How do we hold on to positive feelings in the face of the unexpected diagnosis, the child with special needs, the job that disappears, or the deployment of a spouse?
The definition of happiness most agreed upon by neuroscientists, psychiatrists, economists, positive psychologists and Buddhist Monks is not of happiness as the state of bursting with glee but of happiness as a sense of well being, contentment, the feeling of living a meaningful life, of utilizing one’s gifts, of living with thought and purpose.
Positive and Negative Feelings Can Co-Exist
Research tells us and perhaps your personal experience confirms that positive and negative feelings can both occur during a stressful period of time. That’s not to say that they occur at the same time or that you should “Smile when your heart is breaking.” Rather, it means that tears and fears are not incompatible with laughter, enjoyment, love or mastery as we face life’s challenges.
Positive and Negative Feelings are Both Adaptive in the Face of Crisis
A closer look reveals that not only is there a co-occurrence of positive and negative feelings in stressful situations but that they serve different but important functions.
Negative Feelings carry direct and immediate adaptive benefits in situations that threaten survival. In the face of danger, for example, fear narrows our thought-action repertoire for fight/flight decisions.
It makes adaptive sense to be nervous and singularly focused when you are gathering information to make a medical decision for your partner.
Positive Feelings like joy, interest, contentment and love have been shown to enhance our coping by “broadening and building” on our momentary thought –action repertoire in stressful situations. They foster action, spark the urge to explore, to savor the moment, to be creative, etc.
As such, they mediate negative feelings, build up our reserves for coping at the rough times and may even serve to undo the negative physiological effects associated with negative emotions.
One study revealed that after inducing a negative feeling ( fear) in participants with a film, the participants in the group who were shown a follow-up film aimed at inducing contentment and amusement as opposed to neutral films or those inducing sadness had a faster recovery to baseline on measures of cardiovascular reactivity.
How Can We Generate Positive Feelings in Stressful Situations?
Here are three strategies that have been found to increase positive feelings in stressful situations.
Positive Reappraisal – This refers to the cognitive strategy of reframing a situation to see it in a positive light.
- In a study by Moskowitz, Folkman, Collette & Vittinghoff of caregivers of terminally ill partners, those who had positively reappraised the potentially painful and exhausting caregiver role to be a demonstration of love and a way to preserve the dignity of their ill partners, experienced increases in positive affect (feelings) at different times both before and after the death of their partner.
- When I asked some Military Spouses if it is possible to feel happy while their partner is deployed, they freely admitted that it wasn’t easy but that the times of fear and sadness were offset by their love for their partner and their sense of purpose. They believed strongly in the connection between holding down the home front and the feelings and focus of their partner thousands of miles away.
- As one military spouse said “Happiness is about attitude ….”
Problem-Focused Coping- Most often what exacerbates negative feelings in the face of life’s hardships is the feeling of helplessness – of being robbed of control. Problem -Focused Coping refers to identifying situation specific, attainable goals which make possible positive feelings of effectiveness and mastery. Recently I was moved by this example:
Returning from the airport with a car service, I was surprised to hear that the driver, who was telling me that he was an unemployed teacher married to a teacher, had just begun dialysis four times a week. When I asked how he was doing with that, he happily pointed to the picture of his cheerleader daughter on the dashboard and told me he had too many important things in his life to get down about dialysis. At the moment he needed to work to make money for her college, he was researching donor lists and he was having a great time refurbishing a 1970 fiat spider that he couldn’t wait to drive!
Infusing Ordinary Events with Positive Meaning
In a study of stress and coping in caregivers of people with AIDS, Folkman (1997), asked participants to describe something they did or something that happened during that stressful time that actually made them feel good. To his surprise 99.5% of the 1,794 participants immediately had an example. It seems that in the midst of difficult times, one way to enhance positive feelings is by infusing an ordinary event with positive meaning. Whether it is consciously or unconsciously created, embraced and remembered to offset negative feelings – it seems we can enjoy and remember a glimpse of the sunlight even when we are still in the storm.
One year, one of my children was in ICU for many weeks. I can still feel the happiness the family experienced when he was moved back to a hospital room and requested and ate a “Big Mac” again!
Positive reactions and feelings in the face of life’s challenges are not limited to the toughest and the bravest.