Positive Psychology and Learnings About Mental Health During the Lockdown
August 11, 2020
In the past fifteen years, positive psychology and the use of positive psychology interventions have seen a surge of public interest. The western cultural narrative around taking care of one’s mental health has partly shifted from being a taboo to becoming a trendy topic.
Western millennials and generation Z have to some extent freed themselves from previous generations' stigma around mental health and seeking professional help to improve well-being. Mental health startups are raising millions in Silicon Valley and countless lifestyle magazines include gratitude exercises next to the vegan diet tips and yoga poses intended to increase well-being.
Social media is filled with lifestyle gurus offering positive psychology snippets that promise relief from anxiety and a path to feeling happier. This type of unsolicited laymen advice often attracts thousands of likes and comments on social media, yet the laymen advice found on these platforms is rarely based on empirical evidence.
So what is positive psychology actually all about? To put it very simply, the essence of positive psychology is helping people to uncover, explore, and practice their strengths and talents. And positive psychology interventions are activities aimed at cultivating and producing positive feelings, positive behaviors, or positive cognitions. These interventions tend to focus on increasing well-being and decreasing levels of depression.
Studies with thousands of participants confirm the effect when it comes to making people feel overall happier and lowering levels of depression. Sometimes the studies show small effects sometimes bigger - but they do show significant effects.
But is there one model that fits all to become happier and reduce low moods?
That’s what I set out to discover in my research. 45 participants in my study were asked to either do positive psychology interventions based on their top personality strengths or gratitude exercises for 20 minutes daily during 14 days.
Before I get into what I found, it’s crucial to know that the study took place in the beginning of the lockdown with a European sample of women and men between 23 to 40 years old. What people reported more than anything is how the coronavirus pandemic had negatively impacted their everyday lives and mental health. Even the people who reported high subjective happiness and little stress and low moods were struggling during the lockdown.
Other studies have found similar things. A Danish study published in April found a significant increase in the levels of anxiety and depression in 2.458 participants during the lockdown, and an American study showed that people were eight times as likely to fit criteria for serious mental illness compared to a similar group surveyed in 2018. This study also showed that those between the age of 18 to 44, were more adversely affected than older people.
Now, what did I find? Well, not very much happened with the overall levels of happiness of the participants. but when it came to levels of depression, anxiety, and stress there were significant decreases in the participants who did activities based on their personality strengths. The people who did gratitude exercises also showed decreases in their levels of low moods, anxiety, and stress but they were not as high.
What learnings can be drawn from the study?
- The pandemic has had a very negative effect on our mental health overall, if you’re feeling blue at the moment you’re certainly not alone.
- Doing activities that you actually enjoy and that are based on your personality strengths can decrease low moods, anxiety, and stress levels in as little as 14 days.
- Don’t expect miracles by using positive psychology but if you are experiencing mild to moderate levels of depression, anxiety, and stress - positive psychology interventions can help you feel a bit better!
- If you’re not feeling better doing gratefulness exercises it might just mean you’re better off doing something that is individually designed for your personality. Don’t give up on positive psychology just yet!
- Positive psychology interventions should only be used as a complement to psychotherapy or medication in individuals who have clinical issues. This study showed that the people who were struggling the most with their mental health dropped out of the study.
- Finally, we all need to be put in the right soil to flourish in life, and dealing with the constraints of the pandemic has been very challenging for many people. The tools from positive psychology can help us develop our strengths and build resilience by discovering and nourishing the resources that already exist within us.
If you’re interested in discovering your personality strengths and how to apply them in new ways this website is a great start.