NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Positive Ripple Effect

I've been reading Dr. Irvin D. Yalom's latest book, Staring at the Sun, which I recommend. Dr. Yalom is a highly-regarded psychiatrist and author who has written several books, including Love's Executioner and When Nietzsche Wept, among others. He has a psychotherapy private practice in California and he specializes in Existential Psychotherapy. While I'm not an Existentialist, I like Yalom's latest book.  

The Positive Ripple Effect

In Chapter 4, Yalom discusses "the ripple effect," the effect that we have on others and how that effect ripples out throughout individuals' social network, often from one generation to the next. He indicates that, when people are struggling with the transience of life, it often helps them to think about the positive effects that they have had on others and how that effect continues to ripple out beyond their immediate social circle in ways that they often don't even realize. Knowing that something you did or said can have a positive rippling effect, sometimes going from one generation to the next, often helps mitigate fears about the transient nature of life.

In addition, the Framingham Heart Study, conducted by Nicholas Christakis of Harvard University, looked at 5,000 people who were followed over a 20 year period. One of the findings was that there was a ripple effect of happiness that spreads within social circles due to the phenomenon known as emotional contagion, where the happy emotions felt by those at the center of the social circle are spread out to the rest of the social network, similar to the concentric circles that you see if you toss a pebble in a pond. Of course, emotional contagion works the other way too--unhappiness can also spread within the social network.

The following vignettes, which are composites of various cases, are examples of the positive ripple effect and emotional contagion factor that I have witnessed in my psychotherapy private practice (all identifying information has been changed to protect confidentiality):

Alice, who was a clinical social worker, was hired as a director for a social service agency that provided services to the homeless. When she was hired, her predecessor, who was retiring, warned her that morale in the agency was low and many of the caseworkers were unmotivated. By nature, Alice was a positive, upbeat person. No Pollyanna, she had worked in the social service field for many years and she was well aware of the challenges that social workers and caseworkers faced. She had no illusions that her job would be easy.

On her first day, she noticed immediately how unhappy and unmotivated the employees were. Their unhappiness was palatable and hung in the air with a dull heaviness. During the first week, she met with each employee to find out how they felt about their job and any recommendations they had for improvements. What she found was that most employees, especially those who had been there for several years, felt very pessimistic about the impact that they could have with the homeless population. They gave many examples of homeless clients returning again and again after they were domiciled, high alcohol and drug relapse rates, and the frustration of dealing with a cumbersome bureaucracy.

Alice was very concerned about the emotional contagion factor among employees as well as the effect it would have on clients. Within the first few months, she set about making changes to streamline bureaucracy and unnecessary paperwork and implement other important changes. Unlike her predecessor, who spent the last several years waiting for her retirement and who remained distant from employees and clients, Alice was very hands-on. She made sure that she was at the center of things and accessible to everyone.

Initially, her employees found her pleasant, but they were wary of her optimistic nature. However, over time, she started to gradually win them over, especially after she implemented a program where formerly homeless clients, who had gone on to further their education, get good jobs, and felt happy with their lives now, came back to talk to the staff and current homeless clients at the agency. 

These presentations helped to inspire both the caseworkers and the homeless clients. The staff got to see the positive impact that they had on former clients. Many of the current homeless clients at the agency felt hopeful that they too could make positive changes in their lives. 

All of them witnessed the ripple of effect of the staff's efforts and how it continued to have an effect on the former clients' children, the children's friends, and beyond. After a while, morale improved substantially and staff and clients alike began volunteering to work on projects to help improve the physical environment at the center (e.g., painting, putting up artwork, and making repairs). All of this served to have an upward spiraling effect.

Ralph was going through a particularly difficult time in his life. He and his wife had just separated and now he only saw his children on the weekends. He felt sad and pessimistic about his life. As the holidays approached, he dreaded having to attend an upcoming family reunion. He didn't know how he would respond if family members, who knew of his marital separation, asked him about it. He wanted to avoid the whole thing, but he knew this would be upsetting to his parents and other relatives and he didn't want to be alone, so he made the trip back home, expecting the worst.

As he anticipated, some of his relatives asked about the marital separation and it reinforced Ralph's feeling of being a failure in his marriage. This feeling of being a failure clouded his view of himself in just about every other area, even though, in reality, he was successful in his work and he had many friends and family members who cared about him.

At one point, his cousin, Mark approached him. Ralph had not seen Mark in many years, and he groaned inwardly, anticipating that Mark would ask him about Ralph's separation. Mark asked Ralph to take a walk with him around the garden so they could talk. Ralph thought, "Here it comes. He's going to ask me about my marriage." But to Ralph's amazement, Mark told him that he's been wanting to thank him for a long time, and it was way past time to express his gratitude on the positive effect that he had on his life.

At first, Ralph could not imagine what Mark was talking about. Then, Mark proceeded to talk about his incarceration in a federal prison for stealing checks from the mail while he was a postal employee. 

Initially, this made Ralph feel uncomfortable. However, Mark persisted, "I want to thank you for a letter you sent me while I was in prison that really turned my life around." Ralph had a vague recollection of sending Mark a letter, but he could not remember the details. Mark went on, "When you encouraged me to not give up, to use my experience to learn and grow, I really took that to heart. I saved that letter and read it over and over again. It got me through some difficult times in prison and motivated me to get my degree while I was in prison and to find a sense of peace and spirituality. Thank you so much. I've always remembered your words, and I tell my children the same thing when they go through difficult times."

Ralph was stunned and didn't know what to say. Just then, Mark's 13 year old son, Bobby, came out into the garden. Ralph had never met Bobby because he had not seen Mark or his family in many years. When Mark said, "Bobby, this is your cousin, Ralph," Bobby flashed a big smile and looked visibly excited. He said, "Oh, wow! Hi Ralph. It's great to meet you. Dad and I have talked about you a lot. He always tells me, whenever I feel like giving up, what you wrote to him and how much it helped him. Thanks so much."

Ralph felt very moved and held back tears. He had no idea that he had such a positive effect on his cousin and his cousin's family. Before going back into the house, he called his wife, Laura, and asked her if she wanted to try to work things out. To his surprise, she said she was going to call him and ask him the same thing. After three months of couples counseling, they worked out their differences, they got back together again and were happier than ever.

Whether we realize it or not, we often have a positive rippling effect on others around us who then pass on this effect to others. When we become anxious about the impermanence of life, the transient nature of all things, or other stressors in our lives, it helps to think about the positive effect that we can have in our social circles that often lives on from one generation to the next.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist.  

I work with individuals and couples.  

I have helped many clients to overcome obstacles so they can lead more fulfilling lives.

To find out more about me, visit my web site: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.