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. We cannot experience positive emotions all the time; negative thoughts and emotions are natural and normal, especially 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 to us?
During these last two years of stress, we have been talking about pandemic fatigue, trauma and PTSD, burnout, and languishing. While these often overlap, they are all distinct 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. Unfortunately, this sometimes results in carelessness with safety or minimization of the realistic concerns about the virus. Others report clinical mental health concerns such as increased anxiety, depressed mood, and sense of hopelessness and helplessness in varying degrees.
- Trauma and vicarious trauma, sometimes leading to PTSD, have become common among healthcare workers. These frontline providers have had to do their jobs despite intrusive memories, distressing dreams, flashbacks, psychological distress, and marked physiological reactions. When this happens, the person tends to avoid thinking and feeling anything related to the stressor, and psychological numbing sets in. Other features, often overlooked, are negative thoughts and feeling about oneself, others, and the world, and the persistent inability to experience positive emotions. It is my opinion that most of us have some symptoms of Acute Stress Disorder, which has many of the above PTSD features, particularly sleep disturbances, irritable and angry outbursts, hypervigilance, concentration difficulties, and exaggerated startle responses.
- Languishing, which Adam Grant brought into 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 during these past two years, have been experiencing some, if not all, of these symptoms. Teachers, for example, may not have PTSD but do report symptoms of pandemic fatigue, languishing, 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. Have you noticed some of this too?
How can positive psychology help?
I have created a little phrase to help summarize the different skillsets of positive psychology that can be used to facilitate well-being.
- MOMs stand for 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 do we find or reclaim meaning and purpose in our daily lives? Meaning and purpose are often transcendent thoughts and intentions. Generally speaking, having meaning and purpose means having a sense of our place in the world, and that we have a significant and worthwhile reason to be here. One way we can achieve this is by having important goals and feeling fulfilled when we attain them. We can also experience meaning and purpose through engagement, be it work, or recreation, or relationships with others. Self-acceptance, moral codes of justice and fairness, and even a sense of ultimate significance through religion may contribute to meaning and purpose in our lives.
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 were less emotionally overextended and showed less detachment while also feeling more personal accomplishment and more competence.
A positive emotion, such as awe, creates feelings of wonder and amazement. It can also inspire meaning and purpose. It is a POP that influences our psychological resources, but more importantly, enhances our social connectedness and social resources.
Awe also reminds us of the two sides of the self: the small self we feel in the presence of something bigger, and the individual self that tends to self-interest and self-care. Both aspects of self are needed; what’s important is the ability to move nimbly between them. This is a similar concept to the two sides of emotions, positive and negative. 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 not only feels good but is also good for us, facilitating post-traumatic growth and well-being.
The intellectual portion of my PIPS construct relates to the associated positive cognitions, intentions, and expectancies that come with positive emotions. Thinking and feeling are reciprocally 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.
Their results confirmed this thesis, showing that specific coping-related self-efficacy and hope were associated with lower levels of PTSD. General self-efficacy and optimism, while beneficial, were not as strong as a specific targeted approach, because they focus less on our own personal role in coping and resilience. In order to have a greater sense of well-being, we need to find our unique MOMs and POPs, creating specific hope goals and self-efficacy practices.
What’s the takeaway?
In the midst of adversity, we can:
- Examine what happened to us
- Acknowledge and name the effects on us
- Accept ourselves and our symptoms as natural and normal in difficult times.
And we can be aware of and use:
- Emotional agility (shifting between positive and negative emotions)
- Cognitive agility (recognizing and shifting our thoughts, intentions, and expectancies)
- Agility of perspective (shifting between the small self and 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.
Lorraine Gahles-Kildow, PhD
Lorraine Gahles-Kildow, PhD, a licensed psychologist in the state of New Jersey, has been in private practice for 22 years. She specializes in using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy with adults, teenagers, and children to address issues related to trauma, PTSD, compassion fatigue, burnout, depression, anxiety, OCD, phobias, and more. She received her MPhil and PhD from the City University of New York and her M.A. from Long Island University. She has taught psychology courses for over 30 years, and spent 18 years training Montessori teachers on child development and psychological principles at the Princeton Center for Teacher Education in Princeton, New Jersey. She writes and presents on utilizing positive psychology interventions for caregivers, healthcare professionals, and self-care.