It’s 2020 and we are living through a pandemic when many people are stretched beyond their capacity. For those of us who are parents in addition to employees, we have multiple responsibilities to do without the support we are used to having, such as schools and community activities. And yet, those of us who are juggling many roles are the lucky ones, because we are employed and our families are not sick. For thousands of people, having COVID-19 has become a serious and scary path. What advice do we have from positive psychology to help us build our well-being without adding to the already overwhelming to do list?
Retrain your brain
Taking time to be grateful for what you have improves your happiness today and in the future (1). How can this be? You are training your brain to pay attention to the positive things that happen in your life and recognize that you had a role in how they came about. Our natural inclination is to pay special attention and remember negative events because that kept our ancestors safe, whereas gratitude helps the brain focus on moments or experiences that are uplifting.
I feel grateful that my family is currently healthy, and that the steps we took to shelter in place have been effective so far. I could fret about what we will do if we get sick, but how is that helpful? We have been intentional about our choices and lucky, and therefore get to enjoy this reprieve. This then leads me to recognize that I’m lucky I get to spend extra time with my family. I miss friends and colleagues, but as my children grow, I recognize that this is an opportunity I want to make the best of. What if you are sick right now, what can you be grateful for? How about the medical support that is available, or the people you love that you can lean on during difficult times. By celebrating all the joys that come your way, gratitude helps you retrain your brain to focus on the positive.
The present is a gift
I often find myself projecting worries into the future, and I suspect I’m not alone in this. Mindfulness is about bringing awareness to the present moment and accepting this moment for what it is. It is not easy to do, which is why it is called a mindfulness practice. Many people find that meditation is a good tool for cultivating present awareness. If you have never meditated before, you don’t have to do this alone. There are many guided meditations or classes to help you get started, with a soothing narration to help your mind wander less than it normally would.
Your first few tries of mindfulness may be awkward, and you may have feelings that you wish you were not feeling. Be patient with yourself and the process because mindfulness can have huge benefits such as reducing psychological distress (2). We are all undergoing stress due to worldwide circumstances that are beyond our control, however embracing the present is one important technique to support your well-being that you can try today and turn into a practice that works for you.
Help other people
How do you feel when you have just the right gift for someone, great right? That feeling is what is experienced when you help other people. Acts of kindness can boost your mood and long-term well-being (3). There are plenty of people who can benefit from your help right now, from getting food for a neighbor to donating items from your home that you no longer need. The great thing about acts of kindness is that it benefits you, the giver, and the person you are giving to.
I’ve found it personally rewarding to recognize people who are working in stores and restaurants by making eye contact and verbalizing my appreciation (from 6 feet apart with my mask on). Maybe there is a new way you can recognize someone today by holding a door open or calling an old or sick relative. Giving benefits both the giver and the receiver, and doesn’t necessarily require extra time or money, just an adjustment in your approach.
What I’ve suggested here are three ways you can improve your life today – feel free to use them all or choose one or two that suit you best. There is a lot that is out of our control right now; what you can control is appreciating what you have, living in the present, and being kind toward others. These three positive psychology practices have been shown to benefit your well-being right now and in the future.
(1) Seligman, M. E., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: empirical validation of interventions. American psychologist, 60(5), 410.
(2) Fjorback, L. O., Arendt, M., Ørnbøl, E., Fink, P., & Walach, H. (2011). Mindfulness‐Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness‐Based Cognitive Therapy–a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 124(2), 102-119.
(3) Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M., & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of general psychology, 9(2), 111-131.