The Power of Positive Psychology and How You Can Harness It
Dr. Yoshitake Takebayashi speaks about positive psychology and resilience.
Posted Sep 26, 2020
Cultivating resilience has become exponentially more important for day-to-day life during the COVID-19 pandemic. The field of positive psychology is focused on fostering well-being and encouraging positive emotions to promote resilience and preserve mental health in the midst of difficult situations.
Yoshitake Takebayashi, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at Fukushima Medical University. Some of his research includes positive psychology, constructing models for predicting serious suicidal thoughts, evaluating the effectiveness and effect of cognitive action therapy, and preventing emotional impairment through well-being therapy.
Jamie Aten: How would you personally define positive psychology?
Yoshitake Takebayashi: Positive psychology is a research area that studies the function of well-being and effective interventions related to enhanced well-being. Well-being is broadly divided into subjective well-being and psychological well-being in positive psychology. The former consists mainly of life satisfaction and positive emotions, the latter consists of Ryff's six psychological factors.1
Positive emotions can be classified as pride, sexual desire, nurturant love, contentment, awe, amusement, attachment love, gratitude, linking, and pleasure from an evolutional perspective.2 Psychological well-being is a positive psychological function that consists of six elements integrated through an overview of major health-related psychological theories: purpose in life, personal growth, environmental mastery, autonomy, self-acceptance, and positive relationship with others. Based on research on the functioning of well-being, several clinical interventions have been developed such as Positive Affect Treatment3 which focuses on the activation of positive affect systems, or Well-being Therapy,4 centered around improving psychological well-being.
JA: What are some ways understanding positive psychology can help us live more resiliently during COVID-19?
YT: According to research findings in positive psychology, it has been shown that focusing on well-being experiences, such as positive emotions, is important in the midst of difficult situations to maintain mental health. During difficult situations, people tend to focus on the negative information, but in reality, many of us experience well-being experiences to a greater or lesser extent on a daily basis. Surprisingly, even among those affected by depressive or anxiety disorders, 14-19% of them have reported experiencing very high levels of psychological well-being during their illness.5 However, in the midst of a difficult situation, positive experiences are transient and quickly disappear. Therefore, we need to strategically stay with positive emotions in difficult situations.
Savoring refers to staying in the positive present experience and experiencing it fully. High levels of savoring have been shown to promote subjective and psychological well-being.6 Research conducted on university students in a questionnaire survey with one of my colleagues found that regulating emotions by utilizing positive emotions during negative emotional states (i.e. self-soothing) explained the reduction of depressive symptoms.7 In addition, according to Frederikson’s broaden-and-build theory, increasing the frequency of experiencing positive emotions can lead to the development of psychological well-being.
JA: What are some ways people can cultivate resilience amidst this pandemic?
YT: As many guidelines indicate, the first step is to limit yourself to about 10 minutes of news or pandemic updates a day to avoid excessive exposure to information about COVID-19. It is also helpful to set aside a pre-determined amount of time in the day to spend worrying about COVID-19. This is called the worry postponement experiment, and it has been shown to be effective for mental disorders like generalized anxiety, where worry is difficult to control. By scheduling a time in advance, you can reduce the likelihood of worrying at other times of the day. After practicing these coping strategies, a focus on the well-being experience will help to cultivate resilience.
To help you focus your life on the well-being experience, I recommend three things. The first is to create a daily schedule of activities and implement experiences that make you feel well-being into your schedule. The second is to identify negative thoughts that undermine the experience of well-being after the well-being experience and reappraisal to the situation objectively. This is a central technique in Well-Being Therapy and has been shown to be effective in improving well-being. The third is mindfulness. Mindfulness is a cognitive skill that distances you from negative thoughts and can be acquired through meditation training. It has been noted that distancing yourself from negative thoughts makes it easier to notice well-being experiences and to foster psychological well-being.8
JA: Any advice for how we might use what you have learned to support a friend or loved one struggling with a difficult life situation?
YT: Pay attention to positive experiences in order to maintain mental health, but caution is needed when encouraging intimates to do so. If intimates are in a difficult situation, listening to their distress in an empathetic manner before offering any specific advice is a priority. Respond to the person in a supportive manner and, if appropriate, encourage them to see a mental health professional. You should never simply advise the person in distress to "stop negative thinking so much and try to be positive." More importantly, in supporting others, your own well-being should be maintained. If this is not the case, it will be difficult to successfully support those around you. Therefore, maintain your own well-being in the ways described above. The IASC has published guidelines for responders of COVID-19 infected people, which you can refer to here.
Happiness is often experienced in interactions with others. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, face-to-face interactions are greatly limited due to the need to maintain physical distance. Under these circumstances, maintaining social interaction through social networking sites and video games can be effective. In Japan, sales of home video game consoles are on the rise. One particularly popular game is Animal Crossing, an online game from Nintendo Co. It allows players to freely move between each other's homes and interact in a virtual space, making avatar interaction an alternative to real-life interactions.
JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share about?
YT: I have been involved in many studies on the effectiveness of cognitive behavioral therapy in Japan. I am currently testing the effectiveness of well-being therapy for patients with residual symptoms of depression and anxiety in Japan, based on the treatment manual for well-being therapy, which was translated and published in Japanese in 2018.9 Initially, we were planning to study only the effectiveness of face-to-face therapy, but in light of the spread of COVID-19, we are now working to establish an environment for providing teletherapy. Compared to the United States, the spread of telemedicine and telepsychology had been delayed in Japan, and there were no official guidelines leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, our team was among the first to translate the telepsychology practice manuals published by the American Psychological Association (APA) and the British Association for Counseling and Psychotherapy (BACP) and publish them on the web.10, 11 This rapid collaboration among international experts is one of the positive outcomes that have emerged under COVID-19.
Yamaguchi, K., Takebayashi, Y., Miyamae, M., Komazawa, A., Yokoyama, C., & Ito, M. (2020). Role of focusing on the positive side during COVID-19 outbreak: Mental health perspective from positive psychology. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 12(S1), S49-S50. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/tra0000807