The World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a pandemic on the 11th March 2020. Since then, countries across the globe have enforced lockdowns in order to contain the spread of the virus. However, such drastic changes can cause social isolation, fear, and uncertainty—all of which can then lead to an increase in mental illnesses, such as anxiety and depression. One way to increase well-being is through a change of focus: away from fear and loneliness and towards feeling positive emotions such as nostalgia and gratitude.

How do we shift our focus onto these emotions? Much research suggests that small practices can alter our perspectives and lead to changes in well-being. These types of activities are referred to as positive psychology interventions. Sometimes, people engage in these for weeks in order to see differences. In our work, we actually looked at one-time engagement (of just a few minutes of time!) with interventions regarding nostalgia, gratitude, and what is called the “best possible self.”

Given the negative mental health consequences of COVID-19, can positive psychology interventions increase people’s well-being during lockdown?

In our study, we focused on three short positive psychology interventions, each with a different time-orientation, asking participants to think about and write in response to a specific prompt. The nostalgia prompt focused on the past: asking participants to think of a nostalgic memory or event, something that made them feel sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past. A common nostalgic topic participants wrote about were the holidays: the sound of a crackling fire, the smell of home cooking, the feeling of unexpected snow flurries on a dark night. Gratitude focused on the present: participants wrote down three things that went well that day, things like time spent with family, a brisk run in the park, a quiet moment with a good book. Lastly, the best possible self prompt was future-focused: having participants imagine their best possible self, picturing a future where everything in life had turned out as well as it could. Here, participants typically focused on achieving relationship and career goals—excelling in all the ways they deemed important.

We recruited 261 female participants during the first UK lockdown (March to May 2020). Participants reported on their lockdown characteristics (for example, how long they’d been in lockdown, how many people they were living with) and trait characteristics (such as how well they could control their emotions). Participants were then assigned to one of the three positive psychology prompts or a control condition where there was no writing prompt. After writing for at least two minutes, participants rated several facets of their well-being: meaning, optimism, self-esteem, self-continuity, social connectedness, positive mood, and negative mood.

Likely because of the short duration of the writing, we didn't notice many differences in well-being when comparing interventions against the control group. However, we did find some interesting results when we compared the interventions against one another. Participants who wrote about gratitude and their best possible self reported feeling more social connection to others than participants who had written about nostalgia. Those who wrote about their best possible self also reported higher positive mood than participants who focused on nostalgia.

Why doesn’t nostalgia increase well-being? It is likely that thinking of sentimental memories during uncertain and difficult times may cause feelings of sadness. When we compare our past—when we were able to go out and do things without a second thought—to the present (and all of its current restrictions), this can create feelings of loss, which then can have a negative impact on our well-being.

On the other hand, thinking of things we are grateful for in the present turns our attention towards the positive side of the present and allows us to focus on the things we are still able to do. Then, when we think of our best possible self and our best future, it is likely to reduce our feelings of doubt and uncertainty surrounding the days ahead, which instills a sense of optimism that we can get through this pandemic.

How can we cope during lockdown? We found the best way is to feel gratitude and hopeful optimism. These emotions can be particularly hard during these winter months, when many of us have lost loved ones and jobs, and just our normal way of life. However, we can look to the positive aspects of the present, and a possible positive future, to cope. In the UK, we are currently in our third lockdown. It feels different from the first, as the days are shorter and colder, and we can feel exhausted by the fact that the pandemic still rages on, after all this time. However, we can get through this lockdown by thinking of what we are grateful for, such as all the things that we are still able to do: going for walks and virtually talking to family or friends. Then, as vaccinations continue to be rolled out, we can also start to imagine our best possible future.

For Further Reading

Dennis, A., Ogden, J., & Hepper, E. G. (2020). Evaluating the impact of a time orientation intervention on well-being during the COVID-19 lockdown: Past, present or future? The Journal of Positive Psychology. doi: 10.1080/17439760.2020.1858335

Amelia Dennis is completing her PhD at the University of Surrey, focusing on attachment theory and nostalgia.