Psychology research offers 20 strategies for staying upbeat, coping with stress during holidays, everyday life

December 17, 2000

While it's known as "the season to be jolly," the holidays can be a time of stress, conflict, and pressure for many people. Some people feel overwhelmed and become depressed during the holidays.

Don't dismay. There are strategies for coping with the emotional stresses and strains of the holiday season.

It's possible to learn various strategies for coping with negative emotions, according to a recent study by Randy Larsen. Ph.D., professor of psychology in Arts & Sciences and the William R. Stuckenberg Professor of Human Values and Moral Development at Washington University in St. Louis.

"Most negative emotions occur in response to threats, failures, or losses in either our work lives or in our important relationships," Larsen says, "and during the holidays there are many disruptions in our work and family lives, many changing demands that can create stress and conflict."

Moods are like mild emotions; however, moods last longer, often don't have a direct identifiable cause, but nevertheless influence how we think, feel, and act, particularly with other people.

Larsen says that psychologists have studied many strategies and tactics for coping and staying upbeat.

"I have a list of about 20 strategies people can learn to use in their own lives. Some work better than others, and a lot depends on the person, the mood or emotion being regulated, and the circumstances that gave rise to the mood or emotion."

Larsen's article, published in the most recent issue of the journal Psychological Inquiry, examines a range of scientific studies of human coping mechanisms and concludes that mood regulation is possible and that some strategies can be effective in battling the blues.

Larsen's research, based on studies of people in daily life and on observations of how people behave under various conditions in the laboratory, explores how people react to, and recover from, bad events. He concludes that happiness is not tied to good luck.

"It's not that happy people have fewer bad events happen to them," he says. "Bad events are inevitable. Instead, happy persons seem to manage bad events better, they tend to bounce back faster."

For example, when something bad happens in one area of life, one coping strategy is to remind oneself about other areas of life where things are going well.

"If I have a grant application rejected, I can remind myself that I'm still a good teacher, still a good husband and father, still play a pretty good game of tennis, and that, no matter what, my dog will still love me" says Larsen. "This strategy helps keep problems in perspective."

Another strategy for coping with a negative emotion is helping others.

"There are always people less fortunate than oneself. Find someone like this and do something to help them out." says Larsen, "You would be surprised at how much helping can be like a two-way street."

Larsen's work overcomes psychology's nearly exclusive preoccupation with the negative side of emotional life. Unlike many psychologists, Larsen isn't interested in studying the dark side of the mind, the neuroses and psychoses that can haunt the human psyche. Instead, Larsen is drawn to the positive side of human nature.

"Why are some people happy and well-adjusted, and others not, even though the conditions of their lives are otherwise the same?" Larsen asks. He focuses his empirical research on the characteristics that distinguish people who live engaged and fulfilling lives from those who are dissatisfied much of the time.

"If we think of the human mind as a mansion, then research psychologists have spent the first century mucking around in the basement with the skeletons and rubbish," says Larsen, who has published more than 60 papers on mood and emotion and a textbook on personality psychology.

There is much to learn about he positive side of human nature, says Larsen, who just finished teaching a new course at Washington University entitled "Positive Psychology." The course had four modules, representing the cornerstones of knowledge in positive psychology: 1) Life satisfaction, what it is and how people achieve and maintain it, 2) Positive personal characteristics, such as optimism, integrity, and emotional intelligence, 3) Positive relationships, including friendships, loving relationships, and a sense of community, and 4) Positive work experiences, including creativity, flow, and work satisfaction. "The good life" says Larsen, "results when a certain amount of each of these four basic elements are present. Such a person is very likely to be happy."

So how does Larsen define "happiness" in a way that can be quickly and easily measured? In short, his research suggests that a good indicator of a person's level of happiness is the ratio of positive to negative emotions in his or her life over time. Does the person have more good days than bad days in their life, as in the following ratio:

Happiness = Positive Emotion Days / Negative Emotion Days

"If the ratio of good to bad days over, say, the past six months is 70 percent or better, then we conclude the person is happy," he says. Happy people do have occasional bad days, but their good days greatly outnumber the bad. "Increasing this ratio - either by increasing the number of positive emotion days or decreasing the number of negative emotion days - is the key to becoming and staying happy"

"Happy people seem especially adept at minimizing the denominator, at overcoming negative emotions," says Larsen "It's not so much that happy people smile more, but they definitely frown less." Larsen offers the following summary of strategies for regulating unpleasant moods and emotions:

Mood Regulation Strategies

Behaviors that focus on the situation:

Problem-directed action: what is causing the bad mood and can you fix it? Make plans to avoid this problem in the future. Can often make you feel better right away. More effort, try harder. Talk to, seek advice from, a friend or mentor. Withdraw, remove yourself from the scene.

Behaviors that focus on the mood itself:

Distraction, stay busy. Helping others. Reward your self, do something fun or pleasurable. Socialize, spend time with others. Inhibit the expression, suppress acting out the negative emotion. Exercise Natural substances that may improve mood, e.g., caffeine, melantonin, etc.

Cognitive strategies that focus on changing how you think of the situation:

Cognitive reframing, changing how you think about the situation so it is not so bad. Thinking about other successes in your life, remind yourself that some things are going well, put the problem in perspective. Downward social comparison: there are always other people who have it worse than you, so compared to them, your situation is not so bad. Praying, put faith in god, which some people find helpful.

Cognitive strategies that focus on the mood itself:

Relaxation or meditation to calm self. Stocisism, believing that strength will come from adversity Fantasy, daydreaming to forget, or to focus on what the future will be like after the problem is past. Active forgetting, refusing to think about your feelings.
Media Contact: Gerry Everding, Senior News Editor, Washington University in St. Louis, 314-935-6375

Washington University in St. Louis

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