Staying positive during difficult times
POSTED OCTOBER 01, 2020, 10:30 AM
Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter
To say we’re living through challenging times sounds like both a cliché and an understatement. In recent months, news about the pandemic, economic woes, and bitter political debates have triggered tremendous anxiety and sadness for many Americans.
But when people look back on their lives, it is usually the most difficult challenges that gave them a new perspective or caused them to grow the most. Of course, in the midst of a crisis, it doesn’t feel that way. But there are steps you can take to cope during difficult times, using techniques from the field of positive psychology.
How can positive psychology help in trying times?
Initially, positive psychology focused mainly on pursuing rewarding experiences that made people feel more joyful. But psychologists soon realized this sort of happiness depends on fleeting experiences, rather than a more enduring sense of contentment. As a result, the field shifted to concentrate on cultivating satisfaction and well-being but staying open to the full range of emotional experiences, both good and bad. Contrary to what you might expect, trying to resist painful emotions actually increases psychological suffering.
“Positive psychology is not about denying difficult emotions. It’s about opening to what is happening here and now, and cultivating and savoring the good in your life,” says Ron Siegel, PsyD, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.
If you develop the habit of counting your blessings, for example, you may be better able to appreciate the positive aspects of life that remain even after a painful event like a job loss or a death. And helping others, even when you are struggling, can increase your positive feelings and help you gain perspective.
Growing evidence suggests that positive psychology techniques can indeed be valuable in times of stress, grief, or other difficulties. They may also help you develop the resilience to handle difficulties more easily, and bounce back more rapidly after traumatic or unpleasant events. Here are three positive psychology practices you can try.
Be more mindful
Mindfulness is the practice of purposely focusing your attention on the present moment and accepting it without judgement. Learning to live more in the present is especially helpful when the future is uncertain. Formal mindfulness-based stress reduction programs have been shown to help reduce physical and psychological symptoms in people facing a variety of challenges, including cancer and chronic pain. To practice at home, you can try some of the free guided recordings of mindfulness meditations narrated by Dr. Siegel, available at www.mindfulness-solution.com.
Share some kindness
Research suggests that people who volunteer their time tend to be happier than those who don’t. Those who give charitable donations may even get a small mood boost. Try this exercise: When you have a free afternoon, flip a coin. Heads, do something self-indulgent (for instance, give yourself a manicure). Tails, do something to help your community or another person (for example, call or write to an elderly person). Notice how you feel at the time and in the hours and days that follow.
Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what you receive, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, you acknowledge the goodness in your life. You can apply this to your past (by retrieving positive memories and being thankful for elements of your childhood or past blessings), the present (not taking things for granted as they come), and the future (being hopeful and optimistic that there will be good things arriving). Our brains are wired to take note of when things go wrong. But keeping a gratitude journal — writing down things you’re thankful for — makes you more aware of when things go right.