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Applications of Positive Psychology during COVID-19

Betsy Kwok

            Since its outbreak, the coronavirus (COVID-19) has caused over 4 million deaths (WHO, 2021), triggering an unprecedented global health, social and economic crisis. Facing job losses, reduced income (McKibbin & Fernando, 2020) and social isolation due to physical distancing measures (Saladino, Algeri, & Auriemma, 2020), many people have experienced high levels of distress and anxiety, together with feelings of helplessness and dispiritedness (Montemurro, 2020). However, there are still people who have remained optimistic during this crisis. What makes them different? And what can we do to be like them?

            Positive psychology, the study examining people’s strengths and virtue, began as a new domain of psychology in the late 20th century (Seligman, 1999; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2014). Rather than simply emphasising approaches to alleviate suffering like traditional psychology, Seligman (1999) hoped to inspect ways to actively promote mental health, bringing about the birth of positive psychology. Through studying the relationship between individual traits and subjective experience, scholars in this field have found several ways to improve human well-being - both feeling good and functioning effectively (Huppert, 2009). Such insights are then specifically valuable in these difficult times of COVID-19.

            Positive psychologists have identified higher trait self-compassion among people who report being happier, more optimistic (Neff, Rude, & Kirkpatrick, 2007) and infrequently discouraged by hardships (MacBeth & Gumley, 2012). Recent research has also found people with more self-compassion having a more positive outlook on the pandemic (Lau, Chan, & Ng, 2020) and feeling less stressed (Jiménez, Sánchez-Sánchez, & García-Montes, 2020). Not only does self-compassion involve self-kindness, but it also involves being accurately aware of our negativity and recognising that the suffering is shared rather than specific to us (Neff, 2003). In a 14-day self-compassion intervention (including tasks like mindfulness meditation and journaling) carried out during the lockdown, participants showed a significant improvement in perceived stress and eating behaviour contrary to the control (Schnepper, Reichenberger, & Blechert, 2020), perhaps because such activities can help raise mindful awareness and reduce self-judgement (Mantzios & Wilson, 2014). Practising self-compassion then seems to be beneficial in improving our well-being despite the distressing situation.

            Moving on from the personal level, another finding from positive psychology is that, unsurprisingly, positive relationships are a core element of well-being (Seligman, 2012). Specifically, positive interpersonal processes like sharing laughter, expressing gratitude, disclosing good news, and feeling loved generate positive emotions (Algoe, 2019) and are consistently associated with better mental health (Thoits, 2011). Hence, while physical interactions are reduced due to COVID-19 distancing rules, spending more quality time with others may make up for the quantity and build well-being. For instance, one may organise a virtual gathering to share laughter and express our gratitude more frequently. Instead of thinking about the social interactions we might have missed, we should intentionally build up the quality for every opportunity to socialise.

            Apart from positive relationships, meaning – the feeling of belonging and serving something more than the self – is another foundational component of well-being (Seligman, 2012). Having meaning in life increases life satisfaction (Steger, 2012), as it plays a role in coping with hardships through the greater use of effective coping strategies (Waters et al., 2021), and is even associated with higher post-traumatic growth (Park, 2010). Enhancing or even discovering meaning in life during this pandemic is critical in building mental health. By reflecting on which of our goals in life have been disrupted by the pandemic, we can better understand what motivates us and why, work out alternative routes to accomplish our resolutions, and take steps to serve, support and connect with others. Eventually, we can come to improve our well-being.

            Overall, insights from positive psychology have suggested that practising self-compassion, fostering positive interpersonal processes and finding meaning can help improve well-being. While alleviating suffering and pain is vital and may be the focus of many in this crisis, how people’s well-being is sustained and strengthened must not be neglected.

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