Why optimism, self-awareness and compassion are essential in the aftermath of COVID-19
Covid-19 is arguably the biggest single, shared, challenge we’ve faced. Bringing the world to a standstill, creating massive uncertainty, the prospect of unemployment for so many and an agonisingly high number of deaths. So, what is there to be optimistic about and why bother?
We are in the midst of a very real storm that has little regard for what we know to be our everyday “normal”. Some argue  that suffering, failure and setbacks have transformative power and positive psychology has embraced the process, calling it Post-Traumatic Growth, or the self-improvement one undergoes after experiencing life challenges.
So, how can the current storm help move us forward to a better place, and why is the behaviour we model to our children so vital?
During the pandemic Bounce Forward has responded to provide hundreds of parents and those working with children and young people information and training on the teachings of positive psychology to help them, help their children develop resilience to Covid-19. I believe that this moment in time offers a unique opportunity to allow our children to grow from the experience and be remembered as the generation who grew from the pandemic, richer, nicer and more resilient human beings.
“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” (Marie Curie)
I am confident that most adults want children to be happy and to have hope for their future. When faced with difficulty it is easy to be pessimistic. I am a natural pessimist, it comes very easy to me, but I am also passionate about teaching children and young people about optimism as part of a personal resilience toolkit. This will support and help them to withstand setbacks, move forward with hope and grow to be compassionate adults.
You may agree with me, that this type of teaching and learning should be a core feature of the curriculum in all UK schools? Health Education becomes statutory in schools from September 2020, enabling parents to now ask their children’s schools how they plan to teach this. Please ask and do insist it has a regular slot on the timetable and is taught by teachers who have the right knowledge, skills and commitment to it.
Studies have shown that the circumstances we find ourselves in (and even really difficult circumstances) actually don’t account for how happy we feel . What makes a difference is the action we choose to take, the way we choose to think about our circumstances and the self-belief that we can be effective. The knowledge of these choices is empowering if we have the skills and crippling if we don’t.
Optimistic thinking is not the same as positive thinking. Learned Optimism  is the ability to focus on the positive whilst not ignoring the negative. The idea is that if there is a choice (and there often is) that it is more productive and helpful to pay attention to the positive that can be found in amongst the negative. This is really important if the desire is to move forward to find a solution. As the alternative is to focus only on the negative which means we are far more likely to think ‘what is the point’ and give up .
Flexible and Realistic Thinking
To teach optimism, first we have to understand the link between thoughts, feelings and behaviour. This is possible using a well-established and simple Cognitive Behavioural Model  that helps break down situations into facts, beliefs and consequences. The theory suggests that when things happen, we interpret them deciding what has caused the situation, or the implications of the situation. It is our interpretation or beliefs in that moment that influence our emotion and our behaviour.
Imagine 3 people in the same situation – stuck in a traffic jam.
- Person one thinks ‘some idiot has been driving too fast’, feels angry and beeps their horn.
- Person two thinks ‘there is nothing I can do about it’, feels calm and takes the opportunity to listen to their favourite tune.
- Person three thinks’ I am going to be late to pick up the children from school’, feels anxious and clutches their head in their hands.
One situation, three different responses (emotions and behaviour) because each person beliefs about the situation were different.
This simple understanding offers choices, if I don’t like how I am feeling and behaving then I can reframe my thinking. It leads to a sophisticated understanding of self as patterns emerge, in these types of situations I can react in an unhelpful/helpful way. The ability to clearly explain what is going on for me – this happened, the facts were x, y, z. I believed ……. to be true and I felt ……. and responded by doing ……….
This foundational learning along with layering the learning to be able to challenge unhelpful and pessimistic thinking has been proven to see sustained long-term positive outcomes , but please don’t make the assumption that the goal is for young people to feel happy all of the time. Almost by contrast the goal is to help young people explore alternatives, look for evidence for what they believe to be true, challenge their viewpoint and develop the psychological muscle to overcome setbacks and make the most of opportunities.
This can be difficult because we form habits in our thinking. We have biases that are strengthened by what we see and what we believe to be true. On the one hand our brain works extremely efficiently drawing on past experience to explain the causes of events, noticing the unusual and anticipating the future. On the other hand, our thinking is flawed, we make mistakes, we miss information and our thinking can be fixed and biased . This limits our resilience, our ability to think critically, problem solve effectively and reduces our capacity to understand and have compassion for others.
I started by talking about how choices can be both empowering, if we have the ‘know how’ and crippling if we don’t. The sense of agency we can feel is helped or hindered by our sense of the outcome being possible and our belief that we can be effective in reaching it . The belief is grounded in reality because one or more of the following statements is true .
- I believe I can do this because I have learnt through doing something similar before.
- I know someone like me that has been able to do this.
- I have a strategy that I think will work that I have talked through with someone.
My emotional state is calm, and I am physically able to do what is needed.This self-belief not only enables us to be optimistic and remain hopeful about the future. This is achieved by teaching skills and providing the opportunity to practice and master the skills. Resilience is developed when young people become role models for each other learning how to solve problems together, recognising the benefits of different perspectives and despite our differences there is so much that we share, which leads me to compassion.
Compassion comes when we are faced with another person’s suffering and we want to do something to relieve that suffering . Learning how to be compassionate starts with understanding emotions, the range of emotions we can feel and what happens in our bodies and minds when we experience certain emotions. This understanding offers the opportunity to first understand our own emotions and then to build empathy, the ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another person. It is this understanding that drives us to be compassionate because we can understand what someone else is going through.
Stop for a moment and ask yourself – how many emotions can I name and when do I pay attention to what I am feeling?
I would hazard a guess that you started with feelings like happy, sad, angry, frustrated, annoyed and much further into your thinking comes emotions such as receptive, mellow, impatient, stimulated. I would also guess that you mostly only think about what you are feeling when you have strong emotions, and less likely to think about them in everyday ‘normal’ situations. It is so important that we recognise the range of emotions we can feel, both positive and negative, because all emotions are telling us something. Our emotional state at any given time helps us understand if the way we are feeling is helping or hindering us in that moment.
By recognising the differences between positive and negative emotions and the associated levels of energy that are spent (or wasted) with strong emotions, we can develop strategies that help us manage our emotions and therefore our energy, and ourselves more effectively.
Positive emotions can often take a back seat, while we pay attention to negative emotions, but they really are important. When we feel good, (happy, content, relaxed, at ease, receptive), we are better equipped to problem solve and think creatively in the moment, which in turn build our personal resilience such as social connections, physical and psychological resources . So positive emotions are not a ‘nice to have’ they are essential in the face of adversity, so we make the most of opportunities and thrive.
One of my personal lifelines during the pandemic is knowing what makes me feel good. Both short 1-2 minute and longer activities that I know make me feel positive emotions because they act as my recovery tool to help me through the times when I am feeling burnt out and exhausted.
Make an intentional choice each day to embark on an activity as a way to recover, to relax, take some time out and restore energy. Be compassionate to yourself and in turn it will help us extend compassion to others. Here are just a few ideas to get you started.
Mindfulness In Schools are offering daily drop in ‘Sit Together’ sessions to nourish, support and connect us with each other. Free and open to adults and children together or adults on their own.
Action for Happiness have a free calendar that has daily actions for each month of the year to help us keep calm, stay safe and be kind as we face this global crisis together.
Five Ways to Wellbeing are evidenced based actions we can take to improve our mental health and wellbeing. Trying these things could help feel more positive and able to get the most out of life.
Making the best of the current situation and bouncing forward will not be easy. It will take hard work, mental muscle and collective determination, but I do believe there is a unique opportunity for our children to grow from the experience and take with them the things that matter most. Optimism and compassion can be viewed as ‘soft’, ‘nice to haves’ but not things to focus on while we deal with the reality. I am arguing here that there is nothing soft about them, they are essential and a part of core learning we should be teaching in school. Understanding the mechanics of resilience in the same way we teach our children how to add up and subtract in maths or form a sentence in English, I believe should be part of our response to this situation and not only do we have the evidence of the difference it will make, we have the know how to achieve it.
- Calhoun and Tedeschi 2014: Handbook of posttraumatic growth: Research and practice.
- Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M., & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology, 9, 111-131.
- Seligman, M. E. P. (1991). Learned optimism. New York: Knopf.
- Seligman, M. E. P., Kaslow, N. J., Alloy, L. B., Peterson, C., Tanenbaum, R., & Abramson, L. Y. (1984). Attributional style and depressive symptoms among children. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 93, 235–238.
- Aaron, T. Beck, M.D. (1997) “The Past and Future of Cognitive Therapy.’ Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research Vol 6:276-284
- Butler, A. C., Chapman, J. E., Forman, E. M., & Beck, A. T. (2006). The empirical status of cognitive-behavioral therapy: A review of meta-analyses.Cardemil,Clinical Psychology Review, 26, 17–31.
- Nolen-Hoeksema, Susan, Joan S. Girgus, and Martin E. Seligman. “Learned helplessness in children: A longitudinal study of depression, achievement, and explanatory style.” Journal of personality and social psychology 51.2 (1986): 435.
- Snyder, C. R., Harris, C., Anderson, J. R., Holleran, S. A., Irving, L. M., Sigmon, S. T., Yoshinobu, L., Gibb, J., Langelle, C., & Harney, P. (1991). The will and the ways: Development and validation of an individual-differences measure of hope. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 570–585.
- Bandura, A., (1993) “Perceived self-efficacy in cognitive development and functioning.” Educational psychologist 28.2: 117-148.
- Bandura, A., (2012) “On the Functional Properties of Perceived Self-Efficacy Revisited.” Journal of Management 38.1: 9-4
- Strauss, Clara & Lever Taylor, Billie & Gu, Jenny & Kuyken, Willem & Baer, Ruth & Jones, Fergal & Cavanagh, Kate. (2016). What is Compassion and How Can We Measure it? A Review of Definitions and Measures. Clinical Psychology Review. 47. 10.1016/j.cpr.2016.05.004.
- Fredrickson BL. The role of positive emotions in positive psychology. The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. Am Psychol. 2001;56(3):218‐226. doi:10.1037//0003-066x.56.3.218