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Staying Connected through the Lens of Positive Psychology

Since the start of lockdown we’ve actually managed to make a number of new connections with individuals and organisations across the country. One of those people is Jen Ward. Jen is a PhD student from Cardiff Metropolitan University who has been working in collaboration with Pharmacist and founder of The Health Dispensary (a community pharmacy in South Wales) Ali Sparkes on a Positive Psychology Intervention called ‘Prescribing Happiness’.  The ‘Prescribing Happiness’ programme covers character strengths, positive emotions, living mindfully, social relationships and finding your passion and values and was implemented at The Health Dispensary earlier this year.

In recognition of Loneliness Awareness Week (15th to 19th June) – a week dedicated to raise awareness of loneliness and the importance of reaching out to those around you – we checked in with Jen for some guidance. Here’s what she had to say:

Loneliness is something that can affect us all at any stage in our lives. Loneliness and social isolation are terms we frequently use with two different meanings. Social isolation occurs when a person has little or no contact with other people by staying home, refusing interaction and avoiding social situations. Loneliness is an emotional state and is a subjective view of how we feel. Loneliness may accompany social isolation through life events, mental or physical health struggles, stress or challenging times.

Research has shown that in the UK one in five people have said they experience loneliness and two thirds of people who struggle with loneliness find it difficult to talk about. The COVID-19 pandemic has placed a lot of restrictions in place where people have been advised to shield, wear face masks, isolate and work remotely as much as possible. People have learned to adapt their way of communicating with loved ones by talking through mediums like Zoom or WhatsApp Video Call. Employees have been restricted to work from home and connect through online forums for daily meetings. People have been furloughed, while some people have lost their jobs. Reduced human contact time and change can increase the feeling of isolation and loneliness plus impacting individuals’ mental health through high stress, lack of sleep, anxiety and worries.

The UK Campaign to End Loneliness reported that more than half of lonely people miss having a hug (46%) and being together with someone they missed (52%). For the older population included in the study, they missed sharing a meal (35%), holding hands (30%), taking country walks (32%) or going on holidays (44%).

As human beings we are social creatures, we have been designed to interact and connect with other human beings. It is imperative to our wellbeing that we reach out and connect with others. To feel lonely at times is normal, what is important is that we monitor how often we feel loneliness and to find solutions and speak about it. With many mental health and physical health concerns, the first step is to find the courage to speak about it and identify what you are experiencing. Being vulnerable is never easy, as a society we often wear armours to cover and protect ourselves from feeling ‘weak’. We are all human, we all have good and bad days, it is vital that we work together to build and create resilient and positive connections.

Positive Psychology is the science of happiness and wellbeing which was founded by Professor Martin Seligman. Seligman advocates that we redirect our attention away from human deficits and weaknesses to the study of human potential, strengths and flourishing. PERMA is the latest wellbeing model which has five core elements which are believed to be the building blocks to wellbeing. All PERMA elements can be related to different areas of life like personal, work, hobbies, health or social. They all have their own unique purpose and contribute to building positive wellbeing.

Positive Emotions refer to encompassing emotions such as contentment, joy, gratitude, hope and comfort.

Engagement is related to the absorption in an activity, the loss of awareness and track of time. It can also be referred to as flow.

Relationships refers to feeling connection, integrated as part of a community and feeling cared for and loved for.

Meaning is related to leading a meaningful life consisting of serving, belonging and being part of something much bigger than oneself.

Accomplishment (or achievement) is the perseverance towards a goal.

Across the psychology literature, cultivating strong relationships have been advocated as an important predictor of mental wellbeing and can act as a buffer to protect and support individuals. Building social connections has been built into many evidence-based Positive Psychology Interventions. Using the Positive Psychology literature, we wish to share some key evidence-based exercises you can utilise in your workplace, home life and friendships to cultivate strong, resilient and happy relationships.

  1. Random Acts of Kindness

Research has shown that helping others can support the wellbeing of the person receiving the act plus our own wellbeing too. Acts of kindness reduce stress, create stronger relationships and support our emotional wellbeing. For example, try performing one act of kindness a day for seven days or push yourself to reap the full benefits and perform five acts of kindness in one day. The most important aspect of this exercise is to make it sincere and meaningful. Think of a close friend, someone you haven’t reached out to for a while, a loved one or a work colleague. Acts of kindness don’t have to be expensive. Research has shown that money doesn’t make people happier. Remember, small and sincere acts of kindness can make a big difference.

  1. Gratitude Visit

“Living gratefully begins with affirming the good and recognising its sources. It is the understanding that life owes me nothing and all the good I have is a gift…” – Dr Robert Emmons (World leading expert in gratitude)

Gratitude is expressing appreciation and thankfulness. It is an emotional state that occurs when individuals pay attention to the good in life, what they have rather than what they don’t have. Gratitude exercises are now commonly used to support individuals with their wellbeing and have been used in a range of settings including work, educational, sport, community and healthcare settings. One example of a gratitude exercise is writing to someone in your life and expressing why you appreciate them; it is a letter of kindness. The important aspect of the exercise is to deliver the letter to the individual, this could be through an email, letter or text. We never know what someone is going through, worries and isolation is often hidden, people don’t tend to speak about what is wrong as they don’t want to bother or worry people. A gratitude letter is a perfect genuine and authentic gift for someone who may need the support.

  1. Taking one Day at a Time

Another evidence based exercise commonly used in positive psychology is called Three Good Things where individuals are asked to write down three things that went well each day and why. This can also be utilised as a Gratitude Journal where you write down things you are grateful for and why. Expressing positive emotions and focusing on the here and now i.e., mindful living, can help individuals to feel connected, positive, build resilience and sleep better. Try completing the Three good things exercise three days a week individually or as a team to build support social and rapport. It can be easier at times to focus on the negatives. We call this a negative bias whereby individuals can easily call out their weaknesses over their strengths or pay attention to the negative information being received over the positive information. Therefore, ensuring we focus on the good can support general physical and mental health.

We hope you can share this blog with your colleagues, loved ones and community members to support anyone who may be feeling lonely during these difficult times.

This blog was written by Jen Ward, a PhD student from Cardiff Metropolitan University funded by KESS2. Jen has been working in collaboration with Ms Ali Sparkes Pharmacist and founder of The Health Dispensary and her academic supervisor Professor Delyth H James to develop a Positive Psychology Intervention called ‘Prescribing Happiness’ which was implemented at The Health Dispensary earlier this year.