It’s no surprise that people are feeling more stressed, anxious, lonely and depressed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But there are some people who are not just doing okay, but are feeling gratitude for what they have and finding joy in the small things.
A new survey by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has uncovered what fuels these positive emotions, even during these uncertain times.
Researchers collected data in April 2020 from 600 adults across the United States about their experiences and behavior in the past day.
What they found is that exercising, self-care activities such as engaging in hobbies or just relaxing, or spiritual activities, such as prayer or meditation, help bring on positive emotions.
“Most people know that these things are important, of course. But they are especially so these days as we stay at home to slow the spread of the coronavirus,” said Barbara L. Frederickson, the Kenan Distinguished Professor in the UNC-Chapel Hill Department of Psychology and Neuroscience and director of the PEP lab.
“The tie between time spent on these sorts of activities and positive states was particularly strong for people who felt more of the negatives states,” she continued. “So, the more stressed, anxious, lonely or depressed you are, the more it matters that you take the time to exercise and care for yourself.”
What doesn’t help create positive emotions? Scrolling passively through social media sites, say the researchers in the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab at UNC-Chapel Hill.
The researchers’ data showed that the amount of time people spend passively browsing social media — scrolling through feeds and looking for updates — was not only unrelated to positive states, but strongly linked to anxiety and other negative feelings.
“If your feeds are like ours, they’re mostly composed of distressing news and politicking. Keeping up with these endless streams is far from uplifting,” said Frederickson.
People who spend more time actively interacting with others experience more positive and fewer negative emotions, the survey discovered. This was true for introverts and extroverts alike, and especially for people living alone, according to the researchers’ data.
“Importantly, it matters how one is interacting with others,” said Michael M. Prinzing, a graduate fellow at the Parr Center for Ethics at UNC-Chapel Hill who works in the PEP lab. “Time spent interacting face-to-face or by voice or video call came with more positive emotions, whereas time spent in text-based interaction did not.”
Interacting with others does not seem to help much when you can’t see or hear the people you are communicating with, the researchers said.
“This was a useful wake-up call for us. We thought we were doing ourselves good by keeping up via text. But the evidence suggests this isn’t as valuable as we thought,” said Prinzing. “It’s much harder to establish a meaningful connection with someone via text.”
The researchers say it is a good time to bring back the humble phone call and take advantage of the many video-calling platforms.
Finally, those who went out of their way to help others experienced more positive states than those who didn’t, the researchers discovered.
“Crises provide ample opportunities for kindness,” Frederickson said. “You can donate face masks or other equipment to healthcare workers. If you’re healthy, you can donate much-needed blood. Such altruistic acts aren’t just good for those receiving help. They’re good for those giving it as well.”
Resilience — handling life’s challenges and bouncing back from setbacks — increases not from avoiding negative states, but from increasing positive emotional states, the researchers added.
“It’s more important than usual for people to stay connected and help each other,” said Frederickson.