.”119

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