Career-Changer Dr. Maria Sirois Sought “A Deeper Sense of Meaning,” Teaches Resilience and Positive Psychology

January 09, 2020

Working in business early in her career, Dr. Maria Sirois said she felt like something was missing in her professional life. Like many students who come to William James College, she decided she wanted to instead find a career path with “a deeper sense of meaning.”

“I was working in public relations and found that I was drawn to getting to know clients rather than promoting them,” Sirois said. She enrolled and found a deep passion for “the question of resilience,” adding that this really “came home” for her during her fourth-year internship experience working in a pediatric oncology unit at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute.

Sirois, who is a graduate of the class of 1993, worked with children and families in the bone marrow ward at Dana Farber. Sirois’ dissertation focused on “the intersection of spirituality and psychotherapy,” and she said she thought being in the presence of people facing illness would allow questions about “faith, God, and meaning” to surface.

“It was a year very rich in some of the worst moments, and some of the most wonderful moments,” she recalled. “During that time, I noticed that there were some families that, even though they were preparing to say goodbye to their son or daughter, came together and grew as a family. Then I witnessed other families whose child had a diagnosis that was absolutely curable and watched some of those families fall apart. The experience engendered a passion in me to examine what it means to not only get through something, but to get through it in a way that you actually grow.”

Her education, she said, afforded her the opportunity to take the path she was looking for, along with the opportunity to continue to recreate herself along the journey over the years. “I feel like I’ve had three different careers already – private practice, then direct clinical work and training around resilience, and when the science around positive psychology really took hold, it provided a resurgence as well,” she said.

As a first-year student, she took a class with Dr. Alan Beck. “In the very first semester of my very first year, [Dr. Beck] said there are a thousand ways to live a healthy life, and it’s up to us to help create the condition in which the person can authentically come to know what health is for them.” Immediately, she said, she felt a permission to explore what psychology knew to be true, but also to provide room for clients to shape their own way of living.

She added that she took that message to heart on behalf of clients, but she also translated it to mean that there are a thousand ways to use a psychology degree such that any of us have a healthy, thriving life. “One of the things I love about the PsyD, or the Master’s in Counseling, is there is so much flexibility in terms of how you apply it,” she said.  

Today, the question of resilience remains a core focus of Dr. Sirois’ work. Looking at resilience through the lens of positive psychology, she spends most of her time teaching and training, including teaching a course in the College’s Continuing Education program.

Her current course, “Broken/Whole: A Positive Psychology Approach to Building Resilience in Clients,” is an online course specifically designed for clinicians to learn how to catalyze resilience in clients, patients and in employees. It explores resilience through established theory and foundational perspectives, and weaves in current research on the topic.

“Positive psychology has emerged as a science that is rooted in asking questions that orient us toward the good within us and around us and helps us understand what ‘thriving’ can look like,” said Sirois. “In the course we explore what might be the tools and practices from a positive psychology perspective that cultivate a sense of resilience and growth.”

The title of the course, Broken/Whole, Sirois said, refers to a paradox that’s evident in resilience. “In the most resilient of us, we have the capacity to hold to seeming opposites at the same time. We can be sad and hopeful, we can be angry and generous, we can be filled with grief and kind, and that the capacity to hold multiple experiences, emotionally and cognitively at the same time, really is hallmark of thriving during difficult times.”

The tools and practices presented in the class, she explained, compliment more traditional practices of psychology, which can focus on “the fractured places or the vulnerabilities or the habits that are really destructive,” and, she said, “adds to that an “and” – and we can also elevate optimism, and we can cultivate calmness, and we can also leverage our character strengths.”

Sirois said, “the framework is really about offering clinicians the opportunity to try to integrate positive psychology approaches in such a way that it supports the work they’re already doing but takes them more into a much more wholistic conversation.”

She also travels to offer training around the country and internationally. Working in this field, she said, is a reminder that there are “wonderful human beings everywhere doing incredible work on behalf of individuals, and families and the planet and that any one of us is really joining a community of scholars, researchers and practitioners that goes far beyond the community we live in.”

She teaches here at the College, she said, because she deeply believes in the integration of positive psychology tools with the more standard approaches that are often taught and loves the opportunity to work with clinicians who are on the frontline. It also gives her the chance to give back to the College community.

“Education changed my life. I was the first girl in my family, my large extended family, afforded the opportunity to go to a four-year college and certainly the first female to get a doctorate,” she said. “I’ve seen over and over again how the occasion to provide a new understandings through education makes a tremendous difference in people’s abilities to do something meaningful and beneficial to the world.”