With all the tragedy unfolding around us, it might seem a little odd or insensitive to suggest that we all need to inject more positivity into our lives right now. Yet positive emotions can help us cope during challenging times.
A study of significantly distressed students after 9/11, showed that those, who experienced more positive emotions e.g. gratitude or love in the aftermath, were more resilient over the longer term.
According to Barbara Fredrickson (2001), one of the leading researchers in this space, positive emotions can broaden our thinking so we are more open, creative and optimistic. Additionally, they can enable us to have better social skills and stronger relationships, which helps build valuable resources such as resilience. Positive emotions can also lead to better health by undoing the negative effects of stress. On the other hand, when we are angry, our energy and thoughts tend to focus on protecting or defending ourselves i.e. we trigger a flight or fight response. And as a result, our thinking is narrowed.
So how can we decrease negativity?
Firstly, we need to manage what may be contributing to our levels of stress and anxiety. Right now, we are being inundated with bad news, which can overload us with negative emotions and leave us a in a constant state of concern. What’s more, negativity can zap our energy, which can make us feel more tired than usual. Although it can be tempting to stay glued to news relating to the Coronavirus, we can’t let it constantly interrupt us throughout the day and impact our thoughts or moods.
Try and set aside a time each day, perhaps in the morning or evening, to get the updates you need, and choose credible sources only. Set boundaries with your devices, turn off notifications from news outlets and save emails for later. By dedicating time for media, you can help reduce any feelings of stress and anxiety that you might be experiencing, and you will be more able to concentrate on the tasks at hand.
Some researchers suggest that for every negative emotion we experience, we need three positive emotions to compensate (Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002). Yet most of us fall short on this ratio.
So how can we increase positive emotions?
It seems that the science is finally catching up to those in our lives, who have always told us to count our blessings or to pay attention to the good things around us. Being grateful is one of the mega strategies for being happier, and plays an important role in our wellbeing, mental and physical health. When your brain is in a state of appreciation and is focused on what’s good, it’s impossible for it to be in a state of fear or anxiety at the same time. So the more you are grateful, the less negative emotions you will experience, which will boost your levels of happiness (and in some cases, this may decrease the symptoms of depression too). Yet humans are hard-wired to look for the negative so we need to make a conscious effort to be grateful.
One way to do this is by undertaking a Positive Psychology Intervention called ‘three good things’ (Seligman et al., 2005; Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2006), which is one of Dusty Martin’s favourites too. This activity asks you to list three things that you are grateful for, and why you are grateful for them over five nights before going to bed. What’s included could be big things like good health or great relationships, or little things such as a take-away coffee or listening to your favourite song. But what is listed needs to be different each day. Over time, you will notice that your brain will start scanning the world not for the negative but for the positive first. You will look at what you’ve got more than what you don’t have. You will sleep better and wake up feeling more energetic. So you may be inclined to keep the practise up after the initial five days! What’s more, those who cultivate gratitude tend to have stronger relationships as they notice the things in their partner, children, friends or colleagues that they are grateful for.
In order to experience the longer term benefits of practising gratitude, you have to be proactive and put in effort, so eventually you possess what’s called an ‘attitude of gratitude’. The real skill here is being able to identify what you are grateful for even during challenging times, like those we are experiencing right now.
And remember, everything doesn’t have to be right or good for us to be grateful!