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HHH Blog

36. Positive Coping

PUBLISHED 18th October , 2016

Today we will continue our discussion on how to build resilience. One of the factors that assists us on an individual level is positive coping. It stands for the effort we make to solve our personal and interpersonal problems and the manner in which we manage difficult situations. It is about seeking support from others to help us to get through a stressful event. Positive coping includes active, pragmatic, problem focused steps as well as spiritual approaches to tolerate or minimise stress.1

Sonja Lyubomirsky explains that there are two varieties of coping: problem-focused and emotion-focused. If we believe that something can be done about our problem, we are likely to turn to problem-focused coping, but if we cannot change the situation we will use emotion-focused approaches.2 For example, if our wallet was stolen and money withdrawn from our accounts, we would report the theft to the bank and the police, and maybe ask someone to lend us money in the interim. But if our partner died, he or she would be gone no matter what. We would turn to emotional or spiritual ways of coping, such as grieving our loved one, and perhaps trying to find new ways of keeping them alive in our personal life. Yet we often use both types of coping simultaneously. The wallet theft might leave us feeling disillusioned about or angry with society. To alleviate these feelings we would turn to emotion-focused coping. The death of a partner might force us to make a number of practical decisions to do with finances or housing, for which we would apply problem-focused coping strategies.

Problem-focused coping has to do with generating solutions. Lyubomirsky lists ways people adopt for doing so: 1. They concentrate their efforts to do something about the problem. 2. They do what needs to be done, step by step. 3. They develop a strategy. 4. They draw up a plan of action. 5. They put aside other activities and focus on the issue. 6. They get advice from others. 7. They ask someone for help.3 People who cope well with life’s challenges will firstly ask themselves whether they can address a problem in one way or another, and then do everything they practically can to alleviate it. And they will not hesitate to accept help from others.

When there is little that can be done to fix or minimise a negative event, or when we feel overwhelmed by it, we will need to turn to emotion-focused coping strategies. This is an umbrella term for a range of approaches, which help us cope with a difficult, uncontrollable situation and assist us in living through it as well as possible.

Among these are behavioural approaches. Some I already discussed last week, including physical exercise and engaging in pleasant activities. Another effective approach for the short term is distraction. Behavioural coping approaches serve to give us a breather from our distress.4 They are all highly effective, and if you are going through a hard time I want you to write them down right now: exercise, positive emotions, and distraction.

Then there are cognitive strategies, which have to do with reinterpretation or reframing, i.e. finding new meaning. Lyubomirsky writes that these include looking for what can be learned from a setback or trying to find a silver lining, i.e. something that is positive within it.5 A family friend was recently diagnosed with un-operable cancer and underwent two rounds of chemotherapy, which unfortunately only achieved an accelerated deterioration of his health. One day, sitting in the waiting room for another round of chemo, he suffered a kidney failure, collapsed and passed out. His wife, who is a truly inspiring and resilient person, had only positive things to say, and used the word fortunate several times whilst recounting what had happened. She was glad he had collapsed right there in the hospital and not anywhere else, relieved that staff were there when she was out of the home at the time and would have been unable to help him, and pleased with the speed, graciousness and professionalism with which he was treated by the doctors and nurses.

Another cognitive approach, according to Lyubomirsky, is acceptance of a negative event: finding our willingness to live with it. Spiritual approaches, i.e. spiritual or religious beliefs, are also highly effective for reinterpretation.6 Both themes I will tackle in a later blog. For now please add find something positive, acceptance, and spirituality to your list.

Cognitive emotion-focused strategies help us to make sense out of the senseless. This scientific term simply stands for coping approaches in which we try to understand our feelings, motives, values, hopes and beliefs. It is about pondering the deepest questions and wrestling meaning from life; about interpreting life on our own terms. Our conclusions will be uniquely true for us and may not conform to others’ beliefs. But that’s okay. The process of interpretation is deeply meaningful, because it not only helps us to cope but also connects us more deeply to life. So on your note, please add find meaning beneath the obvious. And now perhaps stick it on your fridge.

Lyubomirsky points out that some chronically unhappy individuals neither wish to reframe negative life events in a positive light nor cope with traumatic experiences by forgiving them or turning to faith.7 And yet anyone interested in their emotional wellbeing will need to reframe an event that is resistant to problem-solving. It’s that simple. I’m not trying to make it sound easy. To find something positive, or something to learn from, or to consider forgiving a loss, rape, accident, crime, betrayal, or vicious attack etc can be a momentous undertaking. But it may the only way to cope and thus prevent ourselves from breaking.

Perhaps you have heard of the late psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl, who wrote a memoir about surviving Nazi concentration camps. According to Frankl, despite the deprivations, spiritual life deepened among many prisoners, giving them a rich inner retreat from their terrible surroundings. Humour was practiced, even a trifling good thing would cause great joy, and every bit of luck was taken note of. He found that due to the total lack of human dignity granted to him as a prisoner, he had to mentally fight for his human values in order to maintain his self-respect. He wrote:

There were enough examples of camp life that showed that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.8

We may not be in a concentration camp, but life can deal us some pretty devastating blows. It seems to me that in our journey in 2016 the only thing that is certain is that life is full of uncertainties. If you are in a situation that is resistant to problem-focused coping and need to turn to emotion-focused strategies, I hope you have that fridge note ready. And I wish you courage.

© Natalie Lydia Barker 2016


  1. Lisa S. Meredith, Sarah J. Sherbourne and Sarah J. Gaillot, Promoting Psychological Resilience in the U.S. Army (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Cooperation, 2011).
  2. Sonja Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want (New York: The Penguin Press, 2008).
  3. Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness.
  4. Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness.
  5. Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness.
  6. Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness.
  7. Sonja Lyubomirsky, “Why are Some People Happier Than Others? The Role of Cognitive and Motivational Processes in Well-Being,” American Psychologist 56, no. 3 (2001).
  8. Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy; a Newly Revised and Enlarged Edition of ‘From Death-camp to Existentialism’ (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959).


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