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Responsibilities May Include

How to flourish during a pandemic

Martin Seligman offers us five pillars to thrive in challenging circumstances.


The current pandemic has changed the way we work and may possibly continue to do so well into the future. Many university staff are now working from home and although re-entry is being discussed by some universities, it is unclear what this will look like and how quickly this will take place. In addition, staff are also having to cope with multiple stressors which can include caring for children, social isolation, financial stresses and the risk of potential heath issues due to the pandemic.

As a result, it is important to look at strategies for flourishing in the midst of challenging circumstances. Psychologist Martin Seligman offers such a framework: positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning and achievement. As we review each of these five pillars, note what strategies you can apply in your work.

Positive emotions

Positive emotions are “good feelings” and can include joy, contentment, amusement, excitement, interest, etc. Along with making us feel good, research suggests that they can help us to grow, be more resilient, increase our performance and engagement at work, and even make better lifestyle choices.

One proven strategy to foster positive emotions, along with decreasing stress levels, is to keep a “gratitude journal” in which you note what you are thankful for on a regular basis. I keep my journal on my bedside table, and just prior to going to bed, I will write about the days events that I am grateful for. As I write, I deliberately spend a few seconds recalling the event I am grateful for. Going for a drive with my wife is an example. Courtney E. Ackerman lists numerous ideas for optimizing the benefit of your gratitude journal.


When we are engaged in an activity, at work or elsewhere, we are fully absorbed in the activity. We lose track of time and feel energized and alive. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described this experience as “flow.”

One strategy for increasing engagement is to include activities in our daily routines that promote “flow.” As an example, I find learning about anything related to career development highly engaging and set aside about 15 minutes each workday to read articles on this topic. A related strategy is to initiate or become involved in projects that you find engaging.

For greater clarity on what activities promote engagement in your life, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans suggest keeping a “good time” journal to capture activities that energize you or drain you. Once you have identified these moments, they encourage further exploration to better understand what conditions promote engagement in an activity.


Psychologists have long known the importance of relationships on our wellbeing; Maslow considered the desire to be connected with others as a basic human need, much like food and shelter is. Meaningful work relationships result in greater engagement, along with increased satisfaction and enjoyment of our work.

Implementing connection rituals, a way of regularly connecting with colleagues in a meaningful manner, is a simple way to strengthen and maintain meaningful work relationships. Before the pandemic, this involved a morning conversation or coffee with colleagues at the beginning of my day. During the pandemic, these interactions have been replaced by a morning zoom call with a few of my colleagues where we will share how we are doing and problem solve any challenges that one of us might be experiencing. It is important to note that beneficial interactions do not require a lot of time. and that even taking a few moments to genuinely inquire how someone is doing can boost a sense of belonging.


Meaning is about having a connection to a bigger purpose. Research has shown that individuals with a sense of purpose at work are more fulfilled at work, have greater well being, and less negative affect. While some individuals have a consistent, strong sense of purpose in their work, it is easy to forget why we do what we do in stressful circumstances such as a pandemic.

To find purpose in everyday tasks, Emily Esfahani Smith suggests taking three of the tasks you do on a regular basis and for each task answer the question “why do I do this?” three times. As an example, I will use the task: reviewing resumes. Why do I do this: to help students have a strong resume. Why: So that students can get an interview. Why: so that students can secure employment that aligns with their skills and knowledge. Notice that as I continue to answer the question the bigger purpose behind the task is becoming clear.


Within the PERMA framework, accomplishment can be described as a “way of reflecting on the attempts of doing something, and the degree in which this provides a positive sense of achievement.” Enhancing our sense of accomplishment can increase our internal motivations to achieve bigger goals as well as promote positive emotions. One tool for fostering a sense of accomplishment is to keep track of daily accomplishments no matter how small. Another tool for strengthening a sense of accomplishment in your work and enhancing the resulting positive emotions is “savouring.” This involves taking the time to deliberately relish and think about your accomplishments by periodically writing about achievements that you are proud of in a log. Patty Azzarello suggests answering these questions when doing this: What was the situation? What did you decide? What did you do? How did it turn out? What were you most proud of? How does this story reflect what you do when you are your best?

The challenge

Imagine that in three years you are looking back at this period in your life. What would you like to say to others about how you coped and even grew in the midst of the challenges a pandemic brings? What tools and activities presented from the PERMA framework can you apply to achieve this? Write a short note from your future to present self describing this and periodically review. Hopefully these pillars will help you to grow and thrive during this uncertain time.

Matthew Geddes
Matthew Geddes is a career development specialist at the University of Calgary where he helps graduate students reach their career aspirations through one-on-one consultations and webinars.
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  1. Cyndy Chan / August 28, 2020 at 15:55

    Thank you Matthew, for this article. It really helps to put things into perspective.

  2. Nicola Simmons / September 2, 2020 at 13:59

    Thanks Matthew – important reminders for these times.