Positivity is the key to thriving during adversity: Tips for trying times

The adversity we are facing as a world right now is very real. With everything that confronts us, we might be asking an important question – Should we even be talking about positivity right now? The answer is a resounding yes. In fact, we need positivity in hard times even more than we do in good times. It’s been said that in good times, positivity is a luxury item, but in times of trial, it becomes a lifesaving necessity.

Research from the field of positive psychology shows that when we are positive, we are more engaged, creative, motivated, energetic, resilient, and productive. Happiness researcher, Shawn Achor, calls this “the happiness advantage,” because our brains perform better when positive than when negative, neutral, or stressed.

How can you be more positive and resilient during challenging times? Three things stand out from the positive psychology research.

Increase your level of optimism

Optimism is not just wishful thinking, it is the belief that your behavior and effort will eventually make a difference, especially when you’re working with the right people. Rational optimism realistically acknowledges risks and challenges, but encourages your brain to adapt quickly and forge a new path forward. Optimism transforms helplessness to possibility.

How can you increase your levels of optimism and happiness? Below are some practices that can help.

  • Carefully craft the first and last 30 minutes of your day. Because your mental resources are likely to be lower and more vulnerable during the first and last 30 minutes of your day, try creating bookends that are intentionally packed with things that will lift you up, build up your spirits, and calm you down. Avoid activities like reading the news or email, checking social media, or speaking to a customer or client. Instead, guard that time and fill it with positive activities like reading books or scripture, journaling, listening to music, running, meditation, cooking, or conversation.
  • Practice gratitude. Take the 21-day gratitude challenge by writing down three things you’re grateful for every day. This can be shared in a journal, around a dinner table, or during a bedtime routine. To gain maximum benefit, the three things expressed each day cannot be repeats from previous days. Several studies have shown this exercise retrains your brain to look for what is going right in your life and increases your optimism level. It has been likened to a “background app” in your brain, constantly scanning your world for anything positive.

Focus on social support and relationships

Across studies of well-being, good relationships are the best predictor of happiness. In one study, participants standing with a friend perceived the slope of a hill in front of them as 20% less steep than when standing in front of the hill alone. Social support changes the way we view challenges and how equipped we feel to tackle them.

Here are some ways to increase the quality of your professional and personal relationships.

  • In a work environment, express concern for your employees, not just about the work they’re doing. When possible, separate messages about projects, deadlines, and responsibilities from messages checking on personal well-being. Make time for one-on-one check-ins, as well as group meetings. Especially now that we’re working from home, people need social interaction more than ever. Build in extra time during meetings to talk. Allow team members to share what they’re going through – from challenges, to coping tips, to what they’re grateful for. Talk builds social knowledge and connection, which enables trust.
  • Kindness is the premier feature of healthy relationships. Renowned marital researcher John Gottman found that in healthy, resilient marriages positive sentiments outweigh negative sentiments by a ratio of 5-to-1. The same principle applies in work relationships. Positivity, appreciation, and kindness not only create a happy work culture, but act as a buffer against irritability. This is particularly helpful during the tense, uncertain times we’re going through now. Take time to notice the helpful things your colleagues and loved ones are doing, and notice how well they handle difficult situations they’re facing. Most important, tell them what you see them doing right and that you appreciate them.

Reframe stress as a challenge rather than a threat

Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal reveals that your perceptions about stress are more important than how much stress you experience. Reframing stress as something positive changes your approach to dealing with problems. Think of your pounding heart as preparing you for action, while breathing faster is helping to carry oxygen to your brain. Your heightened physical reaction is your body preparing you to do your best.

  • When faced with a stressful situation, tap into your strengths from previous challenges. What have you overcome that you’re proud of? What did you learn from it? What quality or strength got you through? Reflecting on past successes, writing them down, and sharing them with others reminds you of your ability to handle difficult things and encourages you to focus on the significance of what you learned from the experience.
  • Instead of fight, flight, or freeze, think tend and befriend. UCLA psychologist Shelley Taylor’s research revealed that while some stress hormones prompt you to defend and protect yourself, other stress hormones encourage you to reach out and bond with others. Leaning on your network during trying times strengthens your ability to endure, and helping others during stressful times buffers your health from the damaging effects of stress.

When times get tough, recall your hard-earned strengths and tell yourself you’re up for the challenge. And don’t think you have to go it alone. Let your support system help you and freely give of yourself to them. Remember, the hill seems much less steep when we’re standing together.

To learn more strategies and tools for accessing the power of positivity, register for the University of Utah Executive Education’s “Growing in Uncertain Times” four-part series, features Eccles School of Business faculty in video lectures and live webinars. Gain access to four online modules designed to help professionals with the most pressing issues they face at this time.

  • Positivity Through Adversity, Jennifer Cummings
  • Navigating Change Through Uncertainty, Bonita Austin
  • Managing Finances During and After a Crisis, JB Henriksen
  • Personal Empowerment Through Writing, Kathryn Cañas


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