Resilience in the chaos: Harnessing positive psychology in times of change

Posted in : HR Updates ROI on 4 May 2020
Emer Hinphey
Think People Consulting
Issues covered:

What do you see when you think of psychology? Do you view psychology as a scientific approach to mental health issues?

If so, you’re missing a large, crucial part of psychology – Positive Psychology, described by Peterson as “the scientific approach to studying human thoughts, feelings and behaviour, with a focus on strengths instead of weaknesses, building the good in life instead of repairing the bad, and taking the lives of average people up to “great”, instead of focusing solely on moving those who are struggling to ‘normal’”.

This pandemic has amplified the importance of positive psychology for us all.  Uncertainty, fear, change, loss of control, distancing of our social relationships, are all things our brains dislike. All things that create a threat response.  Covid-19 has brought these things in abundance.

Negativity Bias and Threat Response

Our Negativity Bias and Threat Response compound the very real issues that have.

Negativity Bias explains our tendency to pay more attention to bad things and overlook good things, which is likely a result of evolution.  Earlier in human history, paying attention to negative threats was literally a matter of life and death.  This tendency to think worst-case or go to the negative is highly attuned at the best of times – there is plenty of fodder for us now.  Even knowing this is helpful and we can work on it, re-programme our thinking with focus and repetition.

Our Threat Response is a similar survival mechanism.  Scanning for threat and quickly responding to that Sabre Tooth Tiger was essential for our ancestor’s survival.  We now know, as evidenced by neuroscientific research, that our brain processes social threat in the same way. The existence of these ‘threats’ can trigger a cascade of stress hormones.

David Rock in ‘Our Brains at Work’ identifies 5 core social threats:

Social – Our relative importance to others

Certainty – Ability to know and predict the future

Autonomy – Sense of control over events

Relatedness  – Sense of social connection

Fairness - Perception of how fairly we treated 

Do any look relevant today?

Think about how many of these we mentioned in the first paragraph.  The good news is there are techniques to counter the effects of stress, manage negativity bias and our threat response. We have shared just a selection below. 

The Five Facets of Wellbeing

Positive Psychology aims to shift our focus away from the negative stimuli which our ancestors were dependent on, and move our focus to the positive stimuli which can help us ‘thrive’, to live a happy and fulfilled life in the 21st century.

Here are the five facets of well-being according to Positive Psychology pioneer, Seligman. How often did you contribute to these aspects of your wellbeing before the pandemic? What has changed within each of these and how do can you build on and contribute to them now?

P – Positive Emotions: Part of wellbeing is enjoying yourself in the moment.

E – Engagement: Having a sense of engagement in which we may lose track of time and become completely absorbed in something we enjoy and excel at.

R – Relationships: Having deep, meaningful relationships with others.

M – Meaning: When we dedicate ourselves to a cause or recognise something bigger than ourselves

A – Achievement: When we are succeeding, achieving our goals, and bettering ourselves.

Taking the mind for a jog

Most healthy people pay very little attention to their psychological wellbeing on a day-to-day basis.  If we took the same approach to physical health (paying zero attention to how our physical body feels and how we treat it, until we actually get sick) it would not be long before our loved ones were handing us leaflets for couch-to-5k programmes. Similarly, there does not need to be something ‘wrong’ with us for us to benefit from methods designed to improve our psychological wellbeing. Regularly engaging with positive aspects of psychology is to your mind, as a gentle jog is to your body.

Like all subfields of psychology, Positive Psychology is a science. Through extensive research, experimentation and evaluation, psychologists have identified a range of theories and models which have been proven to help people flourish and lead their best lives.  We have shared a few below that may be helpful. 

Mindfulness: Practicing mindfulness has been shown to help us learn to live in the moment. This feeling of enjoying the moment is achieved by acknowledging your emotions, feelings and thoughts without judgement, and then working to bring our focus back to our present – whether the present moment is eating food, taking a walk, listening to your children play, or focusing on your breath. 

The practise of mindfulness is particularly useful when we are feeling flighty and unsettled, or when we are plagued by thoughts which are actually out of our locus of control.

Click here to try out a mindfulness exercise which helps you focus the present moment by focusing on your body.
Watch for Think People’s upcoming free mindfulness for uncertain times session!

Shift Your Perspective: One of the most relevant perspective shifts for our current situation is with regards to our perception of control.

Research has shown that shifting our focus to an internal locus of control helps reduce feelings of stress. Here are top tips to help:

# Listen to your self-talk: "Why me?", "There's nothing I can do".  When you notice this kind of thinking check it and shift your focus to point 2.

# Focus on what you can control: What Stephen Covey called the 'Circle of Influence' - spend our time and limited energy on the things we CAN control rather than wasting energy on those we can't. Catch negative thinking and refocus.

# Focus on today: Worrying about what tomorrow or the day after might bring is wasted energy. This doesn't mean you shouldn't plan but worry takes energy. Refocus on what you can do now or what you are grateful for.

# Get support: Meet your manager (online), talk to friends, get coaching. They can help us with tools and with another perspective.

Locus of control

Structure and Routine: When we organise ourselves and know what to expect, it is easier to actively work towards our goals.  Having a routine has also been shown to increase individuals’ belief that there is meaning to their life (Heintzelman and King, 2018).  At the minute most of our regular routines have been put on hold and many of us are feeling the impact of this on our boundaries between work and home, stress levels or even mental health.  It is important that we build new routines, especially to give us a sense of control and structure at this time.
Click here to read our tips on building a new routine while staying at home.

Gratitude Diaries: This may sound new age or fluffy but this is a proven method which can be used to shift our focus from negative to positive is keeping a gratitude diary. Each day, spend some time thinking about what you are grateful for and write them down?  ‘The Tetris Effect’ tells us that we see what we look for, or are trained to look for. If you’ve you ever played the ‘count the red cars’ game you’ll know what we mean.   You don’t need to interpret and analyse; it is enough to just notice this positivity in order to shift your focus away from your negativity bias and actively search for the positives.

Work on your strengths: We spend a lot of time trying to improve ourselves. As a development consultancy, we love learning! However, it is important to approach personal development from a positive angle – not only because we will feel happier about our growth, but we will also feel more motivated and will be more likely to succeed.
Click here to complete a Character Strengths Test and learn what your top strengths are.

We aren’t saying that we need to always be positive, always be happy. These unachievable goals will only create more pressure. We can adopt strategies and tools like those mentioned to shift our thinking to more positive interpretations or focus on what we can control. It is also important to recognise all our emotions; our worry, sadness and fear. Just recognising and accepting that these are healthy responses to challenging times is a positive act too.

Go easy on yourself – we don’t need to ‘DO’ with all this time. We don’t have to learn another language, or read Ulysses.  Sure, if those things contribute to your PERMA Plan, give them a go.  But remember, your goal is to keep your focus to positive where you will likely find greater motivation, success, happiness and meaning.

Think People are excited to give you a heads up that they will be running two weeks of free web-based events in May. Watch LinkedIn and Social Media feeds for information as is it released!

Legal Island Training Resources

Remote Working Employee Wellbeing eLearning Toolkit

It is completely normal and understandable for your staff to feel low, worried, anxious or concerned about their health or those close to them during these uncertain times. Working from home or remotely can be challenging and isolating for many people, that's why we have put together a Remote Working Employee Wellbeing Toolkit.
What topic areas does this toolkit cover?

  • Mental Health & Wellbeing
  • Building Resilience
  • Managing Stress
  • Fatigue
For a limited time only, the courses above can be purchased individually for €10 per staff memberHowever, if you wish to purchase a package deal to include all four courses, you can receive access to these for €30 per staff member. 

Interested? Contact for more information.

This article is correct at 04/05/2020

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Emer Hinphey
Think People Consulting

The main content of this article was provided by Emer Hinphey. Contact telephone number is 028 9031 0450 or email

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