Positive Psychology

Why You Shouldn’t Totally Write Off 2020

Each one of us has at some point acknowledged that 2020 was really a dumpster fire of a year. There is no getting around the fact that the pandemic affected us all, among other global and national challenges that need no repeating for the millionth time here. But as easy as it is to write off the entire year as something that should be shoved under a rug and never discussed or thought about again, that also discounts some of the smaller highlights that got us through the year. 

Positive psychology, promoted by psychologist and researcher Martin Seligman, encourages individuals to adopt—you guessed it—a positive outlook on life. But not in the way that Instagram influencers often encourage toxic positivity. Benefits of positive psychology include increased self-esteem, improved relationships, and a better outlook on life. To me, those all sound like things we are very much in need of as we see to the start of 2021. This isn’t to ignore all the seemingly insurmountable negatives from the past year, however focusing only on those discounts the little moments that help us get through those huge, life-altering events that are usually out of our control. What we can do is tap back into personal strengths, gratitude, wellbeing, and feelings of hope, compassion, and optimism that motivate us to get through the day. 

Here’s what else the research on positive psychology says:

  • Expressing gratitude makes us happier
    • Never underestimate the power of saying thank-you about anything to anyone (and meaning it!)
  • Performing acts of kindness makes us happier
    • Big or small; to a stranger or a friend
  • Demonstrating empathy towards others releases oxytocin (makes us happier) 
    • Giving hugs or sharing physical touch helps everyone feel more connected and cared for 
  • Happiness makes us happy 
    • Just as doing things increases motivation, doing happy things makes us more happy!

But how do you practice positive psychology

  • Focus on positive experiences
    • People overestimate how much money is going to affect their happiness—however spending money on other people or on experiences provides more happiness than materials for ourselves.
  • Focus on the present
    • Happiness is a present-oriented state that is always in flux. Exploring and focusing on what you need in a given moment can help you increase your happiness. 
  • Balance happiness with meaning
    • Exploring your personal values through past memories or future goals can help you develop a sense of wellbeing (eudaimonia), and that is a deeper form of life satisfaction than fleeting, surface-level happiness
  • Commit to your happiness
    • It is possible to practice a positive outlook on life. Key ingredients to include in each day are a sense of autonomy, competence, and a connection to others.  
  • Use Martin Seligman’s PERMA acronym:
    • Positive Emotions: do more of the things that make you happy
    • Engagement: pursue your interests and develop your skills
    • Relationships: work on improving your relationships with others
    • Meaning: seek out meaning through social or personal opportunities 
    • Accomplishment/Achievement: develop and pursue your goals 

Positive psychology encourages us to pay attention to those moments and practice gratitude for them.

Now take five minutes and think about all the positive memories you have from 2020 (yes, really). Maybe you found a new job, adopted a pet, nurtured a succulent, took up knitting, or reorganized your living room. Maybe you read a book for the first time in months or tried a new video game. Chances are there was something new you tried and enjoyed, even if it was baking a single loaf of bread all the way back in March. 

Write them all down and take a moment to appreciate yourself for doing each and every one of those things. Tell yourself the story about how it helped you get through 2020.  

A lot of these memories are becoming lost in the struggles of the year as a whole. Without taking the time to acknowledge them, we may feel like we lost a year of our lives when in reality, we found ways to help the days pass more easily. Recognizing those moments can help us get through future challenges too, as we begin to transition back to “normal life.” Find ways to practice positive psychology in your day-to-day life, even when things are mostly tough. In the wise words of Ferris Bueller: “If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Or in the spirit of Martin Seligman, if you don’t stop and reflect on the good in life once in a while, you could overlook it. 

By the way, here are a few more good things that happened in 2020. 

  1. Family-owned movie drive-ins made a comeback. 
  2. A record number of Americans turned out to vote in the national election.
  3. NASA named its headquarters building after Mary W. Jackson, their first Black female engineer. 
  4. Carbon dioxide emissions decreased. 
  5. A baby panda (Xiao Qi Ji) was born at the National Zoo! 

If you need help learning how to put positive psychology in practice, email or call us at (217) 203-2008 to schedule an appointment.