Happy New Year! For this first briefing of 2022, I veer from my typical approach and turn to a story. Each of us – scientists and practitioners – has our own chaos that we are dealing with in today’s COVID world. Here’s a snippet of my experience on a typical day. I hope it inspires you to wonder, as I did: “Maybe I am doing OK after all? Maybe I am stronger than I realize?”
--Dr. Ryan Niemiec, VIA Education Director
A CASE STUDY
One day, early in 2022, I had a rough start to the day. I had just learned school was cancelled for the week and so my wife and I – both working full-time – would have to somehow manage our three children throughout the upcoming workdays. Apparently, these young children need food, water, and lots of attention! Then, we learned that one, maybe two, of them were sick and so we needed to now find a way to get them to the doctor (and they could not be seen together by the doctor due to a COVID protocol, so we’d have to make the trip to the doctor on two separate occasions, as soon as possible). As the stressors piled up, so did my frustrations. I became reactive and started in on a pity-party as I complained to my wife about anything I could think of.
The tension mounted as I thought about meetings I had that day, people waiting to hear back from me on projects, articles I needed to write, and research I needed to attend to.
I turned to my strength of perspective and gave myself the advice of, “Ryan, go walk the dog.” I listened. As I stepped out of my home environment of triggers, tension, and crying kids, I immediately began to “let go” (i.e., forgiveness) and walked through my woods and neighborhood with zest and appreciation of beauty. I found some of my hope and prudence strengths and planned out how this new day might look and with a sudden newfound optimism, I texted my wife, “It will be OK.”
I returned ready to take on the day and the stressors that would undoubtedly unfold.
The next hour, while driving my daughter to the doctor, I spilled not only my water but also my coffee (usually I just spill one). Yes, I do enjoy having open cups in my car as opposed to sealed containers. The coffee perfectly pooled up in my plastic console a half-inch deep. My 6-year-old daughter observed this new (and quite novel) pool of coffee:
“Wow, look at that!” she exclaimed with pure delight, despite her sore throat and headache."
"That’s really cool,” I noted as I marveled at the black liquid that had made itself into a square shape. “I will need to soak that up with some napkins I have in the glovebox."
"Oh, can you just leave it there? I like looking at it."
"It is interesting to look at, isn’t it? But each time I am turning the car, the pool slowly spills over onto the floor. So, I better clean it up."
The rest of the day plodded along from the doctor’s visit, medication pickup, work meetings, writings, kids’ activities, and some nighttime reading and tai chi. No more reactivity; stressors handled as they came.
One day later, I looked back at the previous day. At a glance, nothing stood out as remarkable. My summary was something like: it started out difficult and things turned out alright.
Then, I had the opportunity to examine the day closely with a wise person with great listening skills. I suddenly saw the day anew. Here’s what emerged:
When I went to evaluate myself, I was drawn immediately to “what went wrong” and I gave greatest attention to my early reactivity and frustrations of the morning. The picture of the day was colored with this reactivity.
Positive psychology insight: This is the power of our steeply-entrenched deficit-based, negativity mindset. Mounds of science reveals we will focus much more on the bad, the negative will be contagious to others and ourselves, and the positive will be unnoticed or undermined by the tentacles of life’s challenges (see Baumeister et al., 2001; Rozin & Royzman, 2001).
The vicious circle that flows from stress to upsetting thoughts and feelings to more stress and back around again can be shifted. We can create a virtuous circle flowing from mindfulness to one character strength to other strength to deeper mindful attention and back around again. For me, mindfulness led to forgiveness to love to hope to creativity and so on throughout the day. The virtuous circle started by using one character strength in a mindful way. That buffered me from later challenges, surprises, and difficulties (see Waters et al., 2021; Niemiec, 2019).
Positive psychology insight: We might be reactive or overwhelmed at one moment but we can shift this to being present with mindful responding in the next moment (Segal et al., 2013; Niemiec, 2014).
More frequently than I realized, I was operating at a “presence level” or mindfulness approach, such as the naming of the tension in the moment, the presence with my daughter, and the deliberate use of different strengths.
In looking at the day more deeply, I understood I was doing better than I realized. I was using more character strengths than I realized. Mindful responsiveness and character strengths were ever-present opportunities at any moment. All of these insights would have been lost if it hadn’t been for my having a mindful discussion that allowed for deeper reflecting.
As you go about 2022 and unknowns and sufferings occur, remember these points:
- Character strengths emerge gradually, then suddenly.
- There will be chaos, then strengths use.
- No matter what a COVID-infested world might bring you, it is never too late to recover and transform the day. There is life left in that day to be lived with character strengths.
- Look deeply: Perhaps you, too, are doing better than you think you are doing?
At the start of the pandemic, VIA created resources specifically tagged as "covid care". Those articles are available and remain relevant.
SUBSCRIBE TO BRIEFINGS
Every other month Dr. Ryan Niemiec, VIA's Education Director, sends a newsletter to connect with researchers, strengths practitioners and educators from around the world. He offers things such as a character strengths research finding, a practical nugget, and/or a character strengths story or dialogue he's found inspiring. His hope is that it will prime your day and week with character strengths. Also, let it serve as a reminder that you can reach out at anytime to share your study, your strength applications, and your latest innovations! This article captures a past newsletter. To receive newsletters in real-time, click to subscribe