Go back to early 2020.
If you had known your world would be turned upside down and that you’d be locked in your home, that you’d possibly lose your job or be forced to work a job that might make you sick, that you’d be kept away from family and friends, told to wear a mask, and become fearful for the lives of your loved ones, you might have assumed you’d lose it.
But guess what? You probably didn’t. You may have even surprised yourself with how well you adapted to a world gone mad.
We’re not just making this up. This is based on a survey we conducted to find out how people responded, reacted, and adapted to life in a pandemic, posing such questions as what’s been hardest for you, what’s given you the most pleasure, and what have been your coping strategies. We called the survey “A Portrait of This Moment,” and sent it to a diverse group of hundreds of people from age 18 to 85, in a wide variety of socioeconomic circumstances, people who’ve been fired or furloughed, essential workers, people working from home, and students from high school to higher ed managing remote learning. We created this survey not only to gather information, but to offer people an opportunity to reflect upon their experiences. (If you’d like to take the survey yourself, here’s a link.)
When we created this survey, we expected to hear a lot about people’s pain, frustration, and anxiety. Obviously many people have worried about their health, jobs, and finances, their education or their children’s education, as has been documented in preliminary findings of a Census Bureau survey. But what surprised us most about the results was the spirit of positivity expressed by so many people.
For some, the word has a hollow ring. Chasing positivity when life is hard may seem like a luxury you just can’t afford. But as we found in this survey, positivity is a survival mechanism.
What’s more, depending on people’s personalities and their circumstances, they use three distinct positivity strategies. Each works on us in a different way, but all do the same thing: Reframe a bad situation into something better.
1. Overcoming the Negative. As one restaurant worker who’d lost his job put it, “I’m not letting myself freak out, which has helped me a lot.” In a nutshell, this first positivity strategy is simple, direct, and blunt. It’s the most basic form of positivity: not being negative. But there’s more to it. Having the will to face hardship while refusing to give in to negativity is a way to become the leader of yourself, to build inner strength, cultivate self-reliance, and create a bracing sense of independence. For instance, a graphic designer who lost a significant portion of his client work wrote, “I’m reframing the negative into the positive, thinking to myself, ‘In 10 years this will just be a memory.’” Or as a warehouse worker wrote, “My coping strategy is to suck it up and get over it.” Refusing to succumb to the negative isn’t Pollyanna-ish; it’s how we rely on our inner resources to keep moving forward in the face of bad news. article continues after advertisement
2. Gratitude. Whereas overcoming negativity is about strengthening the self through the power of will, gratitude is about lifting the self by connecting to the goodness outside of you. It’s the Glass-Half-Full syndrome. In our survey, gratitude was the most commonly identified emotion. Interestingly, like love and beauty, gratitude is in the eye of the beholder. People felt gratitude for their friends, God, dogs, cats, frontline workers, a walk in the woods, a bar selling take-away martinis, an online improv class, a chance to pause and savor the present, a reason to have deep, meaningful discussions with forgotten friends, appreciation for employers who continued to pay salaries, and of course the basic stuff—health, a home, and family. (Family was the number-one source of gratitude.) Being grateful doesn’t mean your problems disappear, but it does help you to see that even when life is bad, it is also good. A bus driver wrote that during his shifts, he’d focus on being thankful for each and every rider who wore a mask. And a first-time mother whose husband lost his retail job took a minute every morning with her one-year-old to list all the good things they had, and then express thanks for them.
3. Action. Whereas overcoming negativity is a choice about what to think, and feeling gratitude is a choice about what to see, taking action is a choice about what to do. As Carl Jung said, “You are what you do.” Rather than passively sitting on the couch, slipping into unproductive moods and waiting for things to return to normal, a surprising number of respondents identified action as a coping mechanism. They did things to keep themselves engaged or challenged, physically active or learning something new, helping others, or expressing themselves. People made masks, delivered groceries to elders, formed support groups, and checked in with isolated friends. Others perfected handstands, swam laps, ran miles, climbed trees, and did face yoga. Others learned foreign languages, taught themselves how to play Cajun-style washboard, wrote comedy skits, drew political cartoons, or took up bird watching. One woman said she was proudest of cutting her own hair. Another painted rocks, hid them around her neighborhood, and anonymously sent out clues for neighbors to find them. An avowed anti-athlete amazed himself by taking up jogging. And an introverted news editor made a new friend online who shared his passion for wooden pipe making.
Seventy-five years ago, a psychiatrist identified the power of positivity as a survival mechanism. After losing his parents, brother, and wife in concentration camps, Victor Frankl, himself an Auschwitz survivor, made a study of how people cope in a crisis. He identified the same three positivity strategies that we found in our survey, although he used different terms. Frankl defined overcoming the negative as “enduring suffering nobly,” gratitude as “looking for the good in the world,” and action as “doing productive work.” In his groundbreaking book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl made the case that these three positivity strategies are about much more than coping. They are about “our primary human motivation to find meaning in life.”
Please click here if you’d like to take the survey: A Portrait of This Moment.
Our story “Are You More Positive Than You Think You Are” first appeared in Psychology Today. To see more of our stories in Psychology Today, you can find them here.