Right now, we are facing major upheaval and the world is hurting. The last few months have been fraught with many complex emotions due to Covid-19. With sudden and unexpected disruptions in our social, economic, and psychological lives, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, anxious, and stressed. But can we see some light in the world in the current state of doom and gloom? Here’s what Positive Psychology – that helps us to stay with feelings, such as joy, calm, happiness, even in the crisis – can teach us.
I happened to watch an interesting movie, ‘The Bucket List’ during the lockdown. It is about two terminally ill men Carter and Edward, who are on a road trip with a list of things they wish to achieve before they die. At one point in the movie, Carter shares a myth with Edward about what happens when you get to the gates of heaven. According to the story, the Gods ask the recently deceased two questions, one of which is “Have you found joy in your life?” and the second question is “Has your life brought joy to others?” These two questions besides being so profound are also related to “Positive Psychology”.
Positive Psychology is a term that is often being thrown around a lot in today’s context and to define it in simple terms, “It is the scientific study of what makes life worth living.” As a field of study, it focuses on topics like character strengths, optimism, life satisfaction, happiness, well-being, and so on. Martin Seligman is said to be the father of Positive Psychology and is the professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. He has written several books and articles related to this dynamic field of study. Why is Positive Psychology so important now? Right now, globally, we are facing upheaval and this field of study encourages us to harness the power of shifting one’s perspective to maximise the potential for happiness in our everyday life. Drawing on positive psychology does not mean ignoring what is going on in the world and trivializing the changes and worries that we’re experiencing. It is not the denial of the present state of affairs and painting an overly optimistic perspective. Rather, it is a way for us to flourish during these challenging times, particularly when the global mental health is suffering.
Pandemic – Mental Health Crisis
Since the first case of the novel coronavirus disease was diagnosed in 2019, our lives have undergone a complete change, resulting in changes in behavioural patterns and shutdowns in usual day-to-day functioning. Masks and social distancing have become the norm. While these steps may be critical to mitigate the spread of this disease, they will undoubtedly have consequences on mental health and well-being in both the short and long term. The uncontrollable spread of coronavirus has been promulgating a sense of fear and helplessness. The mental health crisis is on the rise and there has been a rise in the number of cases related to fear, anxiety, stress, helplessness across age groups. Research indicates that large-scale disasters whether it’s natural. (hurricanes), traumatic (World Trade Center or mass shootings), or environmental (Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill), are almost always accompanied by an increase in depression, stress disorders and substance abuse.
In the context of the COVID- 19 pandemic, the national dailies regularly report mental health issues across gender and age groups and there is a rising interest in mental health care. In a recent article in Times of India (TOI), Mental Health Practitioners in Delhi have reported a significant increase in the number of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) in children, and most of the cases are in the age bracket of eight to twelve years. For women employees, the increased obligations at home, social disconnection, uncertainty in jobs has increased higher levels of stress and anxiety. What makes this pandemic so harrowing leading to mental distress is that no one can predict the exact trajectory of its course or the magnitude of its ramifications.
Previously, it had been shown that positive emotions like comfort, happiness, joy, love, and gratitude can help maintain and improve human mental health. However, given that the positive emotions are often experienced in interpersonal relationships, the current situation that requires maintaining social distance inhibits the development of positive emotions and forms the basis of a mental health crisis.
Research has indicated that when people experience adversity such as life-changing illness or loss – their relationship with the world changes. Often adversity may help us experience a new appreciation of life, improve our relationship with others, and help us gain personal strength. In other words, what does not kill us makes us stronger.
Coping with Covid-19 Crisis Using Positive Psychology
“I have always believed and still believe, that whatever good or bad fortune may come our way we can always give it meaning and transform it into something of value.”
– Hermann Hesse
Experts have always believed that the true measure of psychological strength is not found in how we react when things are going well, but rather in how we respond to distress and adversity. Although we may not be able to control a given situation and its outcome, we can control our attitude and how we deal with it. Research has indicated that when people experience adversity such as life-changing illness or loss – their relationship with the world changes. Often adversity may help us experience a new appreciation of life, improve our relationship with others, and help us gain personal strength. In other words, what does not kill us makes us stronger.
In the current situation, various initiatives have been implemented worldwide to maintain emotional connections through social
interactions while maintaining social distance. For example, Japanese musician Gen Hoshino (2020) proposed to relish his song
“Dancing on the Inside” by layering sounds and images in different ways and people responded by uploading their enjoyable moments on social networking sites.
A similar instance was reported in Italy where an online video game allowed the users to engage in social interaction virtually. Such efforts that can be put together to facilitate joyful and emotional connection, even while maintaining social distance, represent a positive change during a pandemic. A lot of these initiatives are rooted in positive psychology which gives a sense of agency, power, and optimism during a crisis.
Science of Positive Psychology holds two promises – prevention of mental health conditions and the cultivation of a more fulfilling life. Based on the findings of psychology research, positive emotions have also been shown to be important for the psychological recovery process of individuals who have experienced intense stress or have developed mental disorders. Therefore, whereas it is normal to feel anxious and exhausted during the ongoing crisis, focusing on and savoring positive emotions that can be felt in the midst of it could serve as the first step in feeling calmer than ever before.
Self-compassion can be a huge protective factor when people feel threatened by novel circumstances. Be gentle with oneself and try to enjoy and celebrate small successes. Find moments of levity. Laughter and joy can be amongst our most invaluable tools for building inner strength.
“With extra time in our hands and fewer distractions due to restricted activity, we can re-invest our energy in becoming better versions of ourselves,” says Dr. P. Vincent, Professor of Psychology at the University of Houston. The first challenge is mental,
reframing what seems negative into something positive. It can be something like ‘focusing on something that you can do, instead
of something you can’t.” There are different ways to feel better, hopeful, happier during these times of uncertainty, few of them can be listed below.
Social Isolation and Not Emotional Isolation: With social distancing becoming a norm, the power of positive relationships and social connections cannot be underestimated. It is important to stay socially connected since social distancing and isolation can make a person lonely. The physical and psychological effects of loneliness are concerning and it has been linked to adverse psychological wellbeing and poorer quality of life. The viral pandemic is also fuelling the loneliness pandemic which we need to watch out for.
Dial-Up Your Strengths: Positive Psychology focuses heavily on building on strengths to boost well being. We all have a set of strengths and when we fully utilize our strengths we feel completely engaged. For instance, if your strength is compassion, you
can focus on acts that show that you care for others, for example, reaching out and helping a senior citizen in buying items to limit their exposure to the virus, paying for a meal for a health-care worker, etc.
Have Fun and Develop a Positive Outlook: Whilst there are a lot of scary and heart-breaking events happening currently, it is important to stay positive, cheerful and do things that can make us happy and lift our moods during these tough times. For instance, exercise and meditation – doing physical exercises and meditating can enhance our mood and have beneficial effects on depression and anxiety-related symptoms. Engaging in self-care, hobbies and other activities can bring a sense of self-efficacy and help us cope with stress.
Practice Self Compassion: Self-compassion can be a huge protective factor when people feel threatened by novel circumstances. Be gentle with oneself and try to enjoy and celebrate small successes. Find moments of levity. Laughter and joy can be amongst our most invaluable tools for building inner strength.
Practice Gratitude: Gratitude is more important now than ever. Training our minds to focus on positives in the world during these challenging times can help our wellbeing and mental health. It is important to practice gratitude at regular times throughout the day. Gratitude promotes behaviours that build valuable relationships.
Although we can hope and pray for this crisis to end soon, the COVID-19 pandemic portends to be more prolonged than initially
expected. Although stress is an understandable response during a time like this, choosing how you respond to it is important. Experts in the field of Positive Psychology believe if we continue to merely endure negative emotions, we will soon run out of patience and tolerance. Thus devising a way of life, incorporating positive psychology principles that help us to stay with feelings, such as joy, calm, happiness, even in the crisis, may in turn help in the maintenance of mental health in the long run. In the midst of this global crisis, this adaptive response may not only reduce incidents of anger, prejudice, violence but also foster collective humanity and post-traumatic or pandemic growth.