Dr Maike Neuhaus
Positive Psychology Practices During Crisis
How to support wellbeing and future growth for individuals and collective communities
The COVID-19 global pandemic has touched all of our lives in some way. Never before has the world seen such a pervasive, severe global health emergency, as highlighted by the World Health Organization (WHO). Our lives have been affected to varying degrees at an individual level, but also within the context of the wider systems we engage with on a daily basis – including families, schools, workplaces and communities.
A ‘new normal’ has emerged, and the measures needed to contain disease and protect populations has also increased pressure on individuals and institutions in society. It has been widely studied and acknowledged that the social isolation, economic pressure, lockdowns, and remote learning changes have increased mental illness among the general population, resulting in high levels of anxiety, depression, distress, sleep disorders and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
However, the public health changes, that organisations, communities and nations have adopted in order to prevent disease spread, also highlight the capacity for positive systemic change in order to build multi-system resilience during such challenging times.
Using a systems approach, acknowledging that the individual is influenced by the institutions with which they engage, provides opportunity to target positive change at a collective level. Just as communities were able to adopt and implement biosafety practice to prevent the spread of COVID-19 (mask wearing, washing hands), social-psychological interventions – such as positive psychology practices - embedded within families, schools and workplaces have the potential to create significant change in order to harness wellbeing and growth during a time of distress, as well as promote future growth and change.
A recent study by Professor Lea Waters and colleagues (full reference below) explored a range of evidence-based positive psychology factors and interventions that can be applied within systemic institutions and frameworks to promote collective wellbeing and posttraumatic growth during the time of COVID-19.
Overarching concepts of positive psychology that the authors considered within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic included topics such as:
The acceptance of life having ‘peaks’ and ‘valleys’
The potential for negative situations to give rise to positive growth and change
That positive approaches minimize distress and can help us through dark times
Hedonic adaption – that people eventually return to their set level of wellbeing, even under extreme change (be it positive or negative)
An opportunity for lasting growth in capacities, outlook and connection.
Utilizing a systems approach harnesses the concept of positive adjustment – the ‘ripple effect’ of change one individual can have through observation, modelling and reinforcement in their environment (i.e., a parent modelling self-compassion for their child).
Despite the distress and disruption of a global pandemic, the literature indicates that positive outcomes have still been experienced by individuals, within institutions and collectively. Globally, the ‘ethics of care’ (Ivic, 2020, p.346) highlighted the overcoming of oppositional perspectives (e.g. we/they, wealthy/poor) to emphasize care, solidarity and support for the vulnerable. Individuals band together to form a ‘collective’ that provides harmonious and positive social connection which operates for the ‘greater good’.
What they found
Positive psychology practices can be implemented within the various systems each individual is connected to, thereby providing widespread access to concepts involved in wellbeing and care across communities. This has the potential to not only support individuals and communities during times of hardship, but also effect long-term change and promote resilience through the adapted incorporation of these strategies into the future. The authors highlighted the following:
Within a Family Unit
While large amounts of enforced time together has increased family conflict, an increase in family connection and a spirit of ‘teamwork’ was also reported. Family happiness has been shown to improve with strengths-based parenting which includes:
improved coping and emotional wellbeing in parents.
Parents can introduce these new practices into the family system – implementing these during COVID-19 may protect wellbeing as well as embed as more permanent practices which provide opportunity for posttraumatic growth and future wellbeing.
The way in which students engage in the education system has changed significantly since early 2020. The opportunity to embed positive psychology practices in school has the potential for widespread wellbeing for youth, particularly due to the negative impact on young peoples’ mental health due to COVID-19 changes. Even when schools reopen, there are inherent differences with the use of physical distancing, health protocols such as masks, the reduction or absence of gatherings such as assemblies or group programs, which changes the interaction of students in shared spaces.
Whilst lockdowns and the necessity for these adjustments as well as the use of remote learning has posed many difficulties for both young people as well as teaching staff, positive outcomes have also been noted. This includes positive academic performance by some students, including increased self-management capacity and continuous learning habits.
Waters and Loton (2019) developed a SEARCH framework of positive psychology practices focusing on:
Attention and Awareness
Habits and goals.
Students who learnt this framework prior to COVID-19 were shown to have improved emotional processing, positive reappraisal, and a strengths-based approach during remote learning. This suggests that positive psychology interventions can promote both coping with distress (i.e., mindfulness practice), as well as spot and amplify positive emotions and experiences in their current life (i.e., gratitude practice) for improved youth and student wellbeing and resilience.
Schools have the unique opportunity to implement positive psychology practices in group settings, helping both the individual but also the whole class, grade, student cohort and entire school, showing the potential to effect enormous change. Embedding positive psychology practices into daily school life through ‘bite size’ access (i.e., mindful breathing at the start of lessons) acknowledges the stretched resources of teachers and schools while also integrating wellbeing literacy into school culture.
Sustained future change and system modification requires multiple approaches including:
Review of the pipeline of future teaching graduates
Professional development of existing teachers and school leaders.
COVID-19 has seen a tremendous adjustment of the adult workplace, which has highlighted the impact of leaders on employee wellbeing. Positive leaders help to identify what can be learned from a challenging situation, rather than what is wrong or missing. Characteristics embodied by positive leaders include: gratitude, compassion, humility, forgiveness, and trustworthiness, and focus on helping others flourish without expecting payback.
When these characteristics are present in leaders, there is evidence that individuals and workplaces perform at significantly higher levels, including:
Quality innovation, and customer satisfaction
Employee wellbeing and engagement
Greater family enrichment when at home as well.
Positive leaders also emanate positive relational energy – they uplift, elevate and renew those around them. When leaders demonstrate actions such as generosity/altruism, people resonate and lift their own performance and behaviours. Workplaces with positive leadership have improved performance, which is needed in times of global upheaval.
The concept of ‘antifragility’ – the ability to withstand and improve through disruption and uncertainty - is a positive leadership approach that is used intentionally during a crisis for workplaces to adapt and grow through changing their day-to-day work and routines. Positive leaders can create context and conditions for others to thrive by fostering a benefit mindset that is psychologically safe and encourages experimentation, supports diversity of ideas, and builds trust in teams and lets go of the need for control.
Leaders have the capacity to affect the energy, attitudes and mindsets of those around them, and are key driving forces when responding effectively to the uncertainty and disruption created by COVID-19, helping individuals and organisations emerge stronger after a crisis.
Additional positive reports from workplace adjustments include increased schedule flexibility, reduced commuting, greater focus, and an ability to combine work with other activities.
Broader Systems and Communities
A widespread public mental health crisis has been highlighted due to COVID-19 – both individual distress and collective distress is rife. Positive psychology practices have the capacity to acknowledge grief and pain while also:
Alleviating symptoms and processing trauma
Understanding and promoting social determinants of wellbeing
Steering individuals towards the possibility of post-traumatic growth.
Embracing positive psychology practices within society through arts and culture, eco-connection and wellbeing literacy can encourage people to utilize what is already available to them to help them manage during difficult times and build resilience. Significant environmental gains have been noted due to reduced travel: reduced air and water pollution; increased eco-connection and access/utilization of community green areas.
Widespread policy change that identifies and supports marginalized communities and includes economic stimulus packages, employment programs, and social assistance to support citizens have been implemented. COVID-19 has increased awareness of social inequality and policy change as a response to global health issues.
There has been an increased sense of community responsibility, social solidarity and care due to shared experience of this global crisis. Social media has been accessed to mobilize support groups; there has been coordination, pooling and distribution of resources across neighborhoods; and sharing of information and responsibilities for the benefit of communities as a whole.
Despite the disconnection of COVID-19, this has provided the opportunity for increased care and connection between individuals, despite social distancing and lockdown measures.
What the authors concluded
Just as the small action of wearing a mask reduces the collective risks of transmission of COVID-19, small changes embedded into institutions via positive psychology interventions can have a widespread impact on the individual, as well as a ripple effect collectively across society. The pandemic has, due to collective experience of distress, triggered increased compassion and care for others. Whilst the majority of research has focused on the detrimental impacts of the pandemic, there is limited research and review of the strengths and positive change that can and has occurred, which is why this paper is so important.
Positive psychology practices have the capacity to strengthen us during challenging times, as well as provide opportunity to harness growth and change for a better future – enhancing wellbeing both for ourselves as individuals, as well as within the wider systems, communities and societies we live. This paper highlighted that despite the overwhelm from negative experiences in any life event, there also remains capacity to choose how we respond, grow and change for the better – both at individual and collective systems levels.
Full reference: Waters, L., Cameron, K., Nelson-Coffey, S.K., Crone, D.L., Kern, M.L., Lomas, T., Oades, L., Owens R.L., Pawelski, J.O., Rashid, T., Warren, M.A., White, M.A. & Williams, P. (2021). Collective wellbeing and posttraumatic growth during COVID-19: how positive psychology can help families, schools, workplaces and marginalized communities. The Journal of Positive Psychology, https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2021.1940251