Staying positive during difficult times – Harvard Health Blog

To say that we are going through difficult times seems both a cliché and an understatement. In recent months, news about the pandemic, economic problems and bitter political debates have triggered tremendous anxiety and sadness for many Americans.

But when people look back on their lives, it was usually the toughest challenges that gave them a new perspective or made them grow the most. Of course, in the midst of a crisis, this is not the case. But there are steps you can take to cope with difficult times, using techniques from the field of positive psychology.

How can positive psychology help in difficult times?

Initially, positive psychology mainly focused on pursuing rewarding experiences that made people happier. But psychologists soon realized that this sort of happiness depended on fleeting experiences, rather than a longer lasting sense of contentment. As a result, the field has changed to focus on cultivating satisfaction and well-being while remaining open to the full range of emotional experiences, good and bad. Contrary to what one might expect, trying to resist painful emotions actually increases psychological suffering.

“Positive psychology is not about denying difficult emotions. It’s about opening up to what’s going on here and now, cultivating and savoring the good in your life, ”says Ron Siegel, PsyD, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.

If you get into the habit of counting your blessings, for example, you may be better able to appreciate the positive aspects of life that remain even after a painful event like job loss or death. And helping others, even when you’re having difficulty, can increase your positive feelings and help you take a step back.

A growing body of evidence suggests that positive psychology techniques can indeed be helpful during times of stress, grief, or other difficulties. They can also help you build the resilience to deal with difficulties more easily and bounce back faster after traumatic or unpleasant events. Here are three positive psychology practices you can try.

Pay more attention

Mindfulness is the practice of deliberately focusing your attention on the present moment and accepting it without judgment. Learning to live more in the present is especially helpful when the future is uncertain. Formal mindfulness-based stress reduction programs have been shown to help reduce physical and psychological symptoms in people facing a variety of challenges, including cancer and chronic pain. To practice at home, you can try some of the free guided recordings of mindfulness meditations narrated by Dr. Siegel, available at

Share kindness

Research suggests that people who volunteer their time tend to be happier than those who don’t. Those who donate to charity may even get a little boost in their mood. Try this exercise: When you have an afternoon free, flip a coin. Heads, do something self-indulgent (eg, get yourself a manicure). Tails, do something to help your community or someone else (for example, call or write to an elderly person). Notice how you feel at the time and in the hours and days that follow.

Practice gratitude

Gratitude is a grateful appreciation for what you receive, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, you recognize the goodness in your life. You can apply it to your past (collecting positive memories and being grateful for things from your childhood or past blessings), to the present (not taking things for granted as they come) and in the future (be optimistic and optimistic that there will be good things happening). Our brains are hardwired to notice when things go wrong. But keeping a gratitude journal – writing down the things you’re grateful for – makes you more aware of when things are going well.

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Jothi Venkat

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