Putting positive psychology into practice in challenging times

Many people would agree with the premise that the COVID-19 pandemic has made life more challenging for people around the world. Many of the structures and routines that we rely in for our well-being have been disrupted, and it can feel like an insurmountable task to attend to our own happiness during a period filled with so much uncertainty, hardship, and tragedy.

That’s why embracing scientifically-sound strategies to enhance well-being, build resilience, and increase our ability to thrive in the face of adversity is so incredibly important. In other words, we could all benefit from applying ideas emerging from the science of positive psychology to our lives.

“The Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology, offered by Penn LPS Online, is intended to help people become more personally and professionally effective by learning about, and practicing, some of the empirically-based tools and methods of positive psychology,” explains Leona Brandwene, director of the certificate program and Associate Director of Education at the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Margarita Tarragona, who developed three of the flagship courses for the Penn LPS Online Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology, adds, “I've been a practitioner most of my life, so I'm very interested in how to apply the findings from scientific studies on well-being, how to translate that into practice, into things we can do in our everyday life—in our way of interacting with others and in our way of running organizations.”

The largely asynchronous 4-course program is offered on an accelerated 8-week schedule, and students have the option of pursuing an expanded certificate by adding two additional courses. Ideal for working professionals, the certificate introduces students to the theoretical and empirical foundations of human flourishing, how well-being is measured, and tools designed to help them become more effective in their work, home, and community.

In addition to exploring strategies for enhancing personal well-being, students also examine applications of positive psychology in a variety of professional settings including business, education, healthcare, and the nonprofit sector.

Learning how to flourish in a chaotic world

As it relates to positive psychology, the term flourishing “alludes to human beings at their best. And one of the ways in which it is defined is to describe people who are doing well in various areas in their lives—who are doing well at work and in their relationships,” says Tarragona. “So, flourishing is experiencing a high degree of well-being.”

It’s pertinent to understand that there is a difference between happiness—which is a feeling of temporary excitement or joy—and well-being, which “is not just about how you feel, but also includes having a life with meaning and using your talents and skills to face challenges,” Tarragona explains.

“When we think about flourishing, you can think about the life cycle of a plant that has seasonal phases of growth—and times when it needs to renew. And for humans, that’s true as well,” adds Brandwene. “I think we would actually live very boring lives if we were happy all the time.”

Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman, a leading authority in the field of positive psychology, and director of the Penn Positive Psychology Center, developed the PERMA model to understand well-being. This model details five basic building blocks for a healthy sense of well-being: positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment.

“Honestly,” says Brandwene, “a life well-lived has some adversity in it. We would never prescribe traumatic experiences to people, but no human is immune to the vicissitudes of life—our ability to overcome adversity is an essential part of the human condition. Through that those experiences, we can develop strengths, and grow.”

Unfortunately, there is no fool-proof formula for well-being that can be applied to everyone. For example, some people may flourish by finding meaning in their jobs, while others may find meaning through giving back to their community or through their personal relationships.

“Research helps describe what helps humans to flourish. As we apply that within our own lives, we need to get to know ourselves and what matters most to us as individuals. We can assess how we may be imbalanced across our lives, or perhaps seek some ways where we might stretch and grow ourselves,” Brandwene notes.

Tips for applying positive psychology during times of hardship

The PERMA model is so powerful because it allows us to examine the different aspects of our well-being and pinpoint where we can use evidence-based strategies to enhance it—particularly during tough times. For example, nurturing gratitude has been proven to increase positive emotions, so “one application is to keep a gratitude journal, which is a notebook in which every night before going to bed you write three things that you're grateful for,” says Tarragona.

To create engagement, or a state of flow, you can set aside some time in your day to take part in a skill-based activity that you enjoy—whether that is writing, painting, or playing a sport—and that allows you to become completely engrossed in the moment.

As many people can likely attest, intimate relationships face unique challenges during times of adversity, particularly when it involves quarantining for prolonged periods. So, making a concerted effort to communicate in a positive way with members of your household—although it may seem easier said than done at times—can be beneficial to all.

“It has been shown that couples who are really happy together have many more positive interactions than negative ones,” says Tarragona. “We all have some friction in our relationships, but happy couples have five good ones to one negative one. So, then you may deliberately kind of keep a mental log and ask, how am I going to treat my partner?”

In terms of managing emotions, regular exercise is still a tried-and-true tool. “It is kind of a fast-track way to help restore emotional regulation, amplifying positive emotion and attenuating some negative emotion,” explains Brandwene. Mindfulness exercises such as loving kindness meditation—which encourages the practice of compassion—can also be a great way to teach your brain to focus on positive, rather than negative.

“Margarita mentioned the gratitude journal. That's a way of increasing the amount of positive emotion that we're experiencing and almost retraining our brains to identify what’s positive. So many people are doom scrolling now, which is a different way of training our brains. When people think about neuroscience, they think about specific activities that are training their brains. But we are training our brains 24/7,” Brandwene laughs. “So, consider how you might deliberately interject some daily disciplines that help to increase the amount of positivity you’re feeling.”

Brandwene adds that researchers have identified character strengths that have been prized for centuries by humans across a variety of cultures, religions, and philosophical traditions. Learning how to leverage your character strengths—or the best aspects of your personality—can be a useful coping strategy.

Although they are often stable, character strengths can be malleable: they change in response to a life-altering event, in response to the environmental cues we are regularly exposed to, or through a conscious decision to nurture them. One way to do so is to “identify one of your top strengths, identify how you tend to use it in your daily life, and then experiment with using it in different ways. I think this is something that would be very appropriate during the pandemic,” says Tarragona.

That can translate into actions as simple as incorporating your sense of humor into your work-life by sharing a funny meme with coworkers—or by joking with your friend or partner to break the ice in times of turmoil.

Fostering your well-being during a long-term crisis

When discussing ways to nurture your well-being, especially during a time of global crisis, it's important to consider the two realms of chosen suffering and unchosen suffering. “We’re in a context right now where we are experiencing unchosen suffering. In addition to the acute stress that accompanies a hardship, such as having lost a family member, there’s chronic, unrelenting stress, the nature of which will vary from person to person,” says Brandwene.

For instance, the type of strain experienced by someone in the restaurant industry who has lost their job, or who is a frontline worker is different than the type of strain experienced by someone who is forced to quarantine but able to sustain their employment. It’s important to consider the relative realities and unevenness with which people are experiencing the pandemic, and be sensitive to that unevenness.

“That reminds me of different authors who say that the key in life is to be able to hold both what’s painful and dark and what’s luminous and wonderful—to have space for both things,” adds Tarragona. As a result of the pandemic, Tarragona has seen clients in her therapy practice undergo a reawakening when it comes to assessing what is really important to them. And, often, it comes down to the significance of “feeling the closeness and support of the people you love or seeing selfless acts of generosity.”

When there is still so much in our environment that feels—and essentially is—out of our control, it is crucial to shift our focus to the things that we can control. This includes examining the ways that we interact with others, exploring whether the daily decisions we make foster our well-being or harm it—and making a conscious effort to set goals that truly align with our values.

Tarragona recently attended a virtual workshop with Dr. Carmelo Vazquez, a researcher and former President of the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA), where he mentioned that the term “resilience” was borrowed from the physical sciences. She explains it is “the quality that some materials have to be exposed to extreme pressures or forces—and then bounce back to their original shape. But we're living beings, and he thinks that a better example is a tree that's exposed to constant strong winds from the ocean. So, its shape is transformed. It doesn't look the same as it would without those stressors, but it continues to grow and to flourish. So, it's not that you're left unchanged by those stressors or forces, but you can still grow while you are being transformed.”

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