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Haiku for Parkinson’s: Through the Lens of Positive Psychology—Scott Mason

h45 Haiku for Parkinson's
Stella Pierides: The diagnosis of Parkinson’s, a complex and irreversible neurodegenerative disease, delivers a devastating blow to those receiving it. For most, it takes considerable time to realize that often the disease progresses slowly and that there are several medical (pharmacological, surgical) interventions as well as complementary therapies and self-help activities available that help live well with Parkinson’s. In other words, there is a Parkinson’s toolbox available to those able to use it. And haiku is one of these tools!
In this iteration of Haiku for Parkinson’s, Scott Mason looks at Parkinson’s from the perspective of Positive Psychology. He cogently argues that haiku as a practice – both reading and writing haiku – aligns with the pillars of Positive Psychology and so may help those living with PD achieve a sense of well-being in the face of the sometimes seemingly overwhelming challenges of the disease.
Scott Mason writes:
Barely a quarter-century old, the field of Positive Psychology offers something of a flipside view and alternative approach to traditional psychology for improving people’s lives. The principal focus of traditional psychology has always been to understand and relieve human misery or languishing in its multitude of forms. By contrast, the focus of Positive Psychology is to understand what constitutes the good life—its accompanying emotional state is sometimes labeled “personal well-being” or human flourishing—and to use that understanding to foster its attainment.
Since the focus of the two fields is notably different, one or the other might prove to be more helpful in addressing the particular circumstances and specific needs of a given individual. We might expect traditional psychology to be more useful for those needing to get from a “negative” psychological state to an improved state. On the other hand, Positive Psychology might be better suited to those wanting to get from a somewhat unfulfilled (though not actively negative) state to a truly “positive” state. As Positive Psychology pioneer Dr. Martin Seligman puts it, “[t]he goal of understanding well-being and building the enabling conditions of life is by no means identical with the goal of understanding misery and undoing the disabling conditions of life.”
That said, might both fields have something beneficial to offer certain individuals? This is the question I shall try to address here relative to persons living with Parkinson’s Disease (PD). Of course,, no two individuals are the same, including those with similar health challenges, so any conclusions suggested by what follows must be viewed as tentative.
My 2022 article for the journal Juxtapositions, titled “Haiku and Human Flourishing,” argued that “the practice of English-language haiku aligns remarkably well with all five of the elements that comprise the pillars of Positive Psychology” and that, indeed, “[i]f one were to design the perfect practice for human flourishing based on the principles of Positive Psychology, the result just might be haiku.”  But what if any application would these principles of Positive Psychology, and the associated benefits of a haiku practice, have to anyone dealing with the unequivocally negative psychological effects of the troublesome symptoms that so often accompany PD? It would seem that those living with PD might be the perfect candidates for the more therapeutic treatments afforded by traditional psychology. Indeed, many might be.
However, let’s also consider whether the aforementioned principles of personal well-being—identified and validated through a vast body of research conducted in recent years—might have something to contribute. Using Dr. Seligman’s mnemonic PERMA, the main pillars of personal well-being consist of the following:
  • Positive emotion.  Happiness and life satisfaction, as subjectively perceived and reported.
  • Engagement.  Involvement with an important activity at the level of total absorption in which one loses the sense of time and even self, as (in retrospect) subjectively perceived and reported.
  • Positive Relationships.  Connections with others that foster well-being.
  • Meaning.  The sense of belonging to and serving something believed to be bigger than one’s self.
  • Accomplishment.  Success, winning, achievement and/or mastery.
Can a haiku practice confer any of these well-being benefits on those beset with the sometimes seemingly-insurmountable challenges of PD, or would that simply prove a pipe dream? As it happens, we have some at least anecdotal evidence to go on: namely, the personal testimonies of prior contributors to this very feature.
On the basis of those testimonies, it might be possible to theorize that a haiku practice can indeed help a person living with PD realize one or more of these salutary effects; however, those effects may arise and manifest differently than for individuals starting from a more neutral psychological state. One previous contributor to this feature—Tim Roberts—actually touched on all five pillars of personal well-being in the course of his interview (posted 1/7/24). Relevant comments from Roberts and from a few of the other previous contributors are shared in the sections below.
Positive Emotion
The “Haiku and Human Flourishing” Juxtapositions article suggested a handful of ways haiku can deliver personal pleasure and consequently bestow positive feelings on its practitioners:
  • Haiku is a poetry of the senses. It engages, affirms and rewards our most basic modes of connection with the world and each other.
  • Haiku is a poetry of discovery, and the sharing of those discoveries—including (and most especially) the small everyday wonders which so often go unnoticed and unsung.
  • Haiku is a poetry of the seasons and the natural world. Research has shown that “[s]imply the viewing of natural settings can have a positive impact on individuals’ psychological well-being.” Perhaps a related benefit attends repeated exposure to haiku.
  • Haiku is a poetry of (usually pleasant) surprise. This is the “aha” effect that comes with an unexpected yet somehow satisfying second element following the “cut” in many fine haiku.
  • Haiku is a poetry of gratitude and praise—per all the above.

The third of these items—the centrality of nature to most haiku—accounted for the most fulsome experience and expression of positive feelings from previous contributors to this feature. In her posting “My Dyskinesia” (3/3/24), Stella Pierides vividly describes how a particular nature encounter “recalibrated” her “internal perception” of her involuntary swaying movements from something embarrassing to something far less malign and, from an out-of-body sort of vantage, almost positive:

          I found a sense of playfulness in my identifying with the reeds.
Tim Roberts added the sensory aspect of haiku to his personal account of its pleasures:
          I enjoy haiku in a relaxed and expansive way, for example, wandering through
          nature, opening my senses, pausing to feel what’s around me, and exploring what
          may become material for poems.
The preceding excerpt might have sourced from any haiku aficionado, but this addendum brings the matter back to the PD always close to the surface:
          I regard this as crucial brain hygiene. . . I tend to think of this as making my
          neurons ‘beautifuller.’
Catherine Mair (“Catherine Mair and the Katikati Pathway,” posted 2/11/24) also emphasized the perceptual boons of haiku.
          Writing and reading haiku sharpens awareness and is like switching on a light in
          a dark room.
Engagement
This contributing element to well-being involves one’s pleasurable “total absorption” in a chosen activity. It can achieve added utility as a kind of diversionary tactic for those living with PD, as recounted by Tim Roberts here:
          When I am immersed in reading or writing haiku or haiga, I can often cruise
          through what are normally difficult times during my day. If I’m absorbed in haiku,
          I can go for much longer periods without experiencing any downtime and with
          good movement and clarity of thought and speech. I think of it as riding the bow
          wave of haiku for health.
The initial “cruise” reference and the entire last sentence in this excerpt are especially noteworthy when one learns that this pillar of well-being was identified in the pioneering research of Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of the University of Chicago into the phenomenon he famously described as “Flow.”
Positive Relationships
Social isolation is commonly experienced by those manifesting PD symptoms (e.g., involuntary physical movements), either because they choose to withdraw from society out of a sense of personal embarrassment or even shame, or because others avoid their company out of a feeling of awkwardness in their presence. Such forms of isolation can prove psychologically devastating since positive relationships function as a linchpin of subjective well-being.
But haiku can serve as an easy yet highly rewarding means of personal exchange and connection, especially when delivered through the virtual medium of the Internet where each participant can exercise some measure of personal control over what is shared and seen. Here, again, is Tim Roberts:
          Haiku and the way haiku poets express themselves on social media have helped
          me learn a new way of living with PD. Haiku as a practice gives me structure and
          offers fulfillment, and through haiku, I have connected with poets I admire . . .
The list of non-motor symptoms of PD includes mild cognitive impairment or dementia: it is estimated that approximately 40% of persons with PD may eventually be affected. In her article “Inviting Connection” (posted 5/12/24), Philomene Kocher describes collaborating with a chaplain in a long-term care facility who had developed a program called Soul Sessions, designed for persons with dementia. She describes their “work” with haiku as (that word again!) playful:
          The persons with dementia responded in the playful environment of Soul Sessions.
          They voiced their stories, though sometimes fragmented, with honesty and joy. We
          were all involved in sacred play.
The shared moments that characterize haiku can create a sacred space for positive relationship building where even the most vexing physical or mental challenges lose their power to disrupt or distract.
Meaning
Besides experiencing social isolation, persons living with PD can feel the loss of their very sense of identity, often triggered by symptoms that seem to have a mind of their own. PD can also force changes in what one does for a living, another way individuals tend to define themselves. Tim Roberts describes how his haiku practice relates to this issue:
          Haiku also helps me at a meta-level. After being diagnosed and stopping work, my
          confidence took a knock and I struggled to find meaning. Becoming involved in
          haiku and investing so much energy in reading and writing haiku and other poems,
          I now have a restored, more robust sense of identity, purpose, and direction.
Stella Pierides has even used haiku to face and directly address her PD experience, in the process reclaiming her personal agency:
          Haiku enables exploration and expression of the self, helping with the embarrassment
          and stigma of the disease.
          It repaired my sense of identity . . .
Accomplishment
The physical, cognitive, and emotional challenges posed by Parkinson’s can individually as well as cumulatively disempower those living with the disease, rendering even the simplest tasks Herculean and making excellence, as formerly understood and occasionally achieved, a seeming fantasy. How could those with PD hope to once again feel the pride of accomplishment, our last key element of personal well-being?
For the residents with dementia in the Soul Session groups that Philomene Kocher co-led, the basic process of constructing haiku with others provided encouraging moments of personal empowerment and validation:
          For the participants, they could see that their words were valued enough to be
          written down, and then repeated as we collaborated on a poem.
Here we leave Tim Roberts with the final word:
          Creativity, particularly writing haiku, also gives me motivation, a sense of
          accomplishment from crafting a haiku or reflecting on one that graciously arrived
          in my mind. I enjoy this moment of pleasure, a bit like solving a puzzle or cracking
          a case . . . but more fulfilling. It somehow offsets my frustrations and helps
          compensate for the limits imposed by PD.
*
A Personal Postscript
My father lived his last ten or fifteen years with Parkinson’s Disease so I had ample chance to observe it if not personally experience it. When we played cards together, he would prevail more often than not. But I also recall how, on occasion, the shaking of my father’s hands became so pronounced he had to ask, with a sense of resignation, that we resume some other time.
Although his circumstances growing up prevented him from attending college, he possessed a quick and curious mind. My father loved books (mostly mysteries) and any kind of wordplay: he read William Safire’s “On Language” column religiously and nearly always completed the crossword puzzle in the Sunday magazine section of The New York Times.
I regret that I only came to haiku several years after my father passed away in 1995. I like to imagine he might have shared some of my interest in it. If so, then I’m convinced that he would have found not just joy in its linguistic possibilities but also comfort in its power to help one connect and “make whole,” even if not to physically heal. In his memory, I hope to present others with that precious opportunity.
Sources
Darewych, Olena Helen. “Cultivating Psychological Well-Being through Arts-Based Interventions,” The Oxford Handbook of the Positive Humanities, Oxford University Press, 2021.
Mason, Scott. “Haiku and Human Flourishing,” JUXTAEIGHT: Research and Scholarship in Haiku 2022, The Haiku Foundation, 2022.
Seligman, Martin E. P. Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, Astra Paperback, 2011.
Cited “Haiku for Parkinson’s” postings (listed chronologically):
Haiku for Parkinson’s Interview – Tim Roberts (January 7, 2024): Haiku for Parkinson’s Interview-Tim Roberts – The Haiku Foundation
Haiku for Parkinson’s: Catherine Mair and The Katikati Haiku Pathway (February 11, 2024): Haiku for Parkinson’s: Catherine Mair and The Katikati Haiku Pathway – The Haiku Foundation
Haiku for Parkinson’s: My Dyskinesia – Stella Pierides (March 3, 2024): Haiku for Parkinson’s: My Dyskinesia—Stella Pierides – The Haiku Foundation
Haiku for Parkinson’s: Inviting Connection – Philomene Kocher (May 12, 2024): Haiku for Parkinson’s: Inviting Connection—Philomene Kocher – The Haiku Foundation
Biography
Scott Mason is the author of The Wonder Code: Discover the Way of Haiku and See the World with New Eyes, recipient of the Kirkus Star from Kirkus Reviews as well as the top book award from both The Haiku Foundation and the Haiku Society of America. A former longtime editor with the online haiku journal The Heron’s Nest, Scott currently serves on the board of The Haiku Foundation. His own haiku have placed first in more than two dozen international competitions.
Other Sources to explore:
A number of interesting podcasts and webinars on Parkinson’s are offered by the Davis Phinney Foundation
What is Positive Psychology? About the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive. Positive Psychology Center:
Humanities and Human Flourishing: “Advancing the understanding, assessment, and cultivation of well-being by means of a deep and sustained collaboration between the arts, humanities, and the social sciences”:

Stella Pierides is a writer and poet. Her books include "Of This World" (2017) and "In the Garden of Absence" (2012), both HSA Merit Book Award recipients. Her article “Parkinson’s Toolbox: The Case for Haiku” appeared in Juxtapositions: A Journal of Research and Scholarship in Haiku, issue 8, 2022. She serves on the Board of Directors of The Haiku Foundation, and she conceived and coordinates the Haiku for Parkinson’s feature.

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