Issue 28 – Positive Psychology 101

By Oscar Ho (ELED Year 3 student 2020-21)

It’s been a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, and 2020 has undoubtedly been rough for most of us. As we’re still striving in the battle against the virus, there were a series of unfortunate events we felt disheartened by upon hearing. We witnessed the fall of popular figures including Kobe Bryant and Chadwick Boseman, the spark of social unrest in places like Hong Kong, the States, and Thailand, and the surging daily COVID-19 infections and death counts reported on the news. And that’s not all – thanks to the pandemic, with the implementation of emergency lockdown measures, the tourism industry withered and the global economy was plunged into a severe contraction. What’s more, schools have been closed, people lost their jobs, and face-to-face social interactions have ceased. Many aspects of our lives have been seriously impacted.

Amid these desperate times, it’s easy for us to find ourselves stressed and anxious. Some of us become worried about getting sick, some are concerned about how the pandemic affects their livelihoods, while others are depressed when all social ties are cut off due to social distancing. Research has indicated that people’s mental health conditions have been deteriorating since the beginning of the pandemic (Choi et al., 2020). However, you would surely agree with me that it is under such circumstances that our mentality must be strong! This is when Positive Psychology, a field of psychology that focuses on the things that make life worth living, comes into action.

But wait… isn’t positive psychology just common sense?

Actually, positive psychology might not be what you think! This relatively new branch of psychology may seem commonsensical, but you’ll be astonished to find this new world awaiting you! Consider this example: how long do you expect one to remain pessimistic after experiencing a traumatic event, say, a break-up or the death of close ones? Several months? A year or more? Interestingly, findings show that misery lasts shorter than one expects, and soon we’ll be back on track continuing with our very own lives. We may even be more mindful of what’s important in life (Peterson, 2006)! 

Does this sound counterintuitive to you? Perhaps it contradicts our past experiences. This example shows that our self-judgement and forecasts of emotion aren’t that accurate, and positive psychologists are here to find out more. With present evidence challenging our expectations, you’ll discover that positive psychology isn’t simply common sense.

Practices that work (and they’re scientifically proven!)

You might wonder: with all these saddening events, how can positive psychology make one happy? As the saying goes, a ‘true life’ will never be plain-sailing. Though a major part of positive psychology, as suggested by its name, focuses on the positive aspects of life, it actually encourages us to validate all types of emotions, including negative ones. Positive psychologists have found out that some intentional behaviours can encourage long-lasting happiness and also relieve depression symptoms. Through practising them in our daily lives, we can keep up our positive emotions and even prosper during these difficult times. Here are some positive psychology practices you can try out! (A gentle reminder: You may try out the following practices first to see which suits you best. Then, stick to your choice and make it your habit!)

Finding out your character strengths

We all have different strengths and weaknesses, for example, I’m not that good at Literature and yet you excel at it. Similarly, different people have different signature strengths. In other words, they are our ‘number one’ character strength that can be observed from our thoughts and actions. Spend some time and take the survey to find out more about your character strengths! 

Our character strengths are developable like habits. Positive psychologists have found that there is a decreasing tendency of developing and exhibiting depressive symptoms if we choose the appropriate strength and consistently employ it in our daily routine (Seligman et al., 2005). Here are some recommendations on what you can do during this COVID-19 pandemic with regard to your signature strength:

Signature strengths What you can do
Love of learning
  • Learn something new in order to enrich your skill set.
  • Read books on the subject matters that you are interested in.
Kindness
  • Volunteer at some NGOs and lend a helping hand to those who are suffering due to the pandemic.
  • Help your younger brother/sister who is struggling with his/her studies due to school suspension.
Social intelligence
  • Reach out to your friends to see if they are okay during these challenging times.
  • Ask your father/mother if they are currently doing fine at work. 

There’s more you can do! Go check out Ryan Niemiec’s book for more details.

Treating your body well

Always feeling stressful? Well, this bit’s for you. Though a certain level of stress is pivotal in certain situations (e.g. when confronting danger), being overstressed oftentimes bring a lot of negative consequences. Particularly, researchers have found that in prolonged stressful situations, our body generates cortisol, or otherwise known as the stress hormone, which increases long term energy supply and suppresses protein synthesis (Mayo Clinic, 2019). Consequently, it lowers our body’s immune function, making us vulnerable to contracting diseases.

To combat stress, it’s time to build good habits!

  • Eat well: Eat healthily with a balanced diet. Avoid junk food and harmful substances like caffeine, nicotine and drugs.
  • Sleep well: Get sufficient sleep every night. Try to do aerobic exercises during daytime and avoid caffeine and sleeping pills.
  • Exercise well: Do aerobic exercises at regular intervals. They improve our cardiovascular health and decrease cortisol levels.

Count your blessings

Derived from the Latin word gratus, gratitude is “the quality of being thankful”, as well as “the readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness” (Oxford University Press, 2020). Even though we are going through these difficult times, it is not difficult for us to find kindness and love from people around us. Restaurants have collaboratively set up initiatives to help the homeless, charities have distributed daily necessities and sanitizing agents to the underprivileged, entrepreneurs have sought ways to provide enough face masks for the general public and medical officers – just to name a few. And have you noticed that our family members are working harder than before to make a living and taking good care of you?

Gratitude exercises allow you to focus on the positive side of your daily lives. You can show appreciation of one’s abundance, of simple pleasures, and for others’ contribution to their lives (Watkins et al., 2003). After all, your life isn’t as gloomy as you think.

Want to count your blessings? It’s super easy.

  • Fetch a diary book or notebook. A simple one will do.
  • Ask yourself three questions. You only have to write a few words in your diary book.
  • What went well today?
    e.g. I had a cup of tasty ice-cream.
  • Why did it happen?
    e.g. My uncle is a foodie – he likes to buy snacks and shares with us when we meet up weekly. Today, he gave me and my sister each a cup of chestnut ice-cream.
  • Who do you thank for what happened?
    e.g. My uncle of course! It was a great reward for me after such a tiring day (I had tutorials starting from 8:30 a.m.…)

Random acts of kindness

You’ve started doing the gratitude exercises. You feel contented as you’ve started noticing kindness from people around you. Well, why not spread the happiness by also performing some acts of kindness? They need not be planned in advance – they can be spontaneous and random! Researchers have found that kindness increases the concentration of chemicals in our body like the love hormone oxytocin and the happy hormone serotonin. They have also found that such neurotransmitters makes us happier, more energized and pleasant in our everyday lives (The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation, 2020).

Performing random acts of kindness is easy as one-two-three. Check out some ideas on what you can do!

Charting the future: Best Possible Self

Are you a visionary? Some of us are. Even if you’re not, this positive psychology intervention practice lets you plan ahead of time. Now, spend the next 15 minutes and try to visualize your “Best Possible Self” as detailed as possible (The Greater Good Science Center, 2020). What will you become, say, in the next 10 or 20 years? Imagine that your personal, relational and professional lives have developed positively. What will your achievements be and what do you need to do to make them happen? Then, take out a piece of paper and jot down what you’ve just thought about. (You may also write a letter to the future you!)

The point here, as psychologists have indicated (Niemiec, 2013), is not to imagine something unrealistic or extraordinary. Rather, it is to give yourself goals to achieve in the coming years. It’s easy for our minds to go astray especially during the pandemic, and thankfully this exercise trains our coping skills and lets us anticipate the future. If you’re free, why not try out this meaningful activity?

 

References

Choi, E., Hui, B., & Wan, E. (2020). Depression and Anxiety in Hong Kong during COVID-19. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(10), 3740. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17103740

Mayo Clinic. (2019, March 19). Chronic stress puts your health at risk. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037#:~:text=Adrenaline%20increases%20your%20heart%20rate,of%20substances%20that%20repair%20tissues.

Niemiec, R. M. (2013, March 29). What is your best possible self? Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/what-matters-most/201303/what-is-your-best-possible-self

Niemiec, R. M. (2017). Character strengths interventions: A field guide for practitioners. Hogrefe.

Oxford University Press. (2020). Gratitude. In OED Online. Retrieved December 30, 2020, from https://oed.com/view/Entry/80957?redirectedFrom=gratitude#eid

Peterson, C. (2006). A primer in positive psychology. Oxford University Press.

Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410–421. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.60.5.410

The Greater Good Science Center. (2020). Best possible self. https://ggia.berkeley.edu/practice/best_possible_self

The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation. (2020). The science of kindness. https://www.randomactsofkindness.org/the-science-of-kindness

Watkins, P. C., Woodward, K., Stone, T., & Kolts, R. L. (2003). Gratitude and happiness: Development of a measure of gratitude and relationships with subjective well-being. Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal, 31(5), 431–452. https://doi.org/10.2224/sbp.2003.31.5.431

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