A Brilliant Spark: Finding Happiness and Meaning


by Don Laird, MS, NCC, LPC

For what it’s worth here are a few end-of-the-year thoughts. As a therapist, I am asked many things some are heartbreaking, some are deep and provocative, while others light and humorous. Two common questions that I hear have little to do with psychology or counseling such as, “What is happiness?” and/or “What is the meaning of life?” Though well versed through personal experience, I am still hardly a pundit on such matters. So it is with my utmost apologies if what follows seems too brief, too sanguine, or too morose a response. In spite of all our failures I remain “tragically” optimistic that we can acknowledge and respect each other, not just as beings made unique by our differences, but as fellow travelers to the grave. Our journeys begin and end in a brilliant spark, and to know death is to know life and vice versa.

So if the answers to what we want in our lives is more happiness and meaning, then what are the self-imposed obstacles? Moreover, if we know the answers then maybe we are not asking the right questions. Do we fear death? Do we fear life? Do we fear each other? If so, how do these fears influence our ability to be “happy” and to live the life we want or think we want?

Weltanschauung is a fun German word meaning ideology, political doctrine, dogma or articles of faith. Yet, with all it’s trappings, weltanschauung shouldn’t solely define our purpose as a species. For one thing, it may provide some peace of mind, but it certainly does not foster happiness. And for the record, suspicion, ignorance and prejudice kill. Doesn’t abhorrence of others and fear of the unknown sabotage the very happiness we profess to want in both our personal and collective experiences? My point is that happiness is fleeting. It’s time with us is brief as it is birthed in thought, sustained in action and nurtured in experience. In short, the answer to finding happiness (if there is one at all) lies somewhere between I should do and I will do. Oh, and as for the meaning of life? Go make something…

Peace, love, and better days to you and yours in 2017.

In good health,

Meaning Conference for Psychotherapists

9th Biennial International Meaning Conference

Please do yourself a favor and if you are able to attend the International Meaning Conference it will be worth the trip. Information on the conference can be found below along with links and registration information.

9th Biennial Internation Meaning Conference
July 28-31, 2016
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Opportunities to Learn Innovative Positive Interventions:

The International Network on Personal Meaning (INPM) is pleased to announce the 9th Biennial International Meaning Conference (Second Wave Positive Psychology Summit) to be held July 28-31, 2016 in Toronto, Canada.

This is a rare opportunity for psychotherapists and counsellors to learn the latest evidence-based positive interventions from leading psychologists, including Michael Steger, Clara Hill, Carol Ryff, Itai IvtzanKirk Schneider, Mick Cooper, Robert Neimeyer, Jordan Peterson, William Breitbart, Paul Wong, and more.

Some of the highlights of the conference include:

  • Panel on Working with Meaning in Life Issues,
  • Panel on Terrorism and Heroism,
  • Workshop on the Positive Psychology of Mindful Meditation,
  • Workshops on the Positive Psychology of Meaning and Happiness,
  • Workshops on Palliative Care, Grief Therapy, and Trauma Treatment,
  • Workshops on Pluralistic Therapy and Couples Therapy, and
  • Symposium on Meaning and Addiction Recovery.

You can either register for the pre-conference workshops or the all-inclusive package. For more information and registration, click here.

To learn more about my good friend Dr. Wong, Conference Chair and President, International Network on Personal Meaning, visit his website at drpaulwong.com or to learn more about the Conference on Meaning visit 9th Biennial International Meaning Conference.

In Good Health,

Podcast: No resolutions for me, I’m perfect

Off the Script with Don and Christina

Off the Script: Episode 14
By Don Laird, MS, NCC, LPC and Christina Pettinato

January can be a time to begin again and start fresh. At the intersection of new beginnings and where do I start, mustering the energy needed to begin a new routine or reinvent an old one may seem impossible. Now that the days are short (and cold) and the daily grind of the post holiday season has settled in, it is a time to actually follow through on all those resolutions and goals you thought sounded so great at 11:59 on December 31.

In the spirit of starting anew, Don and Christina tackle a few of the psychological barriers that make this time of year especially challenging for establishing and maintaining wellness and self-care goals. No one can argue that it’s a busy time of year, but we also should acknowledge that every day is “busy” and that there is never “enough time” or a “right time.”  Reevaluating or creating those places that bring us happiness can happen now. Is it time for you to start? 

Listen now – Episode 14: No Resolutions for me, I’m Perfect

In good health,

Disclaimer: PLEASE READ CAREFULLY | This podcast does not provide medical advice. The content is for informational/entertainment purposes only. Consult with your doctor on all medical issues regarding your condition and treatments. The Content is NOT intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, nor does it replace the need for services provided by a medical professional. Always seek the advice of your medical professional before making any changes to your treatment.

Ruminations and Reflections: How does your light shine?

By Don Laird, MS, NCC, LPC

“There’s a starman waiting in the sky
He’d like to come and meet us
But he thinks he’d blow our minds
There’s a starman waiting in the sky
He’s told us not to blow it
‘Cause he knows it’s all worthwhile” ~ David Bowie

"David-Bowie Chicago 2002-08-08 photoby Adam-Bielawski" by Photobra|Adam Bielawski - Norberak egina. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:David-Bowie_Chicago_2002-08-08_photoby_Adam-Bielawski.jpg#/media/File:David-Bowie_Chicago_2002-08-08_photoby_Adam-Bielawski.jpg

David-Bowie Chicago 2002-08-08. Photo by Adam Bielawski. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

And so another icon has died. David Bowie abandoned this mortal coil at age 69, leaving a legacy of sound and vision that will likely never be equaled. He was a shining genius whose brilliance brought the world of music its first and finest chameleon in the forms of Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, and Aladdin Sane. Mythological designs, all appealing to that place in our souls that says, “Go, and be bold!” But this article is only in part about Bowie. There will be more than enough eulogies, musings and opinions about the importance of his work that will come from far better sources and writers than this humble therapist.  Having said that, his death does provide us with another example of a strange, but much needed phenomena. Suddenly the world of social media is confronted with the thought, “If David Bowie can die so will I, and if that’s the case, what does this all mean?”

Big question, kids. As a professor who teaches existential psychotherapy and a therapist who holds creativity in any form in the highest possible regard, I too find these questions creeping into my thoughts especially as I grow older. These days I often find myself doing the countdown when someone I (we) know dies, “Geez, he was only 69? That’s just 19 years older than me.”

As psychotherapist Irvin Yalom says, “Self-awareness is a supreme gift, a treasure as precious as life. This is what makes us human.”  Yet, there is a price to pay Charon long before we reach the river Styx. We are forever vulnerable to the wound of our own mortality. Our very existence is based on and forever shadowed by the knowledge that we will grow, blossom, diminish and then die. Now there’s something to put on your next Christmas card.

Beware the fields of psychology and psychiatry if you are looking for any answers regarding the way you feel about meaning, death or despair. It is far better to steer your ship toward the safer and much more knowledgeable ports of philosophy, Fellow Travelers. Unless of course you wish to establish a diagnostic code or medical reason for creativity, life and mortality, perhaps even reduce it to statistical inference? Yes, I often find myself biting the hand that feeds me, mostly because it serves a menu of junk science and reductionism that is one size fits all. Who sucked the air out of life, maybe we didn’t but we sure keep the vacuum going.

Back to my thoughts on death reminding us to live: Could it be that we are but a brilliant spark between two distinct points in time? We have a birth date and an expiration date yet to be determined.  Tombstones remind us of the quantity of one’s life. For Bowie, it was 1947-2016. However they don’t say anything about the quality. I suspect we should look more closely at the dash (-) in the above dates to fill in the blanks about the quality of one’s life.  Some live well by definition, others not so much, but we all die. It’s the time spent here (before we go to wherever your special place is beyond this world) that counts. Sure it sounds clichéd and trite, but you can’t escape the fact that you too will (depending on your age as you read this) die within the next 50 – 20 years. What are you prepared to do?

Acknowledging our mortality forces us to accept or not accept the “loan of life” as psychoanalyst Otto Rank called it (he’s dead too). The more we avoid the acceptance of death by feeding it to our specialness, “Death happens to other people,” the more we move away from life. We begin to cower in the shadows finding the safe places to hide. This is how we are built, “death is something that happens, but not to me.”

Yet, if we took a moment to look at our lives through a creative or artistic lens rather than a quantitative one, what would we see? For one, fear of death would hardly control our day-to-day decisions as much as we loosely admit it does now. Who wants to be the wealthiest person the cemetery? Can we begin to have an adult conversation about death in our culture before it’s too late? If death is how our story is going to end then what are we doing with the middle section of this book? Am I writing these chapters on my terms, with respect and responsibility to myself and others? Have I graduated beyond the glittery despair that is an albatross around the neck of our youth oriented culture? What do I value on my life’s journey and how will I let my light shine?

Unsplash Photo By Greg Rakozy

If David Bowie reminded us of anything with his incarnation as Ziggy Stardust it’s this: Life is about an extraterrestrial/existential rock star that comes to earth and rocks out and tries to save the world through his music.

So what are you prepared to do today?

In good health,

Keep Calm and SCARE On

Off the Script with Don and Christina

Off the Script: Episode 13
By Christina Pettinato

H.P. Lovecraft said, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Fear is an experience we cannot escape. It is always with us, lurking around the next corner, lingering in the darkness at the top of the stairs, lumbering in the basement where light not dare tread. We need it, and, in fact it is healthy for us.

In the “spirit” of Halloween and in an attempt to better understand the psychology of fear, Don and I offer to you, Dear Listener, our latest podcast simply titled, “Keep Calm and Scare On.” Join us for our little cavalcade of fun and fear as we celebrate BARKTOBER 2015 and the efforts of local dog rescue and shelter Gentle Ben’s Giant Breed Rescue.

Off the Script - Keep Calm and Scare OnPgh Psych will collect much needed supplies now through October 31. Community members, dog lovers, friends and businesses are invited to donate items, including cleaning supplies, blankets, XL dog toys and beds. No donation is ever too small. Help us help them by donating supplies today!!  Also, for every new “Like” (New Follower) we get for the Pgh Psych Facebook page, we will donate One Dollar to Gentle Ben’s!! Listen to the show for further details. Happy Halloween!!

Listen now – Episode 13: Keep Calm and Scare On

Lights, Camera and Love,

Disclaimer: PLEASE READ CAREFULLY | This podcast does not provide medical advice. The content is for informational/entertainment purposes only. Consult with your doctor on all medical issues regarding your condition and treatments. The Content is NOT intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, nor does it replace the need for services provided by a medical professional. Always seek the advice of your medical professional before making any changes to your treatment.

Are We There Yet?

By Don Laird, MS, NCC, LPC Off the Script with Don and Christina

Road movies come in all shapes and sizes, and almost all genres. Be it comedy, adventure, or drama, the phenomena of the Great American Road Trip Flick can follow the story of a family, two friends, two enemies, or a lonely individual. The characters versatility and resourcefulness is a film’s greatest strength, and one of the reasons why the road trip movie has such universal appeal.

Off the Script - Are We There Yet?There is a cliché that accompanies road trip movies — it’s not where you’re going but how you get there. The narrative is driven by the transforming power of the road – the hero’s journey is as old as storytelling itself. How did these characters change between point A and point Z?  Ultimately, the hero is never the same person once he or she gets to point Z.

In the spirit of the road trip flick, Christina and I explore the road less traveled in the season finale of our cinema therapy podcast. Join us as we ask the age old question uttered by child and adult alike, “Are We There Yet?” Enjoy and see you in September for a brand new season of Off the Script!

Listen now, Episode 12: Are We There Yet?

In Good Health,

Disclaimer: PLEASE READ CAREFULLY | This podcast does not provide medical advice. The content is for informational/entertainment purposes only. Consult with your doctor on all medical issues regarding your condition and treatments. The Content is NOT intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, nor does it replace the need for services provided by a medical professional. Always seek the advice of your medical professional before making any changes to your treatment.

The Inner You

It is with much enthusiasm that Pittsburgh Psychotherapy Associates offers its latest wellness group, “The Inner You:  Improving Your Self Esteem.” Group facilitator, Ashley Hanks, MS, NCC, LPC took some time to discuss an often overlooked but very important subject – self esteem. Ashley’s group is designed to help individuals take a deeper look at how they treat themselves. Exploring how low self-esteem and poor confidence keep us from moving forward in life, this supportive group will discuss the concepts of living mindfully, self-acceptance, self-responsibility, self-assertiveness, living purposefully, and developing integrity.

Get to know a bit more about “The Inner You” by reading Ashley’s Q/A.

In Good Health,

Counseling and Therapy Pittsburgh PAHow do you define self-esteem?

Self-esteem is made up of the thoughts, feelings, and opinions we have about ourselves. It is based on our ability to assess ourselves accurately and still be accepting of who we are. This means being able to acknowledge our strengths and weaknesses (we all have them!) and at the same time recognize that we are worthy and worthwhile.

What makes it so important?

Self-esteem is important because it gives you courage to try new things and the power to believe in yourself! Unfortunately, without continuing to support it, it also has the power to hold you back from exploring life. It can keep you stuck in an unhappy place because you don’t feel like you deserve more.  If you learn how to strengthen the self-esteem foundation, then you will have the ability to embrace the curve balls life throws at you!

Is it easy to change?

Easy? No. Possible? Yes!  It requires taking some time to understand who you are – what you like, don’t like, feel comfortable with, and what goals you have. It takes time and hard work, including finding appropriate and healthy external supports. It’s a lifelong process, but it’s worth the effort!

Does self-esteem guarantee success?

Success in life? Success in your career? Success with friends? No, but if you keep trying and doing your best, you are a success. Remember, having positive self-esteem will help you to achieve what you want. But when you don’t succeed, it helps to accept the situation and move on.

What’s your favorite quote about self-esteem?

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”  Eleanor Roosevelt

How would someone sign up to be in your group and when does it meet?

Interested individuals should call 412-367-0575 or email admin@pghpsychotherapy.com to register. Most major insurances are accepted. My group meets Wednesdays at 7 pm and new members are welcome!