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Using Positive Psychology in Trying Times

When external circumstances grow challenging, it is that much more important to have a variety of tools in our wellness arsenal. Among other things, we can find outlets to vent and process our feelings, employ mindfulness techniques like meditation, engage in physical exercise, take care with our diet and sleep, and even explore the benefits of psychopharmacology. To all of these powerful practices, I invite you to consider another: the tenets of the field known as Positive Psychology.

Popularized by psychologist Martin Seligman, positive psychology is “the scientific study of positive human functioning and flourishing on multiple levels that include the biological, personal, relational, institutional, cultural, and global dimensions of life.” More succinctly, positive psychology is focused on achieving “the good life.” According to Seligman, the crux of the good life is in using your special, unique gifts in ways that reward and gratify you. Thus, identifying the things that make us tick and light us up — and then following those personal north stars — is an important component in achieving satisfaction. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, we can set aside time to explore what makes us happy and how we like to function as human beings. We might be good at something, even brilliant—or at least able to make money at it—but dissatisfied with how we feel doing it. This isn’t the good life. The good life is doing the things we were uniquely blessed to be able to do. Perhaps we can’t find a way to make a living through these things right now when the contracting economy is limiting and even eliminating options for employment. But we can find a way to do them in some capacity, even if as a hobby. Moreover, we can find the elements of our passions that are portable, and bring them to careers and tasks that we used to find unfulfilling.

In addition to using positive psychology to identify and do the things we love, positive psychology also offers us psychological interventions that foster positive attitudes toward the parts of our selves and experiences that we view as negative. Here, the goal is to minimize pathological thoughts that tend to result in a hopeless mindset, replacing these with thoughts that lend themselves to an optimistic outlook. Goals include accepting the past, finding ways to be excited about the future, and cultivating a sense of contentment about the present.

With this framework in mind, here are some of the more accessible ways to immediately put positive psychology to work in your life.

Five Special Things

Pick a time of day — preferably the very beginning or the very end — to reflect on and write down five recent moments or things that brought you joy, contentment, gratitude, or any form of pleasure. It could be a random act of kindness that you witnessed or performed, a quirky mispronunciation proffered by a precocious child, a beautiful sight from nature, or a particularly delicious bite of a private treat. No moment or experience is too small or unworthy to make the list. The point is that you are finding time to focus on things that make you feel good in a world where the impulse is to notice the bad.

As a practical matter, you can write your Five Special Things in a beautiful journal or special stationery — but, in order to encourage consistency in this ritual, I recommend setting it up as an email to yourself with the subject line “Five Special Things”. Simply reply to the email every day (or as often as you choose to practice this technique) and you’ll have all your special things in one easy-to-find place.

Gratitude Visit

Think about a person who means a lot to you, and is a force for good in your life. Write a letter to that person setting out how they have helped you or brought you joy, and why you are grateful for them. At the bottom of the letter, ask them to call you when they have finished reading it so you can reiterate how special they are to you and how much you appreciate them. The residual joy you will experience from this interaction cannot be underestimated.

Vision Board

Create a vision board for the future, of a world that has healed from all the current traumas. How does this world look visually; how does it feel emotionally; what is your roll in making things beautiful and better? Display your vision board in a place where you can see it every day and allow yourself to imagine that the future world is already here.

Spread Love

Think of one unique way you can bring a smile to someone’s face today—and do it! You could post a sign of encouragement on your front lawn, leave a bouquet of flowers for the mail carrier, or surprise your partner with a gift you would have normally saved for a special occasion. The key here is to do something beyond the norm; something that stands out, is unexpected, and is unambiguously joyful.

Positive psychology is, on balance, a collection of techniques by which we focus on the good things in our lives—the good things in ourselves—and seek to augment them through our focus. No matter how dark our mood or how desolate our prospects, we can always find things to appreciate about life. The magic and the healing are in the process.