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Cultivating Positive Emotions during Difficult Times

Positive Habits Increase Sense of Mattering and Sense of Control during Pandemics
May 16, 2020
The Importance of Activism during a Crisis
May 20, 2020
 
In the last few weeks I’ve given several webinars on how to maintain health and well-being during the current pandemic. Some common questions at the end of the presentation include how to stay focused, how to cope with stress, and how to maintain healthy relationships when we are all in each other’s space all the time. As a result, I’ve decided to publish a series of posts answering these questions. This one is about the benefits of cultivating positive emotions.
 

During the pandemic many people experience a series of negative emotions. It is important to realize that we should not just contain negative emotions, but also cultivate positive ones.

Emotions play an important role in meaning and mattering because they can promote either a positive or negative loop. The presence of positive emotions can make you feel valued by yourself and others. This, in turn, will generate more positive feelings. The presence of negative emotions, on the other hand, can make you feel unworthy and prevent you from adding value, either to yourself or others. The less you add value to self or others, the fewer the opportunities to feel like you matter, and the higher the likelihood of experiencing yet more negative emotions. A few examples can illustrate these loops.

Practicing mindfulness, recognizing your strengths, expressing gratitude, savoring good moments, and finding the silver lining in difficult situations will result in positive emotions. You will feel good that you are present and aware of your gifts. You will get an emotional high by expressing gratitude to a friend or former teacher. These positive emotions will make you more creative, social, happy, and intelligent. These are distinct ways of adding value to yourself, those close to you, your work and the community. In addition, you will feel valued by yourself because you have just inventoried your gifts and positive attributes. The more you feel valued by yourself, the more likely you are to contribute to the happiness and mattering of others.

Cultivating positive emotions will improve your sense of well-being during these difficult times. It is true that the reality is grim for many people, and urgent social change is needed to promote social justice. It is also true, however, that each one of us needs to feel good to join the fight for justice. There are benefits to positive emotions all of us should attend to.

Positivity is associated with happiness, health, generosity, empathy, and better outcomes overall in relationships and work. Positive emotions can broaden our horizons, make us more creative, and help us with problem-solving. Negative emotions, on the other hand, will constrict our thinking. If you are feeling really angry or fearful, all your psychological energy goes to the person or situation creating adversity; not much is left for innovative thinking about your problems.

Consider positive emotions as fuel for your intellectual, social, and psychological engines. The more you experience them, the higher the likelihood of mattering. There are a few ways to cultivate positive emotions.

Celebrate your strengths. All of us have strengths. We rarely pause to take stock of our gifts, yet, it is an important exercise. Recognizing strengths, in yourself and others, is associated with higher levels of happiness, increased productivity at work, enhanced performance, and lower levels of depression. Yes, we should try to correct weaknesses, but it is more powerful to focus on strengths. There are a few things you can do to elicit your strengths and celebrate them:

  • Compile a list of your positive attributes and describe how you use them during the pandemic
  • Recall in detail a situation in which you used one of your signature strengths
  • Consider new ways in which you can apply your strengths during difficult times
  • Think about ways in which other people benefit from your strengths in the covid-19 era

Creating an inventory of your strengths and reflecting on them will help you feel valued. It will remind you of the many contributions you make to the world. You may be generous, kind, creative, courageous, organized, athletic, or conscientious. You may excel in relationships, intellectual pursuits, humor, music, or tennis. Whatever you excel at, take a moment to cherish your virtues.

Develop an attitude of gratitude. Expressing gratitude is the quintessential mattering exercise because it contributes to someone else’s well-being, and in doing so, you are also helping yourself. Both giver and receiver benefit from expressions of gratitude. Sending a letter to a former teacher who helped you, appreciating the meal your wife prepared, and thanking a colleague for a job well done are simple acts of gratitude. The more that goes into it, the better. The more details you describe in your expression of gratitude, the greater the benefit. Don’t just say thank you in an automatic voice. Refer to particular events or acts that you are grateful for. There is more than common sense behind this recommendation, there is scientific evidence. Expressions of gratitude are good for your health and wellness and for your interpersonal well-being. It is also associated with kindness towards others, empathy and forgiveness.

Benefits derive not just from expressing gratitude to someone else, but also from simply writing things you are grateful for in a journal. People who engage in these practices report higher levels of life satisfaction. The following can help you increase your positive emotions:

  • Take a few minutes each week to recall the things that you are grateful for in life
  • Write a letter of gratitude to someone who has helped you
  • Call a relative or a friend and thank them for something they did on your behalf

Savor the moment. Pause, pay attention, relish and enjoy the moment. A focus on regrets of the past or worries about the future can rob you of opportunities to savor the present. As John Lennon wrote in Beautiful Boy, a song about his son, “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

You don’t have to wait for an idyllic vacation to relish the moment. There is a lot of research on the benefits of being present-oriented and savoring the little things in life, from your first cup of coffee in the morning, to your baby’s smile. Savoring is the act of extending and intensifying the pleasure of an experience. Focus on it, eliminate extraneous distractions, and think about how beautiful this moment is. Consider the following:

  • Recall a beautiful experience you recently had and identify what made it special
  • Think about an exciting upcoming event and share your enthusiasm with someone who can partake in your joy

Find the silver lining. We cannot go through life without adversity. When it strikes, many people show not only resilience, but also a remarkable ability to see the silver lining. Posttraumatic growth and benefit finding describe the capacity to discover something positive in hardship. Divorce, illness, and death of a loved one impose on us a heavy toll. Yet, it is possible to find something positive in them. People report becoming more empathic, resourceful, and grateful as a result of adversity. In addition, they report a heightened appreciation of life’s precious moments and an ability to let go of minor aggravations. Consider the following:

  • What can you learn from people who experience serious loss but remain optimistic in life?
  • Have you or someone you know experienced growth as a result of a hardship?

By celebrating your strengths, expressing gratitude, finding the silver lining, and savoring the moment, you can add a healthy dose of positive emotions to your life. When you do that, you are becoming happier, healthier, kinder, and smarter; and your sense of mattering in the world goes up. None of these strategies eliminate the need to work towards social change to make sure that the most vulnerable among us get the help they need, immediately, from the government. I will discuss that topic in a separate post.

Isaac Prilleltensky is an award-winning academic and humor writer. His latest books, The Laughing Guide to Change, and The Laughing Guide to a Better Life, co-authored with Ora Prilleltensky, combine humor with science.