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Top stories of 2020: How to think positively when it feels like the world is falling apart

Pandemics, tragedies and disasters aren’t going away anytime soon. But positive thinking can help you cope.

2020 has been just. . . sigh. With multiple underlying slow-burning stressors punctuated by natural disasters and personal tragedies, the year’s been, well, rough. We could all use a dose of positivity.

Fortunately, the U has a few experts that specialize in positive thinking. Through the Applied Positive Psychology Undergraduate Certificate program, administered through the College of Education’s Department of Educational Psychology, students learn “the study of human strengths, positive emotions and well-being.” We spoke with Trish Henrie-Barrus, assistant professor of educational psychology and one of the certificate program’s co-founders, about how to start thinking positively—even in 2020.

Collectively, as a society, how are we doing at thinking positively?

With COVID-19, things aren’t going well. This pandemic seems to be affecting college students in an extreme way. They are unsure of their internships, future jobs, etc. Our politicians aren’t promoting positivity and the media is negative. We also have lost a feeling of respect for our institutions and our leaders which contributes to negativity.

Positivity needs to be practiced and it has to be a mindset. Fear is the opposite of positivity and I think people are fearful right now.

Tell us about the positive psychology certificate program. Who is it for and what do participants gain from it?

This is an undergrad certificate program, but we have many grad students take the classes as well. Students can choose from 15 courses with three required courses and four electives. Many students from all over campus take these classes, including nursing students, business students, social work and other students who will interact with people in their careers.

What are the benefits of a positive outlook?

There is a lot of research that shows that practicing positive psychological skills such as mindfulness, gratitude and optimism affects physical health. Stress levels go down. Blood pressure goes down and overall health increases. I use this when I work with my patients in my private practice. If they focus on the solution instead of staying stuck in the problem, focus on strengths instead of weaknesses, and look at the good in life, their depression and anxiety will go down.

How can a person start today to change the way they think?

We now know that the brain is subject to neuroplasticity which is the brain’s ability to change. The way we think is embedded in our neuropathways but can change with practice. Being aware of our negative thinking is the first step to change. Then we need to stop those negative thoughts and practice over and over positive thinking. We know it takes 27 days to break a habit but 60 days to create a new habit. So positive thinking over and over will help the brain to change. We can also practice gratitude each day which literally changes the brain as well.

For many, 2020 means the ongoing traumas of the pandemic, systemic racism, economic hardship and climate change to name a few. How can we have a positive outlook amid these everyday challenges?

It’s really about what we choose to concentrate on. Happy people have four main characteristics: They have good relationships, they have meaning and purpose in their lives, they practice gratitude and they set goals. We can all do these things even when chaos seems to be all around us. Happiness and being positive is a choice. It doesn’t come from externals but who we are inside.

The year has also seen acute disasters like earthquakes, fires, hurricanes and windstorms. How can we mentally prepare for such disasters, and how can we react to them positively?

Again, it is looking for the good in life and if you look you will find it. We see what we want to see. Some of this starts when we are pretty young. We need to teach our children to be resilient. There will always be hard times. If we learn that we can overcome problems, it will generalize. It’s about believing in yourself. You may not know how you’re going to overcome something, but if you believe, you’ll figure out a way.

It’s also about being grateful for the good. After 9/11, a study found that those who were grateful for different things about their deceased loved ones—maybe for the vacation they had taken, or that they had hugged each other before they left for work—cut their grieving times in half. Gratitude is so important in negative times. It literally changes the chemistry in the brain in a good way.

What else is important to improving mental resilience?

Meditation and feeling grounded by being mindful are really important as well. In times of chaos or fear, we need to feel safe and secure.  We can do that by staying in the moment, visualizing and practicing meditation.

Read more from Henrie-Barrus about positive psychology here.

Learn more about the Applied Positive Psychology Undergraduate Certificate here.