Expert Alert: Well-Being Amidst a Pandemic

Mar 24, 2021

Associate Professor Rhea Owens says tools from positive psychology can help people cope with COVID-19.

We recently marked a year of living under the stressors and constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s an opportune time to pause, reflect, and take stock of our well-being.

UMD Associate Professor Rhea Owens
UMD Associate Professor Rhea Owens specializes in applied positive psychology and strengths research. Her work focuses on identifying and using positive traits and skills to enhance well-being. Here she offers useful insight and coping strategies from the field.

What does positive psychology have to teach us about coping with life during the pandemic and beyond?

I believe positive psychology has a lot to offer in regard to helping people cope during the pandemic and challenging times more broadly, and as more research comes out, we’ll see some of these questions addressed empirically.

Over this past year, many people have faced significant challenges, such as the death of loved ones, illness, mental health concerns, and financial hardship. It is important to recognize that people have experienced the pandemic differently. Whether or not challenges are present, people can benefit from attending to their well-being, which can be both a form of coping and a means to prevent negative experiences in the future.

Positive psychology offers a variety of positive activities that have been shown to enhance well-being. Prioritizing activities that promote mental health and well-being (e.g., self-care) and being understanding and accepting of personal disappointments (i.e., self-compassion) could help people cope and potentially even flourish during the pandemic and beyond.

What types of strengths can help people mitigate pandemic-related stressors? How does one develop these strengths?

We know from the research that when people know and use their strengths, they experience greater well-being and a number of other positive benefits. Therefore, regardless of what the specific strengths are, it would be helpful to focus on your strengths.

Strengths that may be especially relevant during this challenging time could be hope, optimism, persistence, courage, kindness, and compassion. To develop strengths, it is often recommended to first learn what your strengths are if you are not already aware. There are a number of tools available. The VIA Institute on Character has a measure that is free and available to the public.

After knowing what your strengths are, finding new and different ways to use your strengths is an effective strategy to develop your strengths further.

Are there other practical strategies you recommend for improving well-being during difficult times?

Savoring past, present, and future moments can be helpful. Savoring the past typically takes the form of reminiscing about past, pleasant experiences, which can be done through reflection, story-telling, or looking at photos. Savoring in the present often involves slowing down and soaking in what is happening in the moment or mindfulness. Savoring the future involves making plans for future, positive experiences one expects to enjoy, and then anticipating those upcoming plans.

Another effective strategy is practicing gratitude. This can be done through writing a gratitude letter to someone, writing a list of things you are grateful for, or keeping a gratitude journal. I also think right now everyone could benefit from demonstrating and experiencing more kindness. Engaging in random acts of kindness—or prosocial behaviors—can be helpful. The possibilities are endless, but some examples include buying the stranger in line behind you their coffee, leaving a post-it note for someone with words of encouragement, or sharing baked goods with others.

Finally, intentionally investing in and nurturing social relationships can boost happiness as well. Finding ways to do this on a regular basis (scheduling activities with others in advance could also lead to future savoring), and doing so safely and in a way people feel comfortable with, could be helpful.

Importantly, these are just some ideas and not an exhaustive list. What works for some people does not work as well for others; it's not a one-size-fits-all. So we often recommend experimenting with different ideas to determine what works best for people.

Do you think the pandemic offers us lessons in resilience?

Absolutely. COVID-19 has been a significant, chronic stressor for over a year now, resulting in much loss and pain for many. Resilience, by definition, involves overcoming challenges and barriers. Certainly, we have seen this around the world, and many people continue to persist in the face of ongoing struggles.

In addressing and overcoming challenges during the pandemic, I suspect many people have learned the importance of an adaptive mindset, finding joy in the little things, self-care, and the importance of being kind to and supporting others. I also suspect people have discovered that this experience is a marathon and not a sprint, and some days will be better than others. Keeping perspective and being optimistic and hopeful have also likely helped people persist.

Recommended resources:

Book: “The How of Happiness

Podcast: The Happiness Lab

Website/Magazine: Greater Good


Associate Professor Rhea Owens
University of Minnesota Duluth
Department of Psychology
Contact by email