It’s the land of rosé wine, custard tarts and fado. The most Westerly point in Europe. Facing out onto the Atlantic, surrounded by Spain. But if you’re thinking that this is yet another piece of travel journalism, you’d be wrong. I’ve just returned from my 2nd trip to Portugal in 6 months where I’ve been training some of the people who look after Portugal’s mental health. And it’s left me reflecting on what it might take to make Portugal happy. Portugal was already near the bottom of Europe’s well-being league table, just above the Russian Federation, before the economic crisis of 2008. The Southern European countries, for all their joie de vivre, have experienced some of its worst consequences. The ‘crisis’ is an ever-present topic of conversation. Youth unemployment is running at 50% in Portugal and the Government is advising young people to leave the country claiming that there is nothing left for them – effectively signing the nation’s death certificate.
There is a sadness that permeates the Portuguese soul, revealed in the melancholia of fado music. The ‘crisis’ is often spoken of as the cause of Portugal’s low well-being, but according to one psychologist I spoke to, the roots go much deeper than that. There’s the legacy of dictatorship, the constraints of religion, even the 1755 earthquake and tsunami, that wiped out much of Lisbon, is given as a reason for the chronic low state of the Portuguese psyche. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the first foreign-language edition of my book Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression was in Portuguese. It seems that P is not just for Portugal, it’s also for Pessimism.
Well, as a practising optimist I’ve seen a few things that make me optimistic about Portugal’s future. One thing the crisis has shown is that the old ways are no longer working. Things have got so bad that there is no point in repeating the same old same old. Rather than tinkering around the edges maintaining the status quo, the old paradigm needs to give way to a new paradigm. It is a breakdown to break through. When you hit rock bottom the only way is up. I’ve met many health care professionals who are keen to adopt positive psychology into mental health in Portugal. Not just the conventional therapeutic approach of exploring the source of pain but focusing attention on the things that are good in life, the things that are working. By focusing one’s efforts on increasing well-being, the evidence suggests that well-being goes up. Another advantage of using positive psychology techniques such as using one’s strengths, practising optimistic thinking and savouring the good is that they form part of a no-cost or low-cost approach, which is cost-effective compared to therapy or anti-depressant medication.
The green and fertile environment is another cause for optimism. Being unemployed is difficult wherever you are, but somehow the benevolent climate, the heat tempered by an Atlantic breeze make it a touch more tolerable than being in a cold, polluted inner city. Fish is the staple of the Portuguese diet but whereas fish is now a luxury in other countries, it’s still affordable in Portugal. There is good soil too. I’ve seen patches of scrap land in between buildings and by the riverside that have been given over to vegetable patches full of abundant leafy veg. A great example of doing your own thing and moving towards being self-sufficient. Maybe it is in this kind of independent thinking that we will find the green shoots of recovery in the Portuguese spirit.