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Start 2021 with positive attitude, JMU researchers say

by Eric Gorton


The end of a calendar year can be a stressful time. Just planning for and observing the end-of-the-year holidays can raise the blood pressure. Add in this year’s cantankerous election season and the pandemic, with all the adaptations it has required, and it’s not hard to see why many people are looking for some positive change.

JMU psychology professors Ben Blankenship and Jaime Kurtz say there are a number of strategies to help make 2021 a positive year.

Kurtz is an expert in positive psychology with an interest in savoring. She researches various strategies on enhancing happiness in everyday life, happiness and holidays, travel and more. She is the author of, "The Happy Traveler: Unpacking the Secrets of Better Vacations," published in 2017 by Oxford University Press.

Blankenship does research on the interplay of various social identities across various critically important contexts, including education and politics. He also is interested in how gendered stereotypes of minority groups (women & sexual minorities) interact with contexts that are stereotypically masculine.

Some of the strategies include finding a new hobby or activity, volunteering, expressing gratitude and even remaining politically active. 

Find a new activity

One of the challenges to lasting happiness lies in the fact that we adapt to the pleasant but ordinary stuff of everyday life. Combat this by trying something new. Start small: Try a new class at the gym. Take a pottery class. Cook something exotic. Or go bigger: Learn a new language. Register for a triathlon. Audition for community theater. You might uncover a latent talent or passion, make new friends, or feel more connected to your community. Don't forget the oft-cited finding that experiences, not things, are related to happiness. Take advantage of all of the rich experiences that lie just outside of your comfort zone. 


There is ample evidence to suggest that doing prosocial behaviors—actions that are done to benefit others—brings surprising benefits to the person performing the kind acts. From random acts of kindness to spending a small amount of money on others, there is a clear mood boost that comes from doing a kindness. As positive psychology research pioneer Marty Seligman once remarked, “Doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.” So find a cause you care about and get involved. Or simply offer to drive a friend to the airport or the doctor's office. Prosocial behavior is a win-win. 

Become or remain politically involved beyond 2020

Presidential election years are filled with anxiety and anticipation surrounding the presidential race and the outcome and 2020 was definitely no exception. While many of the best practices for coping with the emotions the election produces remain helpful at any other time, it is also important to remain politically active beyond the election. Not only does this make it a habit to be involved, but research shows that political engagement can have a number of positive outcomes, including building a sense of community, feeling connected to something bigger than ourselves, and by creating feelings of political self-efficacy. These benefits can continue to improve and shape our lives well after the 2020 election has concluded. A good place to start may be identifying a candidate for Governor of Virginia, and getting involved in their primary campaign early next year.  

Express gratitude

In one groundbreaking study, the simple act of counting your blessings—that is, writing down three things that you're grateful for—showed surprising benefits for participants' mental and physical health. Why? One reason is that it takes the blinders off, encouraging us to examine and appreciate small things that might otherwise go unnoticed. And it can enhance our relationships, too: Recent findings suggest that expressing gratitude in relationship contexts can enhance intimate bonds, so don't be afraid to offer a genuine "thank you" to your partner. 

The tough part is enacting them and committing to performing them regularly, Kurtz said. “In the same way that you can’t eat a kale salad once and declare yourself a healthy person, you can’t write in a gratitude journal or volunteer just once and expect to be lastingly happier. Give some thought to how you will successfully incorporate your chosen activity into your life in a way that will stick.” 

Kurtz also recommends making any behavior change easy to do. “Remove barriers, and make it as rewarding as you can. You might want to give yourself a goodie for doing it, at least for a while!” 

As with any goal, the key is finding something that fits your schedule, lifestyle and personality, and then sticking to it. 


Media contact: Eric Gorton,; 540-908-1760. 


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Published: Thursday, December 10, 2020

Last Updated: Friday, December 11, 2020

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