Life's a roller coaster

Mabel Sieh

A couple have inspired Hong Kong's teenagers to stay positive during both good and bad times

Mabel Sieh |

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It is a fact that life has its ups and downs, and sometimes things get out of control. In our lowest moments, how can we keep our spirits up? When we fail at something, or fall ill, how do we gather our strength and move on?

Dr Alex Pattakos, an academic and former mental health administrator, believes the key to resilience is to "find meaning" in our everyday life. He is the author of international best seller, Prisoners of Our Thoughts, which has been translated into 20 languages.

The book was inspired by his friend, Dr Viktor Frankl, who survived the Holocaust - the mass murder of Jewish people by Nazi Germany in the second world war.

"Meaning is what keeps you going when everything is going the wrong way," says Pattakos, who helps people reflect on questions like, "Why choose this career?", "Why go to this university?", or "Why get into this relationship?".

"Thinking about the deeper meaning helps us stay engaged in what we do," he says.

Pattakos and his wife Dr Elaine Dundon, an innovation management expert, were in Hong Kong this month to speak at TEDxHappyValley, a platform to stimulate social debate and positive social change.

The couple, co-founders of the OPA! Centre for Meaning, in Santa Fe, in the US, have been spreading the "OPA! Way" to people from all walks of life.

He says: "It is an approach to living and working with meaning, uniquely inspired by my Greek origin and culture. We went back to Greece and visited villages where people live a simple traditional life and enjoy a deep relationship with each other; we had an 'aha!' moment."

Alex Pattakos (left) and his wife, Elaine Dundon, were speakers at Hong Kong's TEDxHappyValley. Photo: Edmond So/SCMP

The couple called the moment "OPA" - an acronym formed from the words "Others", "Purpose" and Attitude". It means connecting meaningfully with others - your family, friends, classmates, all the people around you; engaging with a deeper purpose, rather than only material wealth, and a real commitment to values and goals; embracing all of life - the ups and downs, joys and sorrows - with a positive attitude.

Pattakos and his wife believe this approach, which has no religious link, can help young people to embrace life to its fullest with enthusiasm, and build resilience during hard times.

"Innovation is another way to help us face adversity," says Dundon. "How creative are we in solving our problems?"

Her book, Seeds of Innovation, talks about the importance of creativity and how to develop it. Taking driving as an example, she says: "When you're in a traffic jam, you'd automatically think of other ways to get to the same place, rather than being stuck somewhere.

"It's the same in real life - you need to look for other options when you don't get into that university, or get that job you want."

However, she says that we, as adults, may not be doing the right thing to encourage creativity.

"When teachers and parents are teaching children that there is only one answer to a question, and one path to success and happiness in life, we're not helping them to see other options and learn to be flexible," she says.

To boost your creative power, Pattakos suggests an exercise called "10 positive things". He says: "Whenever you're confronted with a stressful situation, write down 10positive things about not getting what you wanted."

Pattakos promises that this exercise will work magic on your brain. "It shifts your energy and perspective and helps you to become more optimistic and positive. It also opens your mind to a list of potential creative ideas. And it helps you get out of that yucky spot, and not get stuck!"