Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology, Director of the Social Psychology Doctoral Program and the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory, President-Elect, International Positive Psychology Association Kenan-Flagler School of Business
You know, it's a common misconception to be thinking about positive psychology,
as something, you know, only for good times.
Or that's, that's the, it's something for, you know, a privilege for
people whose lives are only in a good state.
And you know, it's really obviously not the case, it's.
Positive emotions aren't even fair weather friends.
We can experience positive emotions even when we're dealing with
So I want to focus in this segment on resilience.
What does, what does it mean to be resilient?
What's your, what's your take.
Take a moment to think about what's your take on what resilience is.
>> So, when I think about resilience, I kind of think of that ability to
bounce back after something, something bad happens.
And your ability to kind of take something that is, you know, negative.
And then either change the way you feel about it or find someone to
help you get through that, or in some way kind of take that and bounce back.
And use that kind of negative energy,
in a way that you can kind of create some sort of positive aspect out of it.
>> Is how I, I think of it sometimes.
>> Yeah, great example.
So how important is that, when we're facing tough times
at work grieving, or upset about other things.
The, I mean, obviously, it's a, it's a really vital capacity for all humans.
And, and sometimes it can seem that while some people are resilient, and
others aren't [LAUGH], you know.
When, in fact, resilience is one of these resources that can grow.
Or it's, it's kind of like a muscle that you can and build.
And what we've found studies in our lab,
the pep lab at UNC, is that a positive emotions are a big
piece of what enables resilience, but also what builds resilience.
So positive emotions are a capacity for all humans and
so resilience is at capacity for all humans.
So, suppose you're in that really tough situation and
everything looks really bleak.
What, you know, what's an appropriate or a viable way
to introduce some positivity, either for yourself or for somebody else?
You know, it's not like you're to come in and tell a joke.
You know, so you have to kind of fit the right situation.
But what are the positive emotions that would fit into difficult times.
>> For me, it it makes me think of myself and
working with other people with chronic illness is that someone can
be having a really difficult time, maybe even be in intense pain, and
still stop and think about what's right or what's good.
So, gratitude is one that comes in a lot.
So instead of having the focus be on the pain, and
thinking I shouldn't be hurting this much.
You can shift your mindset, and kind of start thinking about the blessings in
your life or just good things that are happening in your life.
>> Yeah, yeah, so a lot of times it's those quieter positive emotions that can
fit in, and,
you know, one of the things that I think is true of any difficult situation.
is, things that are always true, even in difficult situations, is that,
you know, this too shall pass.
You know, that this exact way I'm experiencing my pain,
isn't going to be the same, you know, later, although, you know,
it could be chronic pain, but it's, everything's changing all the time.
Another one is like, I'm not in this alone, you know.
We, we tend to think that our negative experiences are,
you know, you know, ours, you know, our burden alone.
But if you back up, and think well, you know, others have grieved.
You know, I can learn from how, or recognize that, connection that I have
with others that whatever difficulty, we face, we're not the first ones to face it.
So I mean, even just kind of reminding that those are kind of like,
in our back pocket ways to, like, recognize,
you know, the, the companionship we have, or the connection that we have.
That you can kind of use those in a lot of different circumstances.
Now work in my lab, we, one of our early studies on
resilience was after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in the United States.
Where we found that the more positive emotions people felt,
in the days right after 9/11 predicted whether they bounced back
in terms of avoiding excessive depressive symptoms, you know,
everybody's feeling angry and sad and uncertain and afraid.
But, you know, what resilient people do is in that mix of the negative emotions,
they're also feeling inspired and hopeful and engaged and
connected, drawing other people closer.
Other labs have found similar things with experiences of bereavement that,
the positive emotions that people feel when they think back to the spouse that
they've lost kind of predict their mental health a year later.
So, that's a way in which, you know, again those little warmths and
uplifts that we have really do help us get that bounce back.
In our laboratory one of the things that we
have looked at too is recovery on a really fast scale.
Like when, when somebody is stressed out, like in our studies in
the laboratory to get people to feel negative emotions in a controlled fashion.
[LAUGH] We tell people, you know, you're going to have to give a speech on why you
are a good friend, and speak into the camera, and
you're going to be judged by your peers, these kind of things make people nervous.
And then, in some studies we've just measured people's kind of,
trait levels of resilience before that speech task.
And then giving them that speech stressor task, and see how fast, and what one thing
that speech task does, is it increases people's heart rate and blood pressure.
And then what we do is we just let people, move on from that and say oh,
you don't have to give that speech after all, but then see, you know,
how long does it take for people to return to baseline, or kind of regain calm?
And what we find is that resilient people show that cardiovascular recovery quicker,
but the, the quickness of it is predicted by how much of
a challenge they thought that speech would be.
They kind of converted the stress into something that was kind of positive.
And if they did that, they showed this quicker recovery.
We've also done studies where we take that same speech task, and
then we say, okay, you don't have to give your speech after all.
Just watch whatever comes on the video monitor, and for some people we make it
something neutral, kind of like that screen saver I showed you.
Or other people get two different kinds of positive emotions.
Either something more upbeat and, and
amusing or something more low key and calm and soothing.
And in another group we actually switched their attention to
another negative emotion, like sadness.
So, in this study when we, you know, by the flip of a coin, we
had some people move, on from a stressful circumstance to something positive.
Either something upbeat or, or more low key they showed faster cardiovascular
recovery, people kind of returned to their own you know, baseline state, kind of.
Positive emotions there are working a little bit like a reset button,
kind of get me back to, to the, you know, baseline calm.
Whereas if you turn your attention just to something else that's not positive, or
something that's even negative that prolongs that initial anxiety.
So it's in a, we describe this as positive emotions,
undoing negativity, like they're, they're a quick way to kind of clear the system of
any lingering negativity that's kind of no longer useful for you at that moment.
In some brain imaging work done by one of my former doctoral students
we discovered some really interesting things about resilient people.
In the brain imaging scanner, he created these scenarios where people were.
They didn't know whether they were going to see something negative or not.
They got a queue, and it could either mean oh, I'm for certain going to see something
negative, or it could mean well maybe it will be negative maybe it wouldn't be.
So it's kind of like this modeling the situation of certain negative and
And what we found there is that resilient people had
a totally different way of responding to the uncertain negative.
They just chill.
[LAUGH] You know?
It's like hey it might be negative, if it is I'll mobilize and
if it isn't then no harm done, but people who are less resilient embracing.
They're like, if it might be negative, oh i'll be ready for it.
[LAUGH] You know, and it's, it's in a way what we learn is less resilient people,
seem to have like three times the negativity, because they are,
you know even if it's not negative, they're acting as though it is.
So then they kind of if it actually turns out not to be negative,
they don't even recognize that, you know,
it's like they don't even experience the relief of it.
So we, what we see is that resilient people are,
are worrying less, bracing less, rebounding quicker,
and mentally it kind of fits all of the descriptions of mindfulness,
of being kind of in the moment, you know, just taking the moment as it is.
The cue in that study wasn't a threat, and, and
resilient people didn't see it as a threat,whereas the cue which was like
a little triangle or square for low resilient people was itself threatening.
So, I mean there was a way,
in which the, the blood flow in the areas of the brain that have to do with
negative affectivity kind of revealed where this bracing was occurring.
So one of the things that goes along with resilience is this really
good discernment about what the positive and negatives are in the situation.
And not projecting negativity, into a neutral situation.
So like having that attunement to be able to separate out what's
you know, what's truly neutral or what's truly positive.
>> It sounds like expectation.
>> Is that similar?
>> Yeah, yeah.
Less resilient people kind of have a negative le, filter.
>> Right. >> That they're seeing things through.
But one of the things I, I want to emphasize is that, you know,
we do some studies where we compare people who are higher,
score higher on resilience to those who scored lower we find that
resilience is a resource that positive emotions serve to build.
So, that you know, if you think you're not particularly resilient now,
you actually can become more resilient next season by the diet of
positive emotions that you experience today.
because there's definitely this upward spiral dynamic
between positive emotions and resilience, the more resilient you are the better,
able you are to find positive emotions.
Or, or, or you know cultivate them and then the more that you
cultivate them the more you build your resilience so that it builds from there.
One of the nice I think, kind of closing images about resilience, like,
I like to keep in mind, is that it's like holding the negative and
the positive side by side.
You know, it's not, resilience is not about sweeping away the negative
it's just kind of meeting the negative with, some positive, you know, things.
Again, this is no spectator sport.
Each of us faces adversity, or the tug of a downward spiral every so often.
And I'd like to invite you to begin to experiment with ways to
inject more positive emotions into such difficult moments.
This week your experiential assignment is to
put to good use the positivity portfolio that you created last week.
I want this portfolio to become a resource to you,
one that makes a difference in tough times.
When given the same assignment one of my former students here at UNC,
deployed her portfolio when she felt frustrated and angry,
because her best friend, who lived in a different city, had been ignoring her.
She admitted that she was tempted to just let the friendship die,
like she'd done with others in the past.
Yet, having learned about positive psychology,
she took out her positivity portfolio, and when she engaged with it, her anger faded.
She felt better, and more open.
So instead of turning away from her friend, she turned toward her,
she wrote her an honest compassionate letter and sent her a small gift.
And then her friend called her in tears, happy tears, and they had the best
bonding moment ever, and they've remained close friends for years since then.
So, I want you to keep on the lookout for
ways that you might be able to rev up a well timed positive emotion,
to help you find greater openness and to avert a downward spiral.
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