Applying Positive Psychology to the PandemicOct 29, 2020 07:16PM ● By Ann C. Reeves
We are being asked what seems impossible—to live completely differently for a year or more, with reduced or complete loss of incomes, worry about family and physical isolation from those closest to us. Additionally, we're dealing with the devastating loss of life, illness and food and housing insecurity.
Positive psychology offers opportunities to learn how best to survive and even thrive during this unwelcomed test of our humanity. Positive psychology viewpoints and strategies can sustain us during this time, to help regain our positivity, promote engagement with whatever life we are living, maintain or improve our relationships, create meaning in our life, feel as though we are accomplishing something even when the world says we are not and retain our health and vitality without going to the gym.
What is Positive Psychology?
Positive psychology was started by a University of Pennsylvania psychology researcher, Dr. Martin Seligman, whose entire career is based on evidence-based science. Positive psychology was developed as a correction to the early emphasis on pathology in mental health functioning. Seligman wanted to scientifically investigate what is right about us, rather than just what is wrong, and positive psychology interventions reflect his and many others’ research findings.
The evidence of the benefits of being happier is powerful. A meta-analysis of hundreds of studies suggests that happiness is related to increased income, physical health and more fulfilling relationships. Based on the most recent neuroscience, positive psychology addresses all areas of human functioning, teaching very doable techniques and skills to create a more positive and meaningful life through any of the following areas, outlined by Seligman’s “PERMA” theory.
Positive psychology views “happiness” as a sense of well-being or deep contentment, not the cheery caricature of happiness we see on the media. Neuroscience suggests that the threat-detection part of our brains is naturally tilted toward survival—a bias toward protecting ourselves. People with heightened anxiety and fear tend to have stronger reactions than those who don’t, often related to histories of trauma and stress. Positive psychology offers strategies that help prime the brain toward the positive.
Creating daily, simple “What Went Well” and gratitude journals have helped many people because they encourage our brains to search for something positive. Professor Barbara Frederickson at the University of North Caroline had written extensively about her Broaden and Build theory of positivity, which suggests that even one positive experience creates an upward spiral toward emotional well-being.
One strategy to promote positivity is to examine whether you have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. Someone with a fixed mindset thinks that their abilities are limited, that they are not very smart, talented, nice or attractive. A growth mindset posits that our brains are not limited and we can be or attain most things in life. Mindset is often established early in life, and is the reason why most people quit early, or sadly, don’t even try something due to fear of failure. This can become a lifetime attitude and habit. Our negative self-beliefs underlie much of our behavior. Most often, they are untrue, or greatly exaggerated, and can be changed.
Why am I so negative toward the family I love during this pandemic?
This is happening a great deal now, when most of us have been inside with the same person or family members for months. Positive psychology offers techniques to examine and soften our emotional reactions through awareness of triggers, using mindfulness and planning and rehearsing possible responses ahead of time.
To be engaged is to be meaningfully attentive to whatever task is at hand. It could mean we’re in a state of “flow”—that feeling of being so engaged in what we are doing that we lose a sense of time. True engagement can also happen, however, with the simplest of tasks, having to do with choice and attention. But when folks are worried (maybe balancing tele-education with tele-jobs), it is difficult to feel truly engaged with whatever we are doing.
How can I feel more “all-in” in my life?
Positive psychology offers strategies for navigating choices, creating opportunities, learning how to manage your energy rather than your time, and how to self-regulate and focus. Savoring, the ability to be attentive and appreciative of an experience using all of your senses, is another suggestion. As always, utilizing mindfulness is helpful here. One strategy is to commit to searching for something beautiful every day—it could be a flower, a child’s laugh, an unexpected letter or gift, a piece of music—and then write it down. Another is to close your eyes and remember a time in your life when you felt a sense of flow, being in the moment, visualizing it as though you’re there.
During COVID, the stress is high and so much is asked of us—juggling job, home and parenting responsibilities. Positive psychology has researched many ways in which the quality of our relationships can impact overall positivity, which helps us feel more connected to others, including increased feelings of positivity, higher immune function and lowered blood pressure.
How can I show less negative emotion and get along better with those I love most?
Positive psychology offers principles for thriving relationships as well as transforming negativity in relationships through the lens of “the Drama Triangle”, which consists of The Persecutor, The Victim and The Rescuer. Looking at different communication styles, types of forgiveness, the values of kindness and altruism and learning the foundations of flourishing relationships offers hope to those who seek to transform both their own behavior as well as their important relationships. An acceptance of our own vulnerability and recognizing our shame can lead to increased authenticity as well as empathy.
Positive psychology teaches us how to establish high-quality connections. These are short-term, positive interactions between two persons, and include positive emotions, empathy, awareness of the other, perspective-taking and the unconscious mimicking of each other’s facial expressions, movements and vocalization. Demonstrating esteem, dignity and care for another person denotes psychological presence in the moment. Whether task enabling, social play or sharing personal information, a high-quality connection leaves both persons feeling positive.
We thrive when our lives have meaning and purpose. Sometimes it is about uncovering a purpose that was always there, rather than discovering a new one. Positive psychology can help us rediscover these qualities through linking our values to what is truly most important in our life. Strategies incorporating post-traumatic growth, transcendence and awe and mind-mapping are offered to increase a sense of meaning.
How can I find time for personal meaning and purpose during this pandemic?
We already know how someone else’s pain results in empathy for the suffering of others, especially when we’re bombarded by TV and other media. Even in our own suffering, it is possible to reach out and help others, and that seems to have been happening during this pandemic. A college student decided to design masks out of see-through plastic so that the hearing impaired could communicate with each other through facial expressions. How can you be creative in the moment? Learn the positive psychology skill of mind-mapping.
I’m too distracted to even think about meaning and purpose.
Meaning and purpose don’t have to be grand things. Rather, it is a way to think about what you are called to do every day. If you have a child who needs encouragement during tele-education, learn how to decide to be all-in, for that moment. If you are driving yourself crazy with too many responsibilities, learn techniques for choosing, monitoring time and finding minutes or seconds to take a mini-vacation. Or think about a positive distraction—a nature walk to remind yourself that you are connected, stare at the clouds, listen to music you used to love. Schedule short time-out breaks to bring yourself back to yourself.
Most of us want to feel we have achieved or accomplished something in our lives. Being aware of both large and small goals and setting out to achieve them brings a sense of accomplishment, which adds greatly to feeling positive. Positive psychology has many strategies for both setting and accomplishing goals through exploring self-efficacy, understanding our needs and wants, working through a growth rather than fixed mindset, substituting old habits with new habits and exploring how to generate hope.
I don’t feel I am accomplishing anything these days.
Positive psychology has strategies that promote hope and the possibility of change. Through better understanding our habits, visualization and other specific tools to develop more perseverance and grit, you can develop “SMART” goals that can help manage any goal, large or small.
Emilya Zhivotovskaya, a student of Seligman’s who is now a teacher, added a V after PERMA, for Vitality. Vitality is the state of being strong and active, with increased energy. Here, positive psychology explores such things as the brain/gut connection, learning where we might fall on the illness-wellness continuum and looking at the human body as one ecosystem with its own innate intelligence. Strategies for improving our level of sleep, managing stress, improving our level of physical activity and eating in ways that promote wellness are offered.
Given the stress of this time, how can I better take care of my body?
Stress appears to be the largest burden that prevents not only peak performance and a stable mood, but also optimal physical health. Zhivotovskaya explains the relationship of heart-rate variability (HRV) to stress, where a low HRV is related to worsening stress or anxiety. HRV measures the variation in time between each heartbeat. Exercise, good sleep, hydration, good nutrition, natural light and intentional breathing can increase HRV. Breathing techniques to optimize health are offered. Nature also promotes better health, as found in Japanese Shin Roku (Forest Bathing) medical research, so a 20-minute walk outside or in the woods even twice a week is beneficial. Breathing through the nostrils is better for our health than mouth breathing.
Ann C. Reeves, Psy.D is a Licensed Psychologist and Certified Positive Psychology Practitioner seeing adults and children 12 and over in her office at 150 Danbury Rd, in Wilton. Connect at 203-909-6391, [email protected] or AnnReevesPsychology.com. For more
information on positive psychology, visit ppc.sas.upenn.edu. See ad, page 20.