Stories from Healthy Mind

Yale’s Happiness Expert Shares 5 Strategies for How to Stay Positive When It Feels Impossible

Mary Grace Garis

Mary Grace GarisApril 2, 2020

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Amid the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are navigating days filled with a new normal rotation of habits and emotions: reading horror-tinged headlines, fearing for our loved ones’ health, worrying about economic uncertainty, feeling lonely, dealing with confinement (sometimes in close quarters with others), getting horny, and swearing off underwire bras completely. It’s far from the most joyful chapter in contemporary history (which, if memory serves, were those two weeks Pokémon GO was a thing). But in a recent Facebook Q&A, psychologist Laurie Santos, PhD, host of The Happiness Lab podcast and professor of Yale’s viral happiness course, completely reversed the negative energy of my day by sharing strategies for how to stay positive in the face of whatever your coronavirus crisis mentality is.

And to be clear, now is certainly a time for feeling all the feelings—good and bad. So don’t feel like you have to push down your negative emotions, but instead, look to the following strategies for how to stay positive when you know you’d benefit from some uplifting energy.

5 strategies for how to stay positive, according to a happiness researcher

1. Shift to the light side of the news cycle

Every day at some point, I plug “coronavirus good news” into Google, so you can imagine how stoked I was on the day when John Krasinski’s Some Good News video clip came up in my search results. According to Dr. Santos, this habit of mine makes total sense, because when the world feels increasingly frightening, we need to know there’s still good out there and not just consume a steady stream of fear-stoking articles.

“Trying to balance some of the doom and gloom so that you’re seeing some of the positive things can be really powerful.” —psychologist Laurie Santos, PhD

“You can pay attention to what’s going on, but try to up-regulate the information about the positive news,” Dr. Santos says. “So for example, there’s a wonderful hashtag on Twitter called #covidkindness, which you can use to check out all the good things that are happening out there. Trying to balance some of the doom and gloom so that you’re seeing some of the positive things can be really powerful.”

And sometimes, it just might mean limiting your exposure to news in general. “What I’ve done myself is to really decrease the amount of news that I’m consuming, particularly before I go to bed,” says Dr. Santos. “I now have a rule of like, basically past 6 or 7 p.m., I put my phone away and am not on social media as much. I’m really trying to not be consuming the news at that time.”

2. Recognize the irregularity of the situation

While it’s great if you’re able to continue working during this crisis, it’s also understandable if you find yourself feeling foggy or having trouble focusing. While all of these feelings are valid, it’s key to remember is that this situation isn’t normal and isn’t permanent.

“I’m experiencing this now with many of my graduate and PhD students who feel like they should be working and being just as productive as before, but that can’t possibly be true, because we’re in the midst of a pandemic, where everyone has stress,” says Dr. Santos. “And even if we’re reacting to it really well one day, that doesn’t mean that the next day we won’t feel it really deeply and be unable to work.”

So don’t beat yourself up if you’re not performing at the level you usually do, and grant yourself the same self-compassion you would give to a friend who’s going through that sort of same thing. “All of us right now are going to be a little less productive than usual,” Dr. Santos says.

3. Use technological connection effectively

This is especially important to remember if you’re social distancing solo: You can be physically alone without being socially alone because we’re at a lucky point in history that allows us to bond with far-away loved ones in fresh ways that weren’t available before.

“It’s one thing to kind of be home alone, but it’s another to know that you have Zoom yoga classes with friends of yours, or a Zoom dinner date with your parents who are far away in different time zones,” says Dr. Santos. “These are the kinds of things you can build into your day, even if you’re living alone.”

That means not only using technology to connect with friends and family, but also being intentional with how you use it. Think of technology as an open door to finally hang out with those you haven’t been checking up on. And when you can, choose voice over text. “One thing to know is that science suggests that the act of intentionally connecting in real time can be almost as good as a regular social connection,” Dr. Santos says. “And so we should be embracing these a lot more.”

4. Consider how solitude allows room for self-care practices

Now that you’re not bogged down by a trillion social obligations, perhaps you have the space to embrace the potential mental-health benefits that solitude can give you. Maybe you can finally get some reading done or meditate for as long as you want. “It can actually provide some time to reset things and focus on your own mental health in a way that might be tricky [otherwise],” says Dr. Santos.

5. Use time affluence to learn more about yourself

It may seem like a skyscraper-tall ask to see the blessings inside a negative, but for some, this pause on the world as we know it may allow for exploring possibilities of new directions when we emerge on the other side of this.

“It’s hard to think that there’s going to be another side, because, right now, we’re just facing uncertainty,” says Dr. Santos. “But like with all crises, we’re going to get to the other side.”

What that means is if you’re now finding yourself in a safe enough space with a wealth of time, you can do a little soul-searching. And, for the record, time-affluence has a very direct link to higher happiness.

“If you can kind of get around the uncertainty of having the extra time, it can actually be a really powerful time to do things like take time to journal about what you find most meaningful, or engaging the kinds of strategies that researchers like Amy Wrzesniewski and others use to job craft, to really think about what you find most meaningful in your work, and sort of plan that moving forward,” says Dr. Santos.

Another strategy to help you learn how to stay positive? Reframe your anger with three tips from the ancient Greek Stoics. And these digital support groups can help you with the specific challenges that COVID-19 brings.

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