Positive psychology can buffer, bolster, build mental health during pandemic, CPO researchers write

March 11, 2021

Photo: Helena Lopes on Pexels

Jane Dutton

Several Center for Positive Organization (CPO) researchers recently co-authored a paper called “Positive psychology in a pandemic: buffering, bolstering, and building mental health” in The Journal of Positive Psychology.

The paper, co-authored by researchers including CPO faculty affiliate Lea Waters, CPO co-founder Jane Dutton, and CPO faculty affiliate Barbara Fredrickson, examines how positive psychology principles can help “buffer, bolster and build” mental health, even during times of crisis. Additional authors include Sara B. Algoe, Robert Emmons, Emily Heaphy, Judith T. Moskowitz, Kristin Neff, Ryan Niemiec, Cynthia Pury, and Michael Steger.

COVID-19 has taken an immense psychological toll on people around the world, resulting in more negative emotions and higher levels of generalized anxiety, depressive symptoms, psychological distress, sleep disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the paper notes.

Lea Waters

“The current paper seeks to broaden the conversation about mental health during COVID-19 by considering the role that positive psychology states, skills, approaches and practices can play in helping individuals to cope with, and grow through, the pandemic,” the researchers write.

The paper explores the idea that life is a bittersweet dance — mental distress and mental health not only co-exist but also can interact.

We discuss three types of interactions: buffering, bolstering, and building,” the researchers write. “A buffering effect occurs when positive emotions, processes, conditions, and/or relationships serve to diminish or stave off psychological ill health during the crisis. The bolstering effect of positive psychology is seen when positive emotions, processes, conditions, and/or relationships act to maintain mental health despite the crisis. The building effect emerges when the individual is able to use the crisis in a transformative way to develop new practices (e.g., greater strengths use), new processes (e.g., more self-compassion), and new outlooks (e.g., enhanced meaning) that can lead on to improved mental health in the future.”

Barb Fredrickson

Barb Fredrickson

The paper cites numerous studies on buffering, bolstering, and building. For  example, a study of U.S. college students demonstrates that having the characteristic of grit helped students buffer against psychological distress during the pandemic. 

Positive psychology’s focus on human capacities (actual and potential) provides a valuable lens through which to understand how people can cope with, and grow through, times of crisis,” the researchers write.

The paper outlines evidence-based suggestions for how nine positive psychology principles — meaning, coping, self-compassion, courage, gratitude, character strengths, positive emotions, positive interpersonal processes, and high-quality connections — can be cultivated to “buffer, bolster and build” mental health even during times of crisis.

Our wish is that this paper helps people to constructively navigate their way out of despair and bring hope to themselves and others,” the researchers write.

Dutton is a CPO core faculty member and Robert L. Kahn Distinguished University Emerita Professor of Business Administration and Psychology at the University of Michigan.

Waters is a professor at the University of Melbourne and is the Founding Director of the Positive Psychology Centre.

Frederickson is the Kenan Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.