It’s become clichéd to say that these are challenging times. Everyone knows that many people are more stressed, anxious, lonely, and depressed than usual. In fact, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, nearly a third of Americans now show signs of clinical levels of depression or anxiety. It is entirely reasonable to feel these things, given what’s going on.
However, we recently conducted a study that found that, even under these strenuous circumstances, some people are managing to thrive. At the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab at UNC Chapel Hill, our research team has been collecting data from adults around the United States this spring, starting in April, when most of us were under stay-at-home orders to flatten the coronavirus curve.
For many people, more of the bad tends to mean less of the good. If something sad happens on Tuesday, people forget about what gave them joy on Monday. But research has found that resilient people—people who handle life’s challenges especially well, and who quickly bounce back from setbacks—are better able to hold on to the good, even in the presence of the bad. That is, when faced with challenges, resilient people don’t avoid negative states, thinking everything is fine. Rather, even while feeling stress, anxiety, loneliness, and depression, the resilient among us continue feeling love, gratitude, joy, and hope. Accepting (not suppressing) negative emotion is part of what it means to be resilient.
Our team’s research has also shown that resilience is not a fixed trait. The good news is that we can cultivate it. Resilience increases as people experience more frequent positive emotions. Like an upward spiral, positive emotions lead to greater resilience, which leads to more positive emotions. So, the question is, how can you experience more positive emotions—even with the world in its current state? Here are some of the insights the data revealed.
1. Set aside time to take care of your body, mind, and spirit
Exercise, hobbies, and prayer or meditation tend to bring positive emotions for young and old alike, and for those living alone or with others.
Of course, most people know that these activities are important. But they are especially important these days. The tie between time spent on these sorts of activities and positive emotions is particularly strong for people experiencing more negative emotions.
So, the more stressed, anxious, lonely, or depressed you are, the more it matters that you take time to exercise and care for yourself. One strategy that we, the authors, have found useful is to put repeating events in our calendars. That way, we’ve always got blocks of time dedicated to these things, as well as automated reminders.
2. Help others
That being said, it’s important not to become too self-focused. Regardless of how much time people spent taking care of themselves, we found that those who go out of their way to help others also experience more positive emotions. Crises provide ample opportunities for kindness. You can donate face masks or other equipment to health care workers. If you’re healthy, you can donate much-needed blood, or buy groceries and other necessities for elderly and high-risk neighbors. Such altruistic acts aren’t just good for those receiving help. They’re good for those giving it, as well.
That’s because we humans are deeply social creatures. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the buzzword has been “social distancing.” Yet social connection is vital for a person’s health and happiness.
3. Get on social media—but minimize passive scrolling
Social media, like Facebook and Twitter, can be very important for staying connected while physically distanced. But it needs to be used properly. Our data showed that the amount of time people spend passively browsing social media (scrolling through feeds, looking for updates) is unrelated to positive states, but instead strongly linked to anxiety and other negative feelings.
Now, social media can be useful for sharing messages of hope and solidarity. And it is, even now, being used to help organize people fighting for justice. But social media feeds are also typically filled with distressing news and politicking. We need to be careful not to spend too much time passively monitoring them.
On the other hand, actively interacting with others comes with more positive and fewer negative emotions. We found that was just as true for introverts as it was for extraverts, and for those living alone as well as those living with others.
4. Meet face to face, even if you’re six feet apart
It does, however, matter how one is interacting. Social media will never be enough. On average, time spent interacting face to face comes with more positive emotions, whereas time spent in voice or video calls, or text-based interaction (email, texting, etc.) does not. This seems to be because it’s far easier to establish a meaningful connection with someone when you are face to face.
We found that the link between interaction time and positive emotions is accounted for by the feelings of connection and care for others that were experienced while interacting, which are lower in calling and text-based interactions. In other words, what matters is not how much time you spend with others, but rather the quality of the emotional connection you forge with them.
These connections seem to have long-term consequences, too, beyond just having a good day today.
One of the projects we’re currently working on in our lab looks at the link between social interaction and mental health over the course of multiple weeks this past spring. As mentioned above, past research has shown that frequent positive emotions help resilient people to thrive even in times of crisis. What we’re now discovering is that co-experienced positive emotions—the good feelings that you get when you really connect with someone—seem to be even more important than positive emotions experienced alone.
Our current research is suggesting that, over the long term, resilient people sustain the positive aspects of mental health (happiness and a sense of life’s meaning and purpose) and avoid the negative aspects (depression, anxiety, loneliness, and stress) in part by finding moments of positive connection in day-to-day life.
It doesn’t take long to forge these connections. In fact, we’ve discovered that the number and duration of interactions are not what matters. Rather it’s quality over quantity—the benefits of socializing come largely from the emotional connection you make with another person. During these “challenging times,” it’s even more important than usual that people stay connected and help each other.