Stay positive! Stay busy! Take care of yourself! Sometimes, those most common bits of military spouse advice sound wicked helpful. Sometimes, they sound like the instructions for turning into a Stepford Wife.
When Her War Her Voice blogger Jill Crider and her family were going through their third combat deployment, Jill struggled with the whole staying positive bit.
This week at the AUSA conference in Washington, D.C., Crider told the audience that their brigade had more than 100 soldiers killed during its 15 months in Iraq. At home, Jill’s second-grade son started crying and begging not to go to school every morning. Her own health suffered when she broke her ankle and was hospitalized due to a brown-recluse spider bite.
“I kept telling people, ‘I’m good. I’m good.’ It was a recipe for disaster,” Crider said.
Staying positive during deployment is not an emotion that people easily switch on and off under these circumstances. Barbara Fredrickson, social psychologist at the University of North Carolina and author of Positivity, notes that most positive feelings actually happen when we feel safe and all our needs are met.
Warm. Fed. Dry. Bills paid. Homework done. Everyone healthy. Tucked under a quilt with a bowl of popcorn and the people who love us best, it is pretty easy to feel joy, pride, amusement, happiness and every other positive emotion. Staying positive is a lot harder when things aren’t going so well.
Instead of telling themselves to stay positive, military spouses might be better off cultivating hope. Hope is the only positive emotion that springs to life when things aren’t going so well. The presence of hope has been correlated with positive outcomes in medicine, athletics and academia. Recently, the presence of hope was shown to improve the efficacy of PTSD treatment.
“Hope is the exception,” wrote Frederickson. “It comes into play when our circumstances are dire -- things are not going well or at least there’s considerable uncertainty about how things will turn out.”
Yet telling someone to “stay hopeful” sounds unrealistic. It sounds like hope is the last thing left to cling to when everything else is gone. That isn’t quite the way hope works.
Instead, social scientists suggest that hope is based on a concrete foundation. Hope involves the perception that one's goals can be met. For deployment, the goal of a military family may be just to make it through the deployment -- to end up on the other side with everyone in the family under the quilt with the popcorn again.
Which ought to mean that military families should just “hope” for the quilt and the popcorn and poof! it happens. It takes a little more than that. In his work in the psychology of hope, Charles Snyder showed that hope is not just a feeling. Hope is the sum of the mental willpower and waypower that you have for your goals.
That is key to the difference between staying positive and cultivating hope for military families. In Snyder’s model, willpower is the emotional drive you put toward your goal. Waypower is your plan for how you are going to meet that goal.
For military families going through deployment, willpower -- the degree to which you want to get through deployment -- is not often the problem. Waypower -- the skills required to lead a family through a deployment -- can be lacking. When it comes to the demands of a combat deployment, this is especially true.
Crider found that taking the Army’s Master Resilience Training (part of the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program) was the most important thing she did for her military life. “It was like tumblers in lock,” said Crider. All of the sudden, all the anger she had carried for years slipped away. She had waypower to go with her willpower.
For other military families, the development of other skills can help reach the goal of getting through deployment. Military spouses learn relaxation techniques, take exercise classes, read parenting books, or reach out to professionals. Hope makes all the difference in a military life -- as long as we develop the willpower and waypower to go with it.