Three Positive Psychology Practices for Our Troubled Times
Evidence-based practices to help us cope and cultivate meaningful experiences.
Posted Sep 28, 2020
It’s hard to believe we’ve passed the half-year mark since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. And it’s no secret that it’s wearing on people.
In the earliest stages of the pandemic, people had urgent practical questions: Would grocery stores be open? Will there be a shortage of food? As time continued into April, dealing with coronavirus anxiety was a major topic of conversation, as people faced the fear of the disease as well as economic hardships from the first waves of job losses. Half a year later, emotions like depression, grief, and hopelessness have also crept in, particularly as more and more people have lost loved ones to the virus. And, COVID is taking place in the context of everything else going on in the country and the world. We’ve seen the brutal killings of George Floyd and other unarmed Black men and women, once again exposing the ongoing systemic racism in our society. We’ve witnessed widespread fires in the Western United States. And, in the midst of it all, we face a presidential election.
Given all this tragedy and uncertainty, the CDC has published guidelines on how to cope, running the gamut from taking media breaks and getting plenty of sleep to exercising and eating right. Coping is important, of course, but most of us want to do more than cope—we want to find some sense of happiness, meaning, or social connection in our lives. That’s where the science of positive psychology comes in.
When you hear the words “positive psychology,” your first thought may be the idea of looking on the bright side. But, according to Emiliana Simon-Thomas, Science Director of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, positive psychology isn’t about painting a smiley face over the real problems of our world. “There’s this perception that, when we’re feeling terrible, we have two choices,” she told me during an interview on KPFA Radio show, About Health. “One, we can dwell in this misery and spiral into the horror of the terrible situation. And the other option is we can feel really bad but cover it up, or just stifle or suppress it, and put on a happy face and pretend it’s not there.” Because neither of these options is helpful, she suggests a third path: “There’s a way to feel that miserableness, feel that sadness, that grief... and then try to take that experience as a kind of fuel to behave in a way that addresses the situation.”
Part of Simon-Thomas’ job at the Greater Good Science Center is to help curate the Greater Good in Action website, which offers instructions for how to implement some of the most effective positive psychology practices in our lives. Here are three that Simon-Thomas recommends we can try during these troubling times.
Practice the 1-2-3s of Gratitude
“What we know empirically is, if you are more grateful as a person, you do better,” Simon-Thomas told me. “Your physical health is better, your mental health is better, you’re more resilient to stress.”
But gratitude is easier said than done. Given the turmoil in our world, it’s natural to focus on the many negatives around us. It’s important to notice the pain in our world and in our own lives so we can take steps to fix it. However, focusing exclusively on that pain can paradoxically leave us depleted and less able to act. That’s why establishing a gratitude practice is so important. By consciously calling our attention to the small but significant good things in our lives, we may be able to rewire our brains to notice them more easily, even while simultaneously recognizing the bad.
There are many practices for cultivating gratitude. The most common is gratitude journaling. Because journaling is a solitary activity, however, during these times of social isolation Simon-Thomas prefers a practice that communicates gratitude interpersonally.
The practice, which she calls “Gratitude 1-2-3,” is all about being specific when expressing thanks to another person. Instead of simply nodding and saying “thank you,” Gratitude 1-2-3 involves three simple yet powerful steps. First, describe what the person did, trying to be as detailed as possible. Second, acknowledge the effort it took them to do it. And third, describe specifically how what they did touched or benefitted you.
“If you start doing it and start practicing it, you can get through it in like 15 or 16 seconds,” says Simon-Thomas. Yet, as simple as the practice might seem, she explains that expressing thanks in this way helps us to “really reap the benefits of the felt experience ourselves and to draw out the strongest response from the person whom we’re saying thank you to.”
Write a Self-Compassion Letter
During the coronavirus crisis, many people have fallen into a habit of self-criticism. Whether you’re beating yourself up for getting frustrated with your kids, grouching at your partner or spouse because of too much togetherness, struggling in your work, or any number of other things, Simon-Thomas recommends practicing self-compassion. “Self-compassion means directing toward yourself the same supportive and nurturant stance that you might direct toward somebody you were trying to support,” she told me.
Many people believe that, by engaging in self-criticism, they’re helping themselves improve or accomplish their goals. But, the research shows just the opposite: People are more effective when they’re able to be kinder to themselves. Self-compassion may not only help you feel better, but it may also set you up to take constructive action.
One of the best ways of doing this is to write a self-compassion letter. First, take out a sheet of paper and write down what you’re criticizing yourself about, honestly describing how it makes you feel. Once you’ve gotten your self-critical feelings on paper, switch gears. Take the next ten or fifteen minutes to write a letter expressing compassion and acceptance toward the part of yourself you dislike. Consider what a close friend who loves you unconditionally might say. Remind yourself that nobody is perfect. Consider that you’re doing the best you can given the current circumstances and factors such as your childhood experiences or the environment you grew up in. Finally, in the most compassionate way possible, ask yourself whether there are things you could do to improve or better cope. Instead of making yourself feel badly for being imperfect (given that all of us are imperfect), consider what steps you could take to help you feel happier, healthier, or improve the situation in some way.
Take a Savoring Walk
Savoring is the lesser-known cousin of mindfulness. Both are about focusing on the present moment. But, while mindfulness usually entails meditating with our eyes closed, savoring is something we do with our eyes open, often in the midst of our daily lives. Savoring involves consciously redirecting our attention in the moment to things that lead to or amplify our positive feelings. It makes use of the old wisdom, “Whatever we put our mind on, grows.”
During the COVID pandemic, taking a walk is one of the safer activities we can engage in outside our homes. Moreover, it’s good for our physical health. Luckily, taking a “savoring walk” is also one of the best ways to brighten our days. The practice is simple: Each day for a week, take a 20-minute walk by yourself. On a normal walk, you might be “in your head,” planning what you’ll do tomorrow or considering what happened yesterday. In contrast, on your savoring walk, try to consciously look around, taking in the sights, sounds, and smells. Notice as many positive things as you can. Under normal circumstances, you might not have noticed how the sun, shining through the trees, casts complex and beautiful shadows on the ground. But, during a savoring walk, you will. As you notice these things, pause and really take them in. In particular, try to identify what brings you pleasure or joy.
To be clear, none of these practices will magically fix the many tragedies in our world. Nobody can be blamed for feeling anxiety, depression, or grief during these troubling times. It’s important for all of us to take whatever steps we realistically can to protect ourselves and make our world a better place. But, in the meantime, these practices may help us—personally—to stay emotionally afloat and get through the stress, one day at a time.
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