Category Archives: Information

Low-Key Joy

Low-Key Joy

Low-Key Joy by Rebecca

Low-Key Joy by Rebecca

When we work with people in substance abuse recovery, we focus on identifying positive emotions they’d want to experience if their recovery from addiction goes as well as it possibly could. Using this “fake it ’til you make it” approach allows people the opportunity to imagine, and act “as if”, their ideal life was a reality. In this process, they are able to experience those positive emotions, if only for a short time.

Although positive emotions are only one of the many elements that go into authentic happiness, they are so important because they both signal and produce wellbeing. Barbara Fredrickson, in her book Positivity, listed 10 of the most common positive emotions that people experience:

• Interest: Noticing possibilities and life’s mysteries; being in flow; fascinated; focusing on new challenges; feeling open & alive.
• Joy: Feeling bright and light; noticing life’s vivid colors, feeling an inner glow; playful.
• Gratitude: Opening your heart, wanting to give back; heartfelt appreciation; not indebted.
• Serenity: Low-key joy; feeling everything’s alright; able to sit back and take in life’s pleasures; mindful state of peaceful savoring.
• Hope: Appears when circumstances are not ideal; holding the belief that things can change; possibilities exist, motivated to turn things around.
• Amusement: Laughter, heartfelt humor shared with others, feeling safe & lighthearted.
• Inspiration: Arises when we are witness to human nature at its finest; not resentment or envy but feeling genuinely pulled to transcend the ordinary with new energy and ideas.
• Awe: Goodness on grand scale; can feel overwhelming; feels like you are a part of something larger than yourself; self-transcendent.
• Pride: Not shame or guilt, but what blooms in the wake of socially valued achievement; motivates sharing of the good news; kindles dreams of more achievements.
• Love: Within the context of any relationship (not just romantic ones), experiencing all of the above positive emotions; non-verbal; physical response to bonding, trust and intimacy.

In a group that I (Gioia) ran, one of the members of the groups said that he was taken with the definition of serenity. He captured his visualization of “low key-joy” in an ocean scene with a blue sky filled with wispy white clouds moving across the sky. As I looked at his drawing, I could almost smell the salt air and I felt that low-key joy.

Warmly, Gioia and Rebecca.

Art Directive
Imagine feeling low-key joy-serene, calm, and peaceful. Make a painting, drawing or collage depicting that sensation. Post your artwork here or on our Facebook page!

art with a lower case “a”

Art is intimidating. Although children usually make art spontaneously, most of us stopped doing art in our early teens.

Unless you identify with being an Artist with a capital “A,” art may be something that you relegate to your talented sister, your artsy friend who is naturally creative and has an eye for color and design, or the gifted few who seem to be born with imagination and artistic skill.

In our work, we find that many people, when they see that they might be doing art, insist that they can barely draw stick figures. Having to interact with art supplies seems very intimidating. Interestingly enough, “real” artists are often put off as well because they feel pressure to create something “beautiful” that shows off their artistic prowess.

Creativity guru Danny Gregory suggests that we bring art into our lives more actively whether we are trained artists or not. In Art Before Breakfast, he encourages doing art daily-especially in the morning-quick sketches of your environment, your breakfast, contour drawings of your furniture. Art helps process our thoughts, give us a different perspective, sorts out cobwebs of confusion, and give us clarity. Art puts some order to the chaos and gets us out of our heads. We would also suggest using it at night to close out the day, put it to bed for the night.

Notes from James Gordon Lecture at Smith Center by Rebecca

Notes from James Gordon Lecture at Smith Center by Rebecca

Gregory believes we would be less intimated about making art if we thought of it art with a small “a” instead of Art with a capital “A”.

Art with a capital “A” is for galleries, critics, and collectors.
art with a small “a” is for everyone.
Art with a capital “A” is for exhibition.
art with a small “a” is for expression
Art with a capital “A” is about commerce.
art with a small “a” is about connection.
Art with a capital “A” is an event.
art with a small “a” is a practice.
Art with a capital “A” is hard to access.
art with a small “a” is open access.
Art with a capital “A” requires training and skill.
art with a small “a” requires only willingness and experimentation.
Art with a capital “A” is about product.
art with a small “a” is about process.
Art with a capital “A” is finished.
art with a small “a” is developing.
Art with a capital “A” should be perfect.
art with a small “a” has mistakes and imperfections.
Art with a capital “A” requires time and space.
art with a small “a” can happen anytime anyplace.

So we recommend using art with a small “a” more often–doodle more, sketch out a problem, draw your morning coffee, make stick figures of the people (and creatures) in your life and personalize them with details and designs, put your thoughts on paper with art. Ask a question and answer it with art. See what happens when you become an artist with a small “a”.

Share any sketches, doodles, or art “thoughts” on our facebook page. Post on our website and on our Facebook page!

Ubuntu–The Universal Bond that Connects Us All

I (Gioia) found a new word the other day: Ubuntu.  Apparently Ubuntu is a Zulu term for compassion and humanity, or human kindness.  It means, literally, “human-ness.” I had been looking for a way to describe what we witnessed recently when we were giving a keynote in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.  We had been honored to participate in Sussex County Survivorship Coalition’s 3rd Annual Cancer Survivorship Conference, “After Ringing the Bell”.


The conference focused on mind-body strategies for resilience.  Several speakers presented on yoga, mindfulness, and the power of photography to tell stories of survival.  Our topic was “Honoring resilience through creativity.”   We figured the 175 participants were experts in this area.  Their stories and art work eloquently revealed the unique ways they had managed their hardships and difficulties, coping with tough times as best they could.  One of the strategies mentioned most often was connecting with others.   Even more poignant, they spoke of how, even if they were very sick, kindness to others helped.  “Reach out and make someone’s day”, they advised, as those little acts of kindness, while they don’t make the cancer go away, helped to distract from their troubles.

For example, one woman shared a story in which she had been in her oncologist’s waiting area, anxiously bracing for feedback on her treatment.  Another patient in the waiting area complemented her on her coat, which happened to be her favorite winter-wear.  Later, the woman overheard her fellow waiting room friend reveal to the office staff that, on top of her illness, she was struggling financially.  After her appointment, she decided to leave her coat behind as a gift for the other woman, hoping that it might brighten the latter’s day.  Even though the news she, herself, had gotten from the doctor was not good, the act of giving something special to someone else who was struggling gave her some solace.

Although it might seem counterintuitive, the cancer survivors told us that being there for others when you’re suffering had been one of the things that helped them the most.  This was echoed in the support they gave each other there at the conference, as they did art work and shared their stories about the things that had kept them strong in their struggle with cancer.  So as I was writing this, and found the word Ubuntu, the universal bond that connects us all, it seemed clear to me that this encapsulated one of the most important elements of resilience.

Art Directive:  Journal about a time when you were struggling, yet still found a way to help someone else and it made you feel better. Make a piece of artwork in response.

Post your art work here by sending it to us or posting it on our Facebook page!

Woody Guthrie’s New Year’s Rulin’s

Woody's New year's Rulin's

Woody’s New year’s Rulin’s

This time of year always calls for lists, all kinds of lists—“Best of..”, “Worst of …”, “Things for which you’re grateful”, “What you accomplished in 2014”, “Resolutions for the upcoming year”, etc….

We’ve been thinking about lists here at CWW partly because we’re preparing for a couple of “Vision Journaling” workshops and making lists is always a great prompt for journaling, but also because we are trying to identify our own aspirations for ourselves personally and professionally over the next year.

I was chatting about lists with some friends while hanging out at the neighborhood Starbucks in Tucson. Kris, a fellow Starbucks traveller (and also a therapist) mentioned one of the best lists ever written—Woody Guthrie’s 1942 “New Year’s Rulin’s”.

Apart from the charming and unpretentious hopes that Woody voices in his list, what makes it unique is the fabulous doodles he uses to illustrate each of his aspirations. As Kris said “They’re not only comical but they make the ideas more endearing and memorable. And also easier to relate to.” Kris added that, although she is not an artist, she loved the idea of accompanying each promise with a little sketch, “just a visual thought, really”—that it made the commitment less daunting and more approachable. It also makes the tasks seem more playful and less overwhelming.

There are other qualities about Woody’s list that make it appealing,–it’s a reminder of down to earth essentials coupled with more noble intentions. I particularly love the increasingly expansive sequence that begins with “LOVE MAMA, LOVE PAPA, LOVE PETE, LOVE EVERYBODY”.

Love mama, papa, pete, and everybody

Love mama, papa, pete, and everybody

So, as you begin 2015 and record some things you would like to accomplish in the upcoming year, draw a little visual thought next to each (as you can see from Woody’s list, it need be nothing more than a tiny stick figure) and post these intentions where you will be able to see them. Notice if adding the extra “visual thoughts” doesn’t make you feel more hopeful and willing about the tasks they represent.

Here is what’s on Woody’s list:


Other People Matter

“I believe that unconditional love will have the final word ” Martin Luther King, Jr

My Peeps by Rebecca

My Peeps by Rebecca

It’s been a challenging year if you listen to the news recaps. Ebola. Gaza. Ukraine. Malaysia Airlines. ISIS. Robin Williams. Girls here and abroad abducted and raped. Rockets crashing. Ferguson. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns of “severe, pervasive and irreversible” damage to our environment from global emissions of CO2. Heavy stuff, all of it. And we know many of you face personal challenges that add to these global stressors.

As we search for positive ways to move forward, to make a difference, and to heal, we are reminded of the importance of connecting with each other in the spirit of love. As Chris Peterson, one of our favorite positive psychologists, used to say, “Other people matter!”

So we are celebrating everyone who matter to us: You–the lovely people that we have had the pleasure and honor to work with, our family members, our art therapy colleagues, our students and teachers, our neighbors, and the folks who we cross paths with every day at work, doing errands, and going about our lives.

We wish you a peaceful December and hope you get a chance to do something creative with those you care about over the holidays.

Art Directive:
Who matters to you? Make art that includes symbols of the people and communities that matter to you. Share what you’ve made by sending us a jpeg of the image and we’ll upload it.

The Magic In Small Things

.Gioia's Miniature Shrine

Think about three things that have gone well thus far in your day. Find a piece of paper and write them down. If the list gets longer as you’re writing, go ahead and add more

When we start our workshops with this simple exercise, what we usually hear are comment such as “I got to work without running into traffic”; “I got to have breakfast with my children before I went to work”, “I had time to stop and get coffee before I came here”, “my cat woke me up by curling up on top of my head.” Sometimes it will include something that started out poorly but got better, such as “I ran into traffic, but I found a good parking spot”, “My car wouldn’t start this morning but the neighbor was driving by and gave me a jump start” “The bus didn’t come but there was a fresh breeze that kept me cool when I walked to the subway.” We also hear more global gratitude such as “I’m grateful for family and my friends,” “that I can walk and talk,” “that I woke up!”

It is often small things—easy commute, brief but pleasant exchanges with others, a moment to savor a tasty bite, having the opportunity to enjoy nature, bonding with a pet—that impact us most.

The “three blessings” exercise falls under the “gratitude” category, obviously perfect for this time of year. However, it is subtly different from more global gratitude lists of “things for which we are grateful.” It is designed to shift our focus from a natural tendency to notice what is problematic in our environment and, instead, take stock of what is functional and working, to “attend to the good” (as Ed Diener, one of our favorite positive psychologists, suggests). To use a visual metaphor, you could say that our attention is like a photograph. The “good” forms the background of everyday human experience, it frames the picture but it is less distinct and may even go unnoticed; whereas the “bad” appears to sharply pop out and commands our attention. This is helpful because it identifies that something needs to be dealt with. However, we have to consciously practice “attending to the good” in order to counteract this bias towards the negative.

So as you go throughout your day, think about what is going well in your environment, however insignificant.

Art Directive:
Make a collage in which you include small things that have a large impact on the quality of your daily life. If you want to share what you’ve made, take a photo and post it on our Facebook page!

Self-Symbols: Butterfly or Dragonfly

A few years back, Gioia went on a butterfly binge. Butterflies showed up all the time in her artwork. It seemed to make sense that butterflies appeared—she was going through a lot of changes in her life, many of them positive, and butterflies are often associated with metamorphosis and transformation.

After feeling that the butterfly symbol had run its course, she moved on to dragonflies. What did they mean? Well, according to a quick Internet search, dragonflies can represent lots of things: water and light, transformation, higher aspirations, a carefree nature, gaining power through dreams and the imagination, even the ability to see through illusion. Dragonflies are supposed to teach us balance and skillful action with a free and joyful attitude. In Japan, the dragonfly is known as katsumushi or “invincible insect,” a favorite symbol of strength among warriors.

J. C. Cooper’s Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols notes that while dragonflies share with the butterfly the symbolism of immortality and regeneration, they also have a shadow side, sometimes representing whirlwind activity, swiftness, instability, unreliability, and access to mysterious agents of the gods and spirits. Wow, watch out, Gioia!Those dragonflies are powerful! Luckily, with symbolic interpretation there really is no one right answer. You pick what’s useful, what makes sense to you, and leave the rest.

In our workshops, we will sometimes ask people to draw a symbol to represent some aspect of themselves; for example, that they choose an animal that embodies one or more of their strengths. The metaphors that emerge-the faithful dog, independent cat, creative bee–offer a playful way to find some new insights into what makes us tick. They create a unique way to access and convey our experience and a lens through which we and others can see ourselves in a new way. Suzanne K. Langer once said we create art symbols to discover “organized feeling, the rhythms of life, the forms of emotion” (1953, p. 392). All that from a little dragonfly? Well, why not?! What animal, insect, creature would be your self-symbol?

Art Directive:
Make a self symbol collage: Cut out a magazine picture you relate to–could be an animal or anything that speaks to you (a plant, a form of transportation, a type of fruit) and paste it into a new environment or background, adding any final details with a sharpie. Journal about how this symbol in its environment relates to you and your life.

Positive yours, Rebecca (cat) and Gioia (dragonfly)

Warming Up to Flow

Rebecca-Spill Writing-Ripping

Rebecca-Spill Writing-Ripping

At CWW, we often sing the virtues of getting into flow and, of course, we suggest that doing art is a natural way for people to experience it.

Flow is that state we achieve when we are fully immersed and engaged in an activity that is intrinsically rewarding to us, when we are faced with a challenge that we are skilled enough to master but which requires enough effort that we do not get bored. When we experience flow, we may have a sense of time either expanding or contracting–it feel like hours went by in minutes or that what was just minutes felt like a lifetime. During flow, people often feel acutely aware of themselves but at the same time unselfconscious and receptive to their environment–“present”.

Some people are blessed to be able to naturally and effortlessly jump into activities in which they experience flow–art, writing, running–but others may find that, even though they know what gets them into flow, they rarely get around to doing it.

If you are that second group mentioned, you may have wondered, “If I enjoy doing this so much (painting, hiking, gardening), why don’t I do it more?!” There may even be a part of you that actively resists doing it. And you may have bemusedly asked yourself, “Why would I avoid doing something that, when I actually start doing it, is so rewarding and feels so good?!” It might be helpful to know that most of us need to be “warmed up” in order to get into flow.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced simply “chick-sent-me-hi”), the father of Flow theory who studied artists and athletes around peak flow experiences, tells us is that for many people, getting into flow requires an initial effort that may at first feel uncomfortable or forced. He explains that one of the reasons that people often end up choosing sedentary but less rewarding activities such as watching TV or passively sitting around for hours, is that these activities appear to provide opportunities for rest and relaxation. However, what these activities actually tend to do is drain our energy and leave us feeling depleted and listless–they do not provide the rejuvenation and invigoration that flow activities create.

Although Csikszentmihalyi does not discourage people from occasionally indulging in what we these days might call “vegging out”, he says that we need to create habits that overcome our more passive tendencies and help us work through the initial resistance that keeps us from activating experiences of flow.

So how do we warm ourselves up to get into flow activities? We chose simple structured rituals that help move us from inactivity to activity. These can be very concrete with very concrete and tangible goals. It may be helpful if the result of the exercise does not have a high degree of importance or value. Just engaging playfully in the activity, starting and being in the process, is in many ways more important than the product.

Art Activity
In art therapy,we use many techniques to help “warm up” our clients. Here are a few that you might try:

  • Gratitude List: Write a list of 15 things for which you are grateful or feel good about in your life
  • Spill Writing/Ripping: On a piece of color paper, write anything that’s on your mind for 3 minutes without pausing (if you don’t know what to write, write “I don’t know what to write”, “this is stupid” “nothing comes to mind” etc., until something does, the idea is to keep writing the whole time to let the hand movement jog your brain.  Take what you’ve written, rip it up, and reconfigure it into a design.
  • Take a piece of paper and use every color of your markers, pens, watercolors, repeat lines or shapes to make a pattern.
  • Without any art supplies, make sweeping exaggerated gestures like you are painting or drawing by swinging the arms in large circles as if on a large piece of paper or canvas. Reverse the direction, do this with both arms (also fun with glow sticks or sparklers).
  • Take a piece of clay and make ten different creatures in three minutes, quickly transforming the same piece of clay from one shape to another.
  • Do a collage of things that you enjoy and then do a painting of your collage.
  • Find a coloring in sheet, copy it three times, and color it in differently using either different art materials or different mark making and colors.

Once you are warmed up, make a piece of art work in response to your warm up activity.

If you get a chance, share what you’ve done on our Facebook Page.  We love to see your work.

The Optimist and The Pessimist

Gioia-Journal Pages-Serenity Prayer

Gioia-Journal Pages-Serenity Prayer

Gioia and I (Rebecca) have a running joke about being diametrically opposed in both mood and also our general levels of optimism versus pessimism. Those of you who know us personally can probably easily identify that Gioia is the buoyant optimist and I am the darker pessimist.

The classic example we use to illustrate this inherent difference comes from a consistent mishap she and I both encounter in our lives–losing our keys. We do this frequently (we are both a bit prone to misplacing things!) but we respond quite differently.

Gioia recounts losing her keys one day while she was home with her daughter, Annie (you could say the keys weren’t technically lost but they certainly weren’t found). After searching diligently but fruitlessly for the keys, Gioia realized that, better or worse, she and Annie were stuck at home. After contacting the school to let them know Annie wouldn’t be there, Gioia decided that she would take advantage of and, even better, celebrate her unexpected good fortune-she got to hang out with Annie and play “lets pretend preschool” at home!

When I lose my keys, I curse under my breath, call myself a slew of derogatory terms–“I’m such an loser, I can’t believe I lost my #!% keys yet again.” I anxiously fret over the fallout that I imagine will occur from this inopportune disruption. And I regularly lament to others about being a hopeless airhead.

My reaction is a classic example of the pessimists’ response–we tend to see bad situations as pervasive, permanent, and personal. “This always happens to me, it’s my fault, I brought this on!” And Gioia beautifully illustrates the optimists’ response–they see adverse events as specific to the situation, temporary and impersonal. “It’s an isolated event, it could have happened to anyone, it probably won’t happen again”, (even though, we all know it will!)

Interestingly, optimists do the opposite for positive events. They own their contribution to positive events-they take appropriate credit for their part and they expect things to turn out generally well. Pessimists tend to be cynical and minimize their role in positive events.

So how do pessimists such as myself change this less-than-helpful tendency and adopt a more optimistic approach? First we identify and dispute self-defeating thoughts that recur when we encounter adversity. We try to identify what we can and cannot change in our lives and focus our efforts on where we can make a difference.

For example, instead of saying to myself, “I’m such a dingbat,” I can recognize the intensity of my negative self-talk and challenge the sweeping generalizations I make about myself. I can observe that I have been able to keep track of my keys most of the time, but just got so busy that this one time, they got away from me. And I can focus on what I can do to manage and make the best of the situation now that my keys have temporarily disappeared.

Art Directive:
Fold a large index card in half. The outside will have the lines, the inside will be blank. On the left of the blank side, make an image that represents something that you feel proud or good about having changed in your life, and on the right side, a challenge you are facing, something that you’re not going to be able to change. On the back of the positive image, write about your contribution to that positive event. Then look at the challenge image and see if you can find something in the drawing that surprises you or that is pleasing to your eye. Write about that, on the back.

Savoring Flowers–and Friends

Last weekend I (Gioia) took the family to visit my old friend, Sarah, who farms on Maryland’s beautiful Eastern shore. We arrived in the early evening after a wonderful day of enjoying the water. Sarah and her husband fed us a succulent meal of fresh-picked grilled zucchini, onions, and squash from the farm, and then my girls got to pick flowers from their fields. The experience was amazing, and as the sun set, I knew I would be savoring this moment for a while.

Savoring at Sarah's Farm

Savoring at Sarah’s Farm

Savoring, as positive psychologist Fred Bryant explains, is a useful strategy for amplifying and extending pleasant experiences.  It is closely linked to the science behind positive emotions, an area which we often explore in our workshops–simply put that although negative emotions are critical to our survival and should not be eradicated, we want to experience more positive emotions because they broaden our perspective and build our psychological and physical resources.

When we savor something, like my evening at Sarah’s farm, we consciously attend to positive feelings so that we maximize their positive effects in our lives.  Bryant suggests that it is like “Swishing the experience around…in your mind”.

Bryant outlines several different savoring strategies: counting your blessings, taking a mental photograph, or closing your eyes to block out distractions while tasting a delicious bit of food. We can also savor by practicing thanksgiving, where we amplify feeling grateful, by marveling, where we focus on the awesomeness of life, by basking, when we feel take in pride in achieving worthwhile goals, and by luxuriating, that is, by deeply noticing physical pleasure.

It turns out some people are better at savoring than others; and folks have culturally-influenced beliefs about whether or not they should enjoy positive experiences quite so much! The good news is that our capacity to savor the moment seems to increase later in life, so it’s not too late to practice your savoring skills! As for me, I’ll be enjoying playing with my photos of Sarah’s fields of flowers for quite a while!

At some point, when you are enjoying yourself today, pause to savor the moment; observe your surroundings, what your senses are experiencing, notice the company around you, and what pleasant emotions you are feeling.

Art Directive

While savoring that enjoyable moment, use the side of chalk pastels or use very wet watercolors to make large sweeping areas of color that express those pleasant sensations.  Keep it very loose and spontaneous.  Prop the picture up and let it remind you of that feeling.

Positively, Gioia and Rebecca