The Role of Positive Psychology and Resiliency in Health Communications


Ding. Ding. Ding. The all too familiar sound of colleagues dialing in to a remote call, echoed through kitchens, living rooms and home offices across the country. At the time, the full implications of COVID-19 hadn’t really begun to hit any of us yet- we were just on the cusp of what “shelter in place” truly meant. Instead, we were focused on learning about how infusing the tenets of positive psychology into communications can impact patient outcomes. Little did we know that what we learned that day had broader implications beyond just being more effective communicators in our professional lives – but also as people who are living through what we all know now as “unprecedented times.”

Our remote guest of honor that day was New York City-based Laurie Keefer, PhD, an expert in utilizing positive psychology and resiliency training to help people - and the physicians who treat them - better navigate chronic illnesses.

While as communicators we are regularly asked to develop tools and resources for people around disease education, the use of positive psychology in communications is a relatively unexplored area. It can be challenging to explain how diving deep into the psychology of chronic illness can ultimately benefit all stakeholders. Dr. Keefer mused that even the words “positive psychology” can sound like a pseudoscience.

Yet, the science is strong. The research behind the brain-body connection and how positive psychology can harness that power are compelling. Dr. Keefer shared examples of how patient outcomes and symptoms in illnesses, like inflammatory bowel and heart disease, can be improved simply by addressing patient’s emotional wellbeing and teaching coping skills. There’s evidence that emotionally healthy individuals living with chronic conditions may even be more adherent to treatment plans.

Dr. Keefer shared that one of the cornerstones to a positive psychology approach is teaching people how to be more resilient. Contrary to popular belief – people can be taught resiliency. Resiliency is more than just an innate ability had by some and not others. By practicing learned optimism and gratitude – while fostering positive and beneficial personal and professional relationships – resiliency can be built.

Physicians can also benefit from better resiliency. In a recent study, physicians from 26 different specialties reported experiencing job fatigue. Burnout from factors like emotional exhaustion can lead to real consequences, like an increase in medical errors. Resiliency training can help keep burnout at bay.

With evidence that firmly connects the power of positive psychology to improved patient care and patient-physician communications - we should feel more confident in creating communication approaches that support mental wellbeing, providing another tangible way to turn “patient-centricity” into reality.

Dr. Keefer suggested the following exercises to support resiliency, which is needed now more than ever before.

Optimizing Strengths and Generating Flow – Do what makes you happy
• Using and capitalizing on your key “signature” strengths is a surefire way to be successful and can help you navigate tasks that you might find less enjoyable.
• Curious what your signature strengths are? Take the VIA Character Strengths quiz to learn more at

Learned Optimism – Always look on the bright side of life
• Everybody interprets and explains life events in different ways, but being an optimist isn’t a born trait – it can be taught using the 3 P’s: Permanence, Pervasiveness, Personalization: Take a moment to think: is this event permanent? Or only temporary? Was this event caused by something specific? Did I cause this event? Or did something else?
• Check out Dr. Martin’s Seligman’s book, Learned Optimism.

Savoring Positive Emotions and Practicing Gratitude – Stop to smell and appreciate the roses
• The day can come and go in the blink of an eye without you even being able to remember what you ate for breakfast, let alone remember how you felt about it. So, take the time to label and savor your positive emotions throughout the day. Research suggests that the positive emotions (happiness, contentment, joy, etc.) are associated with healthy immune system functioning.

Nurturing Relationships and Self-compassion – Keep your friends close
• The social support that we receive from nurturing relationships does so much more than provide just a few good laughs or happy memories; it creates positive health effects and stress buffering.

This presentation was part of GCI Health’s signature initiative, ‘People at the Center,’ where we share people inspired trends and insights that help guide our communication strategies.