Welcome to the fifth in our new series of short blogs to help you stay safe, sane and supported during the current crisis. And, this time we’re looking at positive emotions.

We can’t underestimate the power of positive emotions in growing resilience, so experiencing as many as possible during the current health crisis and lockdown is going to be crucial for helping us stay strong.

As you find new ways of connecting with family and friends, rediscover old hobbies, or just appreciate the small things, you will be finding new ways to evoke positive emotions without even realising it. Here is why these experiences are so important to your wellbeing.

Why positive emotions are important during tough times

Traditionally, psychological research on emotions has been concerned with understanding negative emotions and psychological disorders. But over the last 30 years or so, psychologists have taken more notice of positive emotions, trying to understand what they are and why we have them.

A key researcher in the field of positive psychology, Barbara Fredrickson was researching positive emotions in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001. At a time when 50-70% of the general public were experiencing symptoms of depression, she found that the people who noticed and experienced more positive emotions, like hope, gratitude, and love, were protected from developing depression.

This, along with other research, highlights the role of positive emotions in generating optimism through difficult times, creating a sense of hope, and confidence that however bad the situation is, it will pass.

Barbara Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build Theory of Emotions describes the evolutionary importance of both positive and negative emotions for survival.

Negative emotions have an immediate survival advantage, protecting us from threat, by stimulating our bodies’ energy reserves and preparing us to fight or flee.

The experience of positive emotions, on the other hand, calms our bodies, stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system and leading to feelings of safety and contentment. At these times we are better able to innovate, to be curious and interested and engage in other activities that make us feel good. From our evolutionary past, this is when our ancestors would have created stone tools or the hunting strategy that we see in cave paintings.

How to rediscover positive emotions

So what can you do to rediscover and hold onto positive emotions during these unprecedented times?

Something as simple as taking a walk in the local park provides a wealth of opportunities to rediscover positive emotions. For example, try noticing and appreciating the small things: the beauty of some wildflowers, the fresh air, and sunshine on your face, exchanging a smile with another walker, hearing music playing through an open window, enjoying the company of your dog or noticing how the wind moves the trees.

In the current times, with limits on the freedoms we usually take for granted, these small details are suddenly brought into focus. And as an antidote to the anxiety and worry we are all experiencing they bring moments of contentment, gratitude, and joy. These are brief moments in a day filled with a whole range of other experiences and feelings, good and bad, but making the most of them is so important. The positive emotions that we get at these times make us feel good and produce a sense of hope, reminding us that these tough and uncertain times will pass.

Here are some other ideas that have been shown to grow positive emotions:

  • Celebrate what’s right. See if you can notice what is right with the world or in your life at this moment, even if the only positive you can see is that this low moment will pass.
  • Experience and express gratitude. Try to take a moment to move your focus away from the many challenges you may be facing currently and notice or write down what there is to be grateful for. Expressing gratitude to someone else is also important and has been shown to significantly improve happiness and reduce symptoms of depression.
  • Open your mind. Try changing your routine, sit in a different chair, take a different route on your walk. There is always something to discover and be interested in. Be more mindful: practising mindfulness or just connecting with the present moment opens your mind.
  • Be kind to others. Random acts of kindness however small, have been shown to grow our positive emotions and they make other people feel good too. There is plenty of opportunity to link into local initiatives aimed at supporting the elderly or those self-isolating through the current crisis. Why not check out NHS volunteering, join local groups on Facebook, WhatsApp or Nextdoor.
  • Connect with friends and family through social media and take time to savour and reflect on positive experiences. Make plans for pleasurable activities in the future. Anticipating and looking forward to these events will help to maintain a sense of hope and excitement.
  • Write down three good things that have occurred every day in a notebook. Include any of the small things you have noticed and appreciated on a walk, at home, online. It might include funny things that you have heard or watched, or moments of kindness that you have offered to others or received. It might be just having a chat with the person at the supermarket checkout whilst observing your social distance. Doing this will help to shift your spotlight of attention to the positive things that are happening, however small. Particularly at times when life feels more difficult, this will act as a reminder that there are always moments of joy to be had.

And remember that we actually experience more positive emotions than negative, we just aren’t used to noticing them. As negative emotions are important for self-protection, they grab our attention more. So see if you can just start noticing your positive emotions whenever they arise, and as you do this you will start to feel better.

You can find the rest of this series of blogs that we are writing to help you cope with the current COVID-19 crisis on our blog page.