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Ten Minutes With a Positive Psychologist

Author and speaker Maria Sirois shares the benefits of positive thinking

Maria Sirois embodies what she teaches: gratitude, kindness, and resilience. A 25-year resident of the Berkshires, she travels locally, nationally, and internationally to tout the benefits of positive thinking. She has written two books, Every Day Counts: Lessons in Love, Faith, and Resilience From Children Facing Illness and A Short Course in Happiness After Loss. A regular Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health presenter, she will be teaching a seminar in December called “Teaching for Transformation.”

What makes the Berkshires a unique community?
There’s an extraordinary amount of generosity of spirit here. It’s a place with a lot of hopefulness, possibility, and generosity. With that, we also have an exploration of expression in dance, theater, music, art. And it’s all matched beautifully by the landscape. The heart of the Berkshires is that you can craft a life here that creates a lot room for creative expression, you can do a little of this and a little of that. You can live authentically. There’s no one overriding dictate.

What do you like most about living here?
People contribute to the community and to living here. If the Housatonic River needs to be cleaned up, people help to clean it. Neighbors help each other and are involved in nonprofits and local causes—it’s a very generous place personally and professionally.

What did you learn from working with children who have cancer? It isn’t so much what happens to you, it’s how you choose to respond. My interest in resilience stems from my work with the children. Resilience holds both suffering and joy; brokenness and wholeness. Life is difficult and hard and also wondrous and beautiful. You can have difficult moments and still bring goodness to the world. It’s not about negating feelings like anger and sadness, but adding to the experience with something to appreciate. Resilience expands you as a person and expands your capacity to hold more life. Even during the most trying times, the children could still bring forth light and joy. They had the ability to find something good in the day, to be playful, to be thankful.

Is embracing everything you feel the key to happiness?
Letting yourself feel all of your emotions—including the difficult ones—is important to building resilience, gratitude, and a broader sense of self. Not denying your feelings, giving yourself permission to feel what you feel: grief, loneliness, woundedness, disappointment, anger, whatever it is—acknowledge it all and honor it, it’s at the intersection of being happier.

Why is gratitude such an important part of well-being?
Gratitude changes the shape of the moment and your relationship to it. With gratitude, you create an opportunity for a different type of experience—you become someone who brings a positive lens to the world. You become larger as a person and don’t fall into the victim role; instead you lead from a position of inner strength. How you perceive a situation actually affects and changes the neurochemistry of your body and brain.

What are the effects of gratitude?
Studies show that gratitude softens suffering and stress and promotes resilience. Gratitude increases and strengthens social bonds, connection, and empathy while decreasing the comparative, resentment factor of “that person has more than I do.” Writer Annie Dillard said, “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.” And how you spend the moments of your days determines the quality of your life. So instilling a sense of gratitude and appreciation is important. Each moment builds on the next one.

What are some simple ways to cultivate daily gratitude?
Right before you close your eyes at night ask yourself, “What was the best moment of the day?” Maybe it was a good cup of coffee, nature, or a conversation. And then meditate on that moment and savor it. Write down one thing every day that you’re grateful for and put it in a gratitude jar. At the end of the month go back over all the moments of appreciation that you wrote down. Even saying “thank you” and acknowledging the person who stopped in the crosswalk for you generates a positive uptick for both you and the driver. In that interaction, both people feel seen, valued, and uplifted.

How can gratitude help guide daily life?
It’s about making mindful, conscious choices every day about how you act, what you do, and how you handle a situation. The mindset of how you enter the territory of your experiences affects how you navigate the journey. For example, if you’re at the Thanksgiving table and half your family isn’t talking to one another, are you going to add to the strife or be grateful for the food on the table? If your teenager rolls his eyes at you, do you react with more anger or with understanding? When a coworker doesn’t acknowledge you, do you respond with mindfulness? It’s rewiring the brain—we have the freedom to think and believe, and from that freedom comes choice, how you choose to respond to a situation. You can decide what to attend to, what to focus on, and choose to engage in activities and practices that are uplifting both for yourself and others.

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