Lucy Whitehall is the Chartered Accountants Benevolent Association's (CABA) expert in positive psychology and well-being, with over 10 years' experience. Drawing on science-based techniques she describes how we can live our best life.
With positive psychology principles we look at: resilience, mindset, emotional intelligence, hope and optimism. It’s a very useful subject that is largely about performance, productivity and living your best life in any circumstance.
Human beings have a range of emotions - some of them are positive, some are negative and some of them are neutral. All are valid.
Positive psychology isn’t positive thinking
The two often get confused. Positive psychology is based on research and tells us how we can improve our lives through simple methodology. It’s not just about ‘looking on the bright side’.
Positive thinking, on the other hand, you will often see talked about on social media. Sentiments such as ‘Be positive’ , ‘Think nice thoughts’. But if we are experiencing difficult times with our mental health, being told
to ‘think positively’ is not very helpful.
It’s not only extremely difficult to do that, it also fails to appreciate that human beings have a range of emotions - some of them are positive, some are negative and some of them are neutral. All are valid.
Positive thinking has no evidence based science behind it. You should not be thinking there is an issue if you have negative thoughts. It’s an unavoidable part of being human. So that approach doesn’t stick and doesn’t last.
Applying positive psychology to home study and work
At the best of times it’s hard to juggle study and work, speaking not only as a psychologist but as someone who works and studies often.
We now have the added pressure of having to struggle with this crisis, and dealing with our lives which have been turned upside down.
The brain can only concentrate fully for up to 90 minutes. So don’t put too much pressure on yourself.
What we can take from positive psychology is the concept of resilience - for productivity and performance. To tap into our resilience we should be harnessing our brain’s ability to think about one thing at a time.
We are getting lots of pressure to juggle lots of things at the same time but this can be distracting. Resist the temptation to multi-task, as it’s proven that the brain can only focus on one thing at a time. Working for short periods of time,
but very deeply, is the way forward.
Turn off those distractions to have undisturbed time. That time might be as little as 10 minutes, and that’s fine. The amount of time the brain can concentrate on fully for is 90 minutes. So don’t put too much pressure on yourself.
There are lots of ways to build resilience. Some techniques help prevent us feeling overwhelmed when things get too much. One simple technique is called ‘box breathing’.
Box breathing is used by the US navy seals, so if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for us. It’s a natural way to relax the body and engages the parasympathetic nervous system.
It involves doing 4 things, to the count of 4:
Then holding it
Then holding it
And repeat. Ideally try and do this for between 2 and 5 minutes.
This is a repetitive way to lower your blood pressure, cortisol and adrenaline. A natural way to calm the body down and useful for when you feel anxiety or stress in your body, or you’re overwhelmed with negative thoughts.
Celebrate your successes
Another important thing I want to recommend is self compassion. In the current climate, we may feel extra pressure to be productive, but caving in to this can have a negative impact.
Many of us will think ‘Well, I’m at home, I’m not commuting anymore, I have all this time, so why am I not more motivated? Why am I not packing more into the day?’.
But remind yourself that we are actually in a world wide pandemic right now. It’s a very stressful time. Even if we don’t feel like we are on the frontline, there will still be an underlying anxiety.
So be realistic, within these circumstances.
Maybe break your study session down into smaller study periods and focus on what is possible.
With positive psychology we celebrate our successes and achievements. It’s very easy for our brains to focus on what we have not done rather than celebrating the little wins we have had.
And this is not just a pat on the back or a ‘nice to have’. Once we keep reinforcing the positives it actually starts to rewire the brain. We have seen this happen in the brain. In itself, this is hugely motivating.
Keep reflecting on your daily achievements
In the morning, establish what it is you want to achieve for that day, then keep checking in with yourself to see where you are. By the end of that day, celebrate your successes. Maybe even write down the things you want to achieve. Lists are good.
In fact, it’s proven that we are 7 times more likely to commit to a task if it’s written down. We are even more likely to stick to it if we have an accountability buddy - someone we told we were going to do this task.
Access your positive psychology
There are lots of things we can be doing to motivate and unlock your positive psychology in these trying times.
But in summary, be kind to yourself.
The world is putting enough pressure on itself right, to get back to normal. But if you show yourself more compassion then you’re more likely to achieve what you want.
CABA support past and present ICAEW members, ICAEW staff, ACA students and their close families from across the globe.
To watch the full interview with Lucy Whitehall watch the live recording.