- Small positive psychology interventions can have a beneficial impact on the individual in the face of traumas like the COVID pandemic.
- They can also have a widespread, ripple effect across society.
- Despite the overwhelm from negative experiences, there also remains capacity to choose how we respond, grow, and change for the better.
The COVID-19 global pandemic has touched all of our lives in some way. Never before has the world seen such a pervasive, severe global health emergency, as highlighted by the World Health Organization (WHO). Our lives have been affected to varying degrees at an individual level, but also within the context of the wider systems with which we engage on a daily basis—including families, schools, workplaces, and communities.
A "new normal" has emerged, and the measures needed to contain the disease and protect populations have also increased pressure on individuals and institutions in society. It has been widely studied and acknowledged that social isolation, economic pressure, lockdowns, and remote learning changes have increased mental illness among the general population, resulting in high levels of anxiety, depression, distress, sleep disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
However, the public health changes that organizations, communities, and nations have adopted in order to prevent disease spread also highlight the capacity for positive systemic change in order to build multi-system resilience during such challenging times.
The role of positive psychology
Using a systems approach, acknowledging that the individual is influenced by the institutions with which they engage, provides an opportunity to target positive change at a collective level. Just as communities were able to adopt and implement biosafety practices to prevent the spread of COVID-19 (mask-wearing, washing hands), social-psychological interventions—such as positive psychology practices—embedded within families, schools and workplaces have the potential to create significant change in order to harness well-being and growth during a time of distress, as well as promote future growth and change.
A recent study by Prof Lea Waters and colleagues (full reference below) explored a range of evidence-based positive psychology factors and interventions that can be applied within systemic institutions and frameworks to promote collective well-being and post-traumatic growth during the time of COVID-19.
Overarching concepts of positive psychology that the authors considered within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic included topics such as:
- The acceptance of life having "peaks" and "valleys"
- The potential for negative situations to give rise to positive growth and change
- That positive approaches minimize distress and can help us through dark times
- Hedonic adaption—that people eventually return to their set level of well-being, even under extreme change (be it positive or negative)
- An opportunity for lasting growth in capacities, outlook, and connection
Utilizing a systems approach harnesses the concept of positive adjustment—the "ripple effect" of change one individual can have through observation, modeling, and reinforcement in their environment (i.e., a parent modeling self-compassion for their child).
Despite the distress and disruption of a global pandemic, the literature indicates that positive outcomes have still been experienced by individuals, within institutions, and collectively. Globally, the "ethics of care" (Ivic, 2020, p.346) highlighted the overcoming of oppositional perspectives (e.g., we/they, wealthy/poor) to emphasize care, solidarity, and support for the vulnerable. Individuals band together to form a "collective" that provides a harmonious and positive social connection that operates for the greater good.
What they found
Positive psychology practices can be implemented within the various systems each individual is connected to, thereby providing widespread access to concepts involved in well-being and care across communities. This has the potential to not only support individuals and communities during times of hardship but also to effect long-term change and promote resilience through the adapted incorporation of these strategies into the future. The authors highlighted the following:
Within a family unit:
While large amounts of enforced time together have increased family conflict, an increase in family connection and a spirit of "teamwork" was also reported. Family happiness has been shown to improve with strengths-based parenting, which includes:
- Relationship savoring
- Compassionate parenting
- Improved coping and emotional well-being in parents.
Parents can introduce these new practices into the family system—implementing these during COVID-19 may protect well-being as well as embed them as more permanent practices, which provides opportunities for post-traumatic growth and future well-being.
The way in which students engage in the education system has changed significantly since early 2020. The opportunity to embed positive psychology practices in school has the potential for widespread well-being for youth, particularly due to the negative impact on young people's mental health due to COVID-19 changes. Even when schools reopen, there are inherent differences with the use of physical distancing, health protocols such as masks, and the reduction or absence of gatherings such as assemblies or group programs, which changes the interaction of students in shared spaces.
Whilst lockdowns and the necessity for these adjustments, as well as the use of remote learning, have posed many difficulties for both young people as well as teaching staff, positive outcomes have also been noted. These include a positive academic performance by some students, including increased self-management capacity and continuous learning habits.
Waters and Loton (2019) developed a SEARCH framework of positive psychology practices focusing on:
Students who learned this framework prior to COVID-19 were shown to have improved emotional processing, positive reappraisal, and a strengths-based approach during remote learning. This suggests that positive psychology interventions can promote both coping with distress (i.e., mindfulness practice) as well as spot and amplify positive emotions and experiences in their current life (i.e., gratitude practice) for improved youth and student well-being and resilience.
Schools have the unique opportunity to implement positive psychology practices in group settings, helping both the individual but also the whole class, grade, student cohort, and entire school, showing the potential to effect enormous change. Embedding positive psychology practices into daily school life through "bite-sized" access (i.e., mindful breathing at the start of lessons) acknowledges the stretched resources of teachers and schools while also integrating well-being literacy into school culture.
Sustained future change and system modification require multiple approaches, including:
- Policy change
- Review of the pipeline of future teaching graduates
- Professional development of existing teachers and school leaders.
COVID-19 has seen a tremendous adjustment in the adult workplace, which has highlighted the impact of leaders on employee well-being. Positive leaders help to identify what can be learned from a challenging situation rather than what is wrong or missing. Characteristics embodied by positive leaders include gratitude, compassion, humility, forgiveness, and trustworthiness, as well as a focus on helping others flourish without expecting payback.
When these characteristics are present in leaders, there is evidence that individuals and workplaces perform at significantly higher levels, including:
- Quality innovation and customer satisfaction
- Employee well-being and engagement
- Job satisfaction
- Greater family enrichment when at home as well
Positive leaders also emanate positive relational energy—they uplift, elevate, and renew those around them. When leaders demonstrate actions such as generosity and altruism, people resonate and lift their own performance and behaviors. Workplaces with positive leadership have improved performance, which is needed in times of global upheaval.
The concept of "antifragility"—the ability to withstand and improve through disruption and uncertainty—is a positive leadership approach that is used intentionally during a crisis for workplaces to adapt and grow through changing their day-to-day work and routines. Positive leaders can create context and conditions for others to thrive by fostering a benefit mindset that is psychologically safe and encourages experimentation, supports the diversity of ideas, and builds trust in teams and lets go of the need for control.
Leaders have the capacity to affect the energy, attitudes, and mindsets of those around them and are key driving forces when responding effectively to the uncertainty and disruption created by COVID-19, helping individuals and organizations emerge stronger after a crisis.
Additional positive reports from workplace adjustments include increased schedule flexibility, reduced commuting, greater focus, and an ability to combine work with other activities.
Broader systems and communities:
A widespread public mental health crisis has been highlighted due to COVID-19—both individual distress and collective distress is rife. Positive psychology practices have the capacity to acknowledge grief and pain while also:
- Alleviating symptoms and processing trauma
- Understanding and promoting social determinates of well-being
- Steering individuals towards the possibility of post-traumatic growth
Embracing positive psychology practices within society through arts and culture, eco-connection, and well-being literacy can encourage people to utilize what is already available to them to help them manage during difficult times and build resilience. Significant environmental gains have been noted due to reduced travel: reduced air and water pollution and increased eco-connection and utilization of community green areas.
Widespread policy changes that identify and support marginalized communities and include economic stimulus packages, employment programs, and social assistance to support citizens have been implemented. COVID-19 has increased awareness of social inequality and policy change as a response to global health issues.
There has been an increased sense of community responsibility, social solidarity, and care due to the shared experience of this global crisis. Social media has been accessed to mobilize support groups; there has been coordination, pooling, and distribution of resources across neighborhoods; and sharing of information and responsibilities for the benefit of communities as a whole.
Despite the disconnection of COVID-19, this has provided the opportunity for increased care and connection between individuals, despite social distancing and lockdown measures.
What the authors concluded
Just as the small action of wearing a mask reduces the collective risks of transmission of COVID-19, small changes embedded into institutions via positive psychology interventions can have a widespread impact on the individual, as well as a ripple effect collectively across society. The pandemic has, due to collective experiences of distress, triggered increased compassion and care for others. Whilst the majority of research has focused on the detrimental impacts of the pandemic, there is limited research and review of the strengths and positive change that can and has occurred, which is why this paper is so important.
Positive psychology practices have the capacity to strengthen us during challenging times, as well as provide an opportunity to harness growth and change for a better future—enhancing well-being both for ourselves as individuals, as well as within the wider systems, communities, and societies in which we live. This paper highlighted that despite the overwhelm from negative experiences in any life event, there also remains the capacity to choose how we respond, grow, and change for the better—both at individual and collective systems levels.
Waters, L., Cameron, K., Nelson-Coffey, S.K., Crone, D.L., Kern, M.L., Lomas, T., Oades, L., Owens R.L., Pawelski, J.O., Rashid, T., Warren, M.A., White, M.A. & Williams, P. (2021). Collective wellbeing and posttraumatic growth during COVID-19: how positive psychology can help families, schools, workplaces and marginalized communities. The Journal of Positive Psychology, https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2021.1940251