Colette Sheridan: Using positive psychology isn't being away with the fairies

Positive psychology can actually play a part in our coping abilities, so says Colette Sheridan in her weekly column
Colette Sheridan: Using positive psychology isn't being away with the fairies

COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS: Like going for a long walk, reading a book, or cooking a nice meal for your family. Picture: Stock

CLEARING out a drawer the other day (my decluttering project is sadly an endless one), I came across a small square of cream coloured pottery onto which the words, ‘replace anxiety with gratitude’ are engraved in red.

I have no idea where it came from. It could have come from some artist that I’ve interviewed who perhaps picked up on negative vibes emanating from me. Nobody likes to admit to being negative but relentless sunny optimism, unburdened by the ills of the world, can seem ridiculously out of step - particularly in the pandemic that is dominating our lives.

How can anyone dare to be positive at a time when the daily cases of Covid-19 in this country are exceedingly high? Surely, it’s foolhardy to bleat on about ‘putting positive energy out there?’ That, to me, is in the realm of believing in angels. Where were the guardian angels of people who died, painfully, from Covid? To be blunt, the virus (to which we often attribute human traits) doesn’t give a damn about whether we’re good, bad, positive or negative, or supposedly protected by the son of God himself. It’s indiscriminate, it is unpredictable, it can hit anyone, either mildly, middlingly or requiring breathing apparatus for those in a battle to survive. In short, it’s a bummer that will be with us until a vaccine is available in anything up to a couple of years, depending on what expert you’re following on any given day. Will we ever get to discard our face coverings? They are the manifestation of our shared experience. We are all in this together.

Which is why positivity (or a smidgen of it) is necessary to get us through these difficult times. Yes, positive psychology can actually play a part in our coping abilities. That’s not to forget that there is such a thing as the tyranny of positivity whereby people think that the ‘right’ attitude can cure them of cancer or some other awful disease. It’s a bit new-age to be sending out positive vibes to the universe. If you’re someone who likes to walk barefooted in the dew-drenched grass and offer your love to the rising sun, then good luck with that. But you don’t have to be extreme.

“Positive psychology is not about denying difficult emotions,” says Ron Siegel, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.

“It’s about opening to what is happening here and now, and cultivating and savouring the good in your life.”

Like the satisfaction you get from going for a long walk or reading a good book. Or cooking an imaginative meal for your family as opposed to dishing up your tried and tested recipes. Developing the habit of counting your blessings can help you appreciate more the positive aspects of life that remain, even after something as traumatic as a death or losing your job.

Helping others, even when you’re going through difficult challenges, can increase your positive feelings and help you gain perspective. There is growing evidence that positive psychology techniques can be helpful in times of stress or grief.

Being more mindful allows you to focus your attention on the present moment, accepting it without judgement. It makes sense that learning to live more in the present is helpful, particularly when the future is uncertain. We have never before lived with so much uncertainty and anything that can make that more tolerable is worth adopting.

Research indicates that people who volunteer their time helping others tend to be happier than those that don’t. (Mind you, with our current restrictions, there are limitations to what we can do for others.) However, if you can afford to give charitable donations, you may experience a small boost in mood.

While our brains are wired to take note of when things go wrong, practising gratitude is worth pursuing. You hear a lot about people these days ‘journaling.’ Try keeping a gratitude journal in which you write down the things that you’re thankful for. This will make you more aware of when things go right.

I had to laugh at Donald Trump’s alleged near gratitude for contracting Covid. His stupid embracing of the virus and apparent speedy recovery from it, calling it a miracle from God, is really taking the whole positivity thing too far. As an election ploy, it is transparently dumb. And not wearing a mask is not a good look for Trump. It is actually dangerous, sending out the wrong message to his followers. Does this man think he’s invincible?

I’m grateful to feel well, health-wise. But like lots of others, there is niggling anxiety because of the virus and what it could do to me and loved ones. But for now, I’m thankful. It’s all about being present. And adopting a wee bit of positive psychology.

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