Well-being isn’t just about positive emotions. It also includes fully feeling our negative emotions and the changes in our mental state, and accepting them as a normal reaction to life’s circumstances. Harvard psychologist Susan David calls this emotional agility—recognizing that all emotions are relevant, and that negative emotions are a normal part of life. Positive emotions can’t be experienced all the time. However, negative thoughts and emotions are normal and natural during difficult times.
So, how do we accept and validate our negative emotions, while still wanting to “be better” and “feel better”? First, it’s important to identify what has happened to us (triggers) and how it has affected us (reactions or symptoms) in order to process it and to accept ourselves in the process.
What has happened?
In these two years of stress, we have been discussing pandemic fatigue and trauma and PTSD, burnout and languishing. Although they may overlap, they are all different experiences.
- Pandemic fatigue has been defined as feeling less energy and less ability to cope with the ongoing threat of COVID. People report feeling exhausted, unmotivated, or “blah” without necessarily being depressed. This can lead to carelessness or minimization of real concerns about the virus. Others have reported clinical mental health concerns, such as increased anxiety, depression, and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness to varying degrees.
- Vicarious and TraumaHealthcare workers have been experiencing PTSD and other symptoms. These frontline providers had to perform their duties despite disturbing memories, distressing dreams and flashbacks, as well as marked physiological reactions. This causes the person to avoid thinking or feeling about the stressor and psychological numbing can set in. Another feature that is often overlooked is the inability to feel positive emotions and negative thoughts about oneself and others. I believe most people have symptoms of Acute Stress Disorder. This includes sleep disturbances, irritable or angry outbursts and hypervigilance. Concentration difficulties and exaggerated startle reactions are all common signs.
- LanguishingAdam Grant introduced this concept to the public consciousness in his New York Times article published in April 2021, speaks to the fact that it has become harder to experience positive emotions during the pandemic. Grant describes languishing as “this foggy sense of muddling through your days” that may well be “the emotional long-haul of the pandemic.”
- Burnout refers to mental, emotional, physical, and vital exhaustion, along with symptoms of compassion fatigue such as depersonalization (detaching from others), and inefficacy (not feeling capable anymore). Many people have been experiencing these symptoms in the past two decades. Teachers may not be suffering from PTSD, but they do experience symptoms such as pandemic fatigue and burnout. Parents and students may not show full-blown PTSD but may be experiencing many of the trauma symptoms along with some burnout symptoms—for example, being on edge, being more anxious, irritable and angry than ever before. Are you also experiencing some of these symptoms?
How can positive psychology help you?
I have created a phrase to summarize the various skills of positive psychology that can help facilitate well-being.
PIPS are created when MOMs and OPs mix.
- MOMs stand as Moments of Meaning and Purpose.
- POPs represent Pockets of Positivity—experiences of positive emotion.
- PIPs are the Psychological, Intellectual, Physical, and Social resources we gain from finding and cultivating MOMs and POPs.
Here’s how each of these can support us during these challenging times.
How can we find meaning and purpose in our daily lives or reclaim them? Meaning and purpose can often be transcendent thoughts and intentions. Having meaning and purpose is, in general, feeling connected to the world and having a reason to be there. This can be achieved by setting goals and feeling fulfilled when they are achieved. Engaging in work, recreation, and relationships with others can provide meaning and purpose. Our lives can be enriched by self-acceptance and moral codes of justice, fairness, and a sense of ultimate significance and meaning through religion.
In a 2016 study with firefighters in Poland, researcher Dariusz Krok found that those who had a “presence of meaning and purpose”—that is, those with life goals of achievement and engagement, who valued relationships with others, and who accepted themselves and appreciated justice in the world—showed less burnout. They felt less emotionally overextended, had less detachment, and felt more competent and personal accomplishment.
A positive emotion, such as awe, creates feelings of wonder and amazement. It can also help you find meaning and purpose. It is a POP that not only influences our psychological resources but also enhances our social connectivity and social resources.
Awe reminds us that there are two sides to the self. There is the small self that feels in the presence of something larger, and there is the individual self which tends towards self-interest and self care. Both aspects of self are needed; what’s important is the ability to move nimbly between them. This concept is similar to the two sides, positive and negatively, of emotions. We don’t negate either one, but rather shift with agility from one to the other.
Yang Bai, Dacher Keltner, and their research colleagues found that awe diminishes the self, thus facilitating more collective engagement in terms of social cognition and behavior. Building social resources is not only good for you, but it also helps with post-traumatic growth.
My PIPS intellectual portion relates to the positive cognitions, intentions and expectancies that are associated with positive emotions. Thinking and feeling are mutually related. Each influences the other.
In their 2020 study, Matthew Gallagher and his colleagues from the University of Houston examined hope, optimism, and self-efficacy in relation to developing PTSD. They suggested that specific self-efficacy (“I am able to do this”) focuses on a specific stressful experience and the ability to perform or to cope. They further suggested that hope helps us generate pathways around obstacles towards our goals, and this may enhance resilience and decrease PTSD risk.
The results confirmed the thesis by showing that PTSD levels were lower when there was a specific coping-related self efficacy and hope. Although optimism and general self-efficacy are beneficial, they are not as strong as a targeted approach because they do not focus on our individual role in coping and resilience. To feel more well-being, you need to identify your MOMs and POPs. This will help you set goals for self-efficacy and create hope goals.
What’s the takeaway?
Even in the midst of great adversity, there are still things we can do:
- Check out what has happened to you
- Recognize the effects of your actions and take responsibility
- Accept our symptoms and accept them as normal and natural in difficult times.
We can also be aware of and make use of:
- Emotional agility is the ability to switch between positive and negative emotions.
- Cognitive agility is the ability to recognize and shift our thoughts, intentions and expectations.
- Agility of perspective (shifting in between the small self, the individual self).
In summary, humans are like diamonds, multifaceted and unique … and we can shine with clarity and brilliance.
Register now for Lorraine’s WBI/JCC Positivity Hour webinar, “The Many Faces of the Pandemic: What Happened to Us and How Can Positive Psychology Help?,” January 25, 12:00–1:00 pm ET.