Sometimes life throws us a curveball. An elderly but seemingly healthy relative suddenly dies, a loved one is absent, possibly never to return, your health isn’t what it used to be. In fact things aren’t looking very good at all. That life you had so carefully planned out for yourself may now no longer be possible, you have to change course, move in an unfamiliar perhaps lonely new direction. The things that truly shake our world are never what we expect. Whilst we are busy worrying about one scenario happening, another, perhaps more painful situation, has already occurred, a situation that it didn’t even cross our minds to consider possible. In these situations what place does positive psychology have in our lives? What right do we have to turn to the psychology of happiness for comfort when the unthinkable happens? Research would suggest that even in times of pain and sorrow, positive psychology can still play a part in our lives and can help us to heal.
Remembering the importance of negative emotions
One of the most common misconceptions about Positive Psychology is that its goal is to teach people how to be happy all the time. This is simply not true. In recent years, the field of positive psychology has produced a wealth of research into the potential benefits of negative emotions, emphasising the important role that they play in our lives. Society has placed a great deal of weight in recent years on the pursuit of happiness to the point where we are now at risk of upholding happiness above all else. The problem with this is that we are at risk of telling people which situations should make them happy and which should make them unhappy, at the expense of real human experience. As Tim Lomas and Itai Ivtzan argue, pursuing happiness in this way may lead to a widespread condemning of normal life experiences, potentially leading to unhappiness being regarded as a failure (Ahmed, 2007 and Ehrenreich, 2009 in Lomas and Ivtzan, 2015). When bad things happen we often praise those who bounce back quickly, revering those who seem to keep going and stay positive, no matter what the adversity. Whilst there is nothing inherently wrong with this, those who struggle in times of suffering may feel as though they are doing something wrong, are weak or are less able to control their emotions. They may fail to recognise that negative emotions have their place in our lives and serve to tell us something about our experiences. Sadness for example may on the surface seem to be an emotion which we should avoid at all costs, yet research has shown that it can encourage us to protect and take care of ourselves and of others and can evoke expressions of love, particularly when sadness has occurred due to loss (Lomas, 2016). Reminding ourselves in times of adversity that negative emotions are normal, even healthy, can be a good way of helping us to heal.
Looking after ourselves
When we are facing loss or adversity it can be difficult to remember to, or remain motivated to, take care of ourselves. Whilst it may be the last thing on our mind, eating fresh, healthy foods and taking part in light exercise, such as going for a walk, can drastically improve our mood and help better prepare us for the difficulties life throws at us. Kate Hefferon (2013) would argue that taking care of our bodies is one of the most important ways that we can look after our mental health. She argues that if we don’t treat and feed our bodies right then nothing else we do to improve our mental health will work. Only by preparing our bodies right can we begin to improve our mind.
But, taking care of ourself doesn’t always involve simply eating right and exercising. In times of hardship, a practice of self-compassion can be very important. Kristen Neff describes self-compassion as ‘being kind toward oneself in instances of pain or failure; perceiving one’s experiences as part of the larger human experience; and holding painful thoughts and feelings in balanced awareness’ (Kristin Neff, Stephanie Rue and Kristin Kirkpatrick, 2006, p.908). Neff and her colleagues encourage mindful acceptance or awareness of negative emotions, reminding us that these emotions are universally experienced, highlighting the fact that we are not alone in our struggles. By allowing ourselves to feel without judgement we are in a better position to move through our negative emotions and onto more positive ones.
When times are hard, being grateful is probably the last thing that we feel like doing, and yet it can be very important. By focusing on the good in our lives, the people and things that we are grateful for, we are less likely to ruminate on our negative experiences and are therefore less likely to spiral into depression when the unexpected occurs. Research also suggests that a regular practice of gratitude can improve the social connections we have with others, giving us a social support network in times of need as well helping us connect to to a ‘less critical, less punishing, and more compassionate relationship with the self’ (Petrocchi and Couyoumdjian, 2015). In this way gratitude, which may not be a natural response to suffering, can be a positive step towards recovery. Gratitude doesn’t have to be about writing letters of thanks or ignoring our negative experiences. It can be as simple as noting down the good in our lives or recognising those who are there to help us.
In times of adversity, pain or sudden loss, positive psychology can have an important role to play in our wellbeing, helping us to heal. It can help us to look after our bodies as well as our minds, remind us of the normality of negative emotions and encourage us to look at the good in our lives. Whilst Positive Psychology is described as the psychology of happiness, it still has an important role to play when unexpected adversity strikes.
Hefferon, K. (2013). Positive psychology and the body: The somatopsychic side to flourishing. McGraw-Hill Education (UK).
Lomas, T., & Ivtzan, I. (2016). Second wave positive psychology: Exploring the positive–negative dialectics of wellbeing. Journal of Happiness Studies, 17(4), 1753-1768.
Lomas, T. (2016). The Positive Power of Negative Emotions: How harnessing your darker feelings can help you see a brighter dawn. Hachette UK.
Neff, K. D., Rude, S. S., & Kirkpatrick, K. L. (2007). An examination of self-compassion in relation to positive psychological functioning and personality traits. Journal of Research in Personality, 41(4), 908-916.
Petrocchi, N., & Couyoumdjian, A. (2016). The impact of gratitude on depression and anxiety: the mediating role of criticizing, attacking, and reassuring the self. Self and Identity, 15(2), 191-205.
About the author: Katherine Halliday lives in Dundee in Scotland and works in student support at the University of St Andrews. Katherine is currently undertaking the MAPP course at Bucks New University and is loving every minute of it.