The literature in positive psychology originated with the work of Dr. Martin Seligman, who argued that psychology is too focused on psychopathology and dysfunction. He called for the positive psychology movement to study what is optimal mental health. Seligman discusses his research suggesting that authentic happiness comes from living a meaningful and purpose driven life. This is also very consistent with Victor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which discusses people’s perpetual search to create a meaningful narrative to understand life events and derive purpose from the narrative.
Sonya Lyubomirsky, another positive psychologist, suggests activities we can control and do in the present moment to maintain a sense of emotional well being. In the book “How of Happiness”, Lyubomirsky (2007) delineated a model of happiness where 50% of happiness levels are set according genetic variables, 10% of happiness depends on circumstances and 40% of happiness levels can be generated through practices. She also discussed the key concept that happiness is generated from inside a person. This is comforting news in a pandemic where the outside world is in turmoil. Lyubomirsky (2007)discusses some of her research based strategies to increase happiness levels. The discussion below includes applying strategies in positive psychology while living in a pandemic.
Intentional focusing on the present moment as it unfolds with curiosity, nonjudgement and compassion is healing. This focus on “now” is challenging because our minds tend to gravitate to the past or future. Past focus may include reviewing past incidents and beating ourselves about what we could have done differently. The essential factor in maintaining present focus is that what is done is done, and we cannot go back in time. Future focus engages in different unhelpful thinking styles, such as catastrophic thinking (thinking of worst case scenarios), reviewing different (what if scenarios) or fortune telling (trying to predict the future), which may increase anxiety and depression because we cannot accurately predict future. I would have never predicted in my wildest dreams of 2019 that 2020 is going to be the year of a pandemic.
Avoid overthinking, and social comparison
The techniques of acceptance, cognitive entanglement, cognitive diffusion , acceptance and practice of intentional action led to lesser likelihood in overthinking (see post ‘Gita-Power of Perspective and Calm Conversations”). Overthinking leads us away from the now.
Another key feature to avoid is social comparison. Social media, such as Facebook, can be a major source of social comparison .Most pictures in social media are people on vacation or in fun places. Never seen a picture of a person disappointed and feeling defeated in social media. Defeat, disappointment and tears are part of life too. Social media may leave someone feeling everyone is having a blast except him/her. I love the saying “Never compare your inside to someone else’s outside”. One thing I have learned as a psychologist is that many people wear masks in their roles due to partly social norms. One never knows anything about a person from his/her picture.
Social comparison can be the root of envy, a toxic emotion. Envy is dangerous. When I think of envy, I think of Joseph and his brothers in the Bible, where Joseph’s brothers, so envious that Jacob loved Joseph the most, left Joseph for dead. The experience of envy can be dark and may lead people to do things that are difficult to be conceived by a mind without jealousy.
This involves cultivating the idea that no matter the situation, what can I learn from the situation to make my life better. Another aspect of optimistic thinking is considering even in horrible circumstances, are there any opportunities for growth? For example, Trung T. Phan @ Trung (April 2020) developed a twitter thread of some of the companies that did very well in the Great Depression: Electric Boat, Container Corp. of America, Truax Traer Coal, International Paper and Power and Spicer Manufacturing. These companies flourished in one of the most difficult economic times in our history.
Another example of optimistic thinking is that our nation has survived very difficult times such as the Great Depression, American Civil War. Thus, we will survive this crisis as well.
This can be a powerful protective factor in dealing with difficult situations. Spiritual/Religious framework helps us create meaning for facing adverse situations, and helps us find spiritual strength to endure. Practices of stillness are powerful ways to detach from the busy world and rest mind, body and mind for periods of time.
Being grateful of what we have without being consumed with what we do not have is important to maintaining well being. Gratitude for waking up in the morning and having the day is important given current events. One practice I recommend for my clients is gratitude for three things when they wake up in the morning. Again, prayer of thankfulness is important in many religious and spiritual traditions.
Maintaining social connections
Maintaining social connections, especially relationships, that are nurturing and leave you feeling replenished, are critical. George Valliant ran the Harvard Study on Adult Aging for more than three decades. The study followed male Harvard students and boys in an inner- city neighborhood for over 75 years. In the book, “Aging Well”, George Valliant (2002) concluded that the most significant predictor of happiness and success in life was warm interpersonal relationships. He equated happiness with love. The study is currently being conducted by Dr. Robert Waldinger.
My personal experience is that finding authentic friendships is difficult. I used to be an avid watcher of the Oprah Winfrey television show. I remember Oprah making a comment that if you have one or two people who have your back, you are blessed. I agree with this statement.
Powerful emotional connections include people’s love of pets. I have heard countless stories about the nurturing unconditional love and connection that people have with their pets. Many people have talked about the ease of connection with animals because they are more transparent, honest, loyal, capable of unconditional love and not manipulative, like people. I have heard the comment “I would not be here today without my dog” countless times in therapy sessions.
Rest and Self-care: Spiritual, Emotional and Physical
The paradoxical relationship between rest and productivity is very interesting.
I remember Ariana Huffington first talking about rest. Alex Soojung Kim Pang (2016)called his book, “Rest: Why do you get more done when you work less”. Interestingly, Issac Newton came up with his three laws of motion in his twenties, while he was sent home from Cambridge University because the Great Plague of London forced Cambridge to shut down the college campus (Gillian Brockwell, 2020) .
Rest is critical for wellbeing, health and productivity. People have their own individualized meanings about what rest means to them. For some of my clients, rest is cooking, hiking in nature or working on their cars. For others, rest is catching up on sleep. Getting rest is a skill to be discovered and cultivated. It turns out that overwork and burnout is not ideal for wellbeing and health.
Random acts of kindness can create positive feelings. Self compassion, or kindness to oneself is also critical. I find that many people find it easier to forgive others than themselves. We are more critical and unforgiving of ourselves and forget our humanity, which means imperfection. Kristin Neff has done a lot of work in self compassion (self-compassion.org) . She talks about self compassion includes not judging the self with harshness in difficult times, but, maintaining the realization that being human means imperfections, suffering and mistakes. Kristin Neff differentiates between self-compassion from self-pity. She describes self-pity as immersing the self into one’s own suffering so deeply (egocentric in nature) that one feels isolated and disconnected from others and does not maintain the understanding that suffering is part of the human condition. As many philosophers have stated that the experience of suffering binds us human beings.
Flow: Meaningful activities
Controlling what we can change means focusing on activities which are meaningful and fulfilling. Meaningful activities may lead to experiences of flow, a concept developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In ” The Psychology of Optimal Experience” (2008), Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as state of consciousness, marked by deep enjoyment, creativity and experience of living life fully. These are experiences where a person seems to merge with what they are engaged in such a profound oneness that he or she is lost in time and experiences deep joy. I have heard about the magnificence of flow from the painters and writers. In teaching positive psychology classes, a woman in her eighties, who is taking care of her ill husband, stated that her joy and healing from exhaustion is gardening. She discussed being in her garden for 3-4 hours a day, totally immersed in the gardening process, experiencing a deep sense of satisfaction and joy. Another of my students stated that after losing her best friend a few years ago, she has been actively doing things, such as, traveling (this was pre-COVID-19), going to workshops, and reading what she put off for years. She said she did this to honor her friend who talked of such things but never had the chance to do so. This was her flow experience.
We work hard for what we value. “In Grit: the Power of Passion and Perseverance”, Angela Duckworth (2018) talks about the idea of grit, which is when people remain dedicated, passionately committed and work hard on long-term projects without being distracted. I am a big believer that long-term relationships require grit. I also believe that religious or spiritual practice require grit. Herbert Simon discussed that in order to develop expertise in an area, a person has to engage in practice in the field at minimum of ten years.
Creating meaning and resilience.
The concept of creating meaning out of adversity is critical to resilience. In the book, “The Happiness Advantage,” Shawn Achor (2010) discusses the concept of “falling up” which refers to people who experience adversities and bounce back to higher levels of functioning. One of my very good friends told me about the majestic eagle. The eagle is one of the few birds which run into storms and use the strength of the whirling storms to reach greater heights until the eagle rises above the storm and glides effortless on the winds of the storms.
A great example of resiliency is the story of Bill Wilson, one of the founders of Alcoholic Anonymous. Bill Wilson, influenced by Carl Jung’s idea that any effective treatment of addiction requires a spiritual component, utilized this spiritual component to attain recovery from alcoholism. In the website speakingofjung.com, Carl Jung conceptualized that addiction to alcohol is like a thirst for wholeness and this thirst can only be met through a spiritual or religious experience (union with God). In his attempt to help other people struggling with alcoholism, Bill Wilson started the twelve step program, Alcoholic Anonymous. He clearly used his struggle for recovery and resiliency as motivation to start a worldwide movement to help others struggling with addiction. Bill Wilson created his recovery to create meaning and purpose to help others.
It is comforting that positive psychology argues that creating meaning, purpose and happiness are internally motivated. This is very helpful when the pandemic has shut much of the outside world.
In many eastern cultures and Buddhist traditions, a lotus flower symbolizes rebirth, regeneration, enlightenment and growth of human consciousness. Even, as lotus flowers are rooted in muddy, dirty waters, they flower with incredible beauty and sturdiness . Perhaps, we too, will valiantly bloom like lotus flowers from our turbulent waters.