For more than two decades, positive psychology research has focused on the processes that help people cope with and grow through adversity. Never has that work been more important on a global scale than now. As the pandemic continues to unfold, new findings are enriching the discussion around its impact on mental health. 

In research published last year, Ryan Niemiec of the VIA Institute identified six functions of character strengths for thriving in difficult times. Sophie Soklaridis and her team conducted a review of 21 studies on mental health interventions during pandemics. Mohamed Buheji, Haitham Jahrami, and Ali Sabah Dhahi proposed a framework for coping with stress during and after such events. “Managing COVID-19 is more than hand washing and social distancing; instead, it is a story between hope and despair,” they wrote.

Most recently, a dream team of positive psychologists, many of whom have been faculty or guest speakers for WBI, came together to publish an article in the February 2021 issue of the Journal of Positive Psychology. Co-written by Lea Walters, Sara B. Algoe, Jane Dutton, Barbara Frederickson, Robert Emmons, Kristin Neff, Niemiec, Emily Heaphy, Judith T. Moskowitz, Cynthia Pury, and Michael Steger, the paper considered “the role that positive psychology factors can play in buffering against mental illness, bolstering mental health during COVID-19 and building positive processes and capacities that may help to strengthen future mental health.”

The authors discuss three specific types of interactions that can occur, which they call buffering, bolstering and building. The Buffering Effect occurs when positive processes moderate or diminish psychological ill health during crisis. The Bolstering Effect happens when positive emotions, conditions, and/or relationships help to maintain mental health, even in a crisis. The Building Effect is seen when an individual is able to use the crisis in a transformative way, which can lead to increased mental health into the future. Each of these effects is supported by a variety of prior and recent pandemic-related research studies. 

The paper considers how these three processes can be generated through nine positive psychology topics: meaning, coping, self-compassion, courage, gratitude, character strengths, positive emotions, positive interpersonal processes, and high-quality connections. Each of these areas are defined and accompanied by a brief description of findings (pre-pandemic and during COVID-19). The authors also make suggestions as to how to apply positive psychology practices relevant to each topic. 

New data on the impact of positive emotions on mental health—what Dr. Fredrickson calls “positivity resonance”—is highlighted in the paper. Even in the midst of a pandemic, she reminds us, we can engage in strategies to boost joy and love. Moreover, positive emotions can coexist with negative emotions—hope, for example, can be described as “fearing the worst and yearning for better.” 

Dr. Fredrickson joins WBI’s Megan McDonough for an Online Positive Psychology Hour on Tuesday, April 6, at 12:00 pm ET, to expand on the recent publication and explore how we can buffer, bolster, and build our mental health as we reemerge. Register now.

Phoebe Atkinson

Phoebe Atkinson

Program Faculty

Phoebe Atkinson is a core faculty member of WBI’s Positive Psychology Coaching Certification program. She is a licensed clinical social worker, certified coach, and board-certified trainer, educator, and practitioner in psychodrama, sociometry, and group psychotherapy. She serves on the faculty for WBI’s Certificate in Wholebeing Positive Psychology, and is also a graduate of the program.

Along with Jennifer Hanawald, Phoebe teaches the online Positive Psychology: Skill-Building Intensive course and leads the Positive Psychology Coaching Mentorship.

Find out about Certificate in Wholebeing Positive Psychology

Learn more about WBI’s Positive Psychology Coaching Certification.