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Positive thinking,
for good
The cover of the ABC’s of Encouragement for Girls.

Positive Thinking,
for Good

Addressing the rise of suicide among young girls with father and daughter artist duo, Jeremy and Ella Rosario, and Emiliya Zhivotovskaya, founder of The Flourishing Center and Center for Positive Education.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently revealed that nearly a third of female high school students said that they had considered suicide.
It seems like an overwhelming percentage; an unstoppable flood that will keep taking lives. But others see a different flood: one of ideas and opportunities, backed by science, that can stem the tide  to create a better story...
The Power of Positivity

Emiliya Zhivotovskaya faced significant adversity as a child. She was born 90 miles from Chernobyl, and at five years old, she fled Ukraine under the fall of Communism and Jewish persecution. At the age of 14, her brother passed away, and then she was the caregiver for her mother’s ovarian cancer, aiding her for more than a decade through the grueling medical journey. 

Given her circumstances, one may expect Zhivotovskaya’s childhood traumas to have a negative impact on her life today. But the entrepreneur founder of New York City-based The Flourishing Center, and Center for Positive Education (which has a curriculum for kindergarten through 12th grade teachers) understood resiliency, a key element of Positive Psychology, on which her practice is based today.

Zhivotovskaya started her career working at children’s parties. She would help kids celebrate the milestones in their life with rituals and games, and then send them off on their way. “I used to say that what brought me to Positive Psychology was an interest in increasing people’s lasting happiness beyond the one to four hours at their parties,” says Zhivotovskaya, “But on a deeper level, I was really fascinated by the concept of resilience.”

Emiliya Zhivotovskaya, founder of The Flourishing Center, as a child with her parents and brother.
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“One of the biggest gifts we can provide young girls is to be able to prime them with more positive words.”
—Emiliya Zhivotovskaya
Art for letter “E” in ABC’s of Encouragement for Girls.
Resilience and Girls

And resilience is essential for young girls. At ages five, six, and seven, Zhivotovskaya says, girls still tend to feel really good about themselves. At eight, nine, and ten, this starts to change. “And at 11, 12, and 13, we can see markers for depression. And a lot of this has to do with the development of the stories and dialogue that goes on in their minds when they deal with stronger emotions that they’re not necessarily taught, and have to deal with more complex social dynamics,” she says. 

As girls get older, they have a mind that allows them to develop critical thinking, says Zhivotovskaya, and some of that critical thinking can lead naturally to self criticism. “Criticism is stickier than praise,” she says, “And keeping that in mind, one of the biggest gifts we can provide [young girls] is to be able to prime them with more positive words. We can unconsciously influence their behavior.” 

And that is exactly what artist Jeremy Rosario had in mind when he heard a NPR story in 2020 that said that the attempted suicide rate rose an astonishing 38% in girls from 13 to 17 years old. (Since then, data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that nearly a third of female high school students said that they had considered suicide.)  Moved by this statistic, he wanted to take action. He worked with his 15-year-old daughter Ella to create the bi-lingual ABCs of Encouragement for Girls, a book that uses the alphabet to reinforce the values and mindset that can help girls stay positive in the face of struggle. Although he didn’t know it at the time, the book was the epitome of Positive Psychology.

“Resilience is not enough because resilience is how you react to adversity."
—Emiliya Zhivotovskaya
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Positive Psychology:

The basics

Positive Psychology was started by Dr. Martin Seligman in 1998. The then-president of the American Psychological Association made a call to action to invite psychologists to unite around the research and idea that mental health and mental illness are not opposites, and that health is more than simply an absence of illness.

It’s the scientific study of human flourishing, aiming to promote the factors that enable individuals, organizations, and communities to flourish. The study follows the empirical method of research and  bases its findings on observed and measured phenomena, deriving its knowledge from actual experience, rather than from theory or belief. “What makes Positive Psychology unique is that it is describing what has been previously prescribed—whether through religion or age-old wisdom that gets passed on, or Eastern traditions or through pop psychology and self help,” says Zhivotovskaya, “And it uses the scientific method to explore that which as been prescribed before to understand the mechanisms behind things like how to be successful, how to thrive, how to be happier.”

Art for letter “O” in ABC’s of Encouragement for Girls.
Zhivotovskaya hosting a positive psychology event for Flourishing Center.

According to Zhivotovskaya, there are two key interdependent elements to the practice. “Resilience is not enough because resilience is how you react to adversity. So by definition, in order to be resilient, you need something negative to happen. It is the consequence of a challenge or an adversity or a trigger.” The second aspect is the active amplification of happiness and well-being.

Positive Psychology believes that mental health is a continuum, and that mental health and mental illness are not complete opposites. “Just because you’re not struggling with mental illness, depression or addiction doesn’t necessarily mean you have the skills to be mentally healthy and happy,” she explains.

And to practice Positive Psychology is to develop those skills, which includes, of course, positive thinking.“In traditional psychological practices, there’s a diagnostic tool to define what’s wrong with people, but Positive Psychology has a taxonomy for how we describe what’s right with people,” says Zhivotovskaya.

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The Book. And More Than a Book

ABCs of Encouragement for Girls helps to build resilience and reinforce well-being in girls in multiple ways, according to Zhivotovskaya.

The Rosarios’ book is developed specifically to build those skills for young girls, and Zhivotovskaya admires the concept. “One of the biggest gifts that a book like this can give to a child is to be able to help prime them with more positive motion words,” she says.

And the book is full of these, with words and prompts for discussion such as Brave (Do the right thing even when you’re scared); Encouraging (You have the power to build up others); and Thankful (Be grateful in good and hard times.)

The actionable words (like “be grateful”)  let girls know that they don’t have to just let things happen to them, that they can make changes, Zhivotovskaya says. And the adjectives (“Valuable; You are valuable and of great purpose”) give children a lexicon to use the words that describe what’s right. “We have more negative words to describe emotions than positive ones,” she says, “Our brain is slightly wired to the negative.”

Finally, Zhivotovskaya says that bringing the concept to life through physical art can create a multisensory experience. “I mean, it’s just lovely,” she says, “It has a focus on building the good, and accentuating the positive.”

Jeremy and Ella Rosario, the creators of ABCs of Encouragement for Girls.

{P.S.}

we couldn't help but feel like we were entering a magical realm ...

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Allie Stokey, Photographer and Designer

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