For many college students, COVID-19 caused much more than the loneliness of social distancing or the frustration of online classes. The pandemic also incited fear, as job offers were rescinded; anxiety, as internships were canceled; and disappointment, as weddings were postponed. Such concerns can be magnified by personal trials, like losing a mother to cancer, getting a severe concussion from a car accident or preparing to be the father of triplets during austere economic conditions. These are all real examples of adversity and uncertainty experienced by BYU students in a single course this past semester. Yet, while life circumstances were urging them to look inward, with angst and self-pity, many of these same students chose to look outward, with love and compassion. You can too.

To help cope with the fear and uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, will you commit to spreading positivity for 10 days in a row? 

This past semester, students taking Organizational Effectiveness at the BYU Marriott School of Business were given a new option for their group project. Student teams could either do a traditional research paper, or they could apply course concepts to “make a positive difference” in the world — in any creative way they imagined. The majority of teams chose the latter option. Despite teams being forced to scrap their original plans due to COVID-19 restrictions, many impressive and uplifting projects emerged. 

One team applied course concepts (e.g., psychological needs, prosocial motivation, emotional contagion) to design and promote a 10-day Positivity Challenge — with how-to suggestions for spreading positivity in socially distant ways. They invite everyone to participate:

  • Day 1: Leave sticky notes with nice messages on the door of a neighbor, friend or family member.
  • Day 2: Write a gratitude note to a coworker, mentor or loved one.
  • Day 3: Call someone on the phone (literally … using your voice) to catch up and see if they need anything.
  • Day 4: Share inspiring or uplifting material on social media (e.g., John Krasinki’s “Some Good News”).
  • Day 5: Make a meal or treat to share.
  • Day 6: Pay for someone’s meal behind you in a drive-thru, or randomly Venmo a friend and say, “lunch is on me.”
  • Day 7: Be engaged on social media by making a kind comment on three people’s posts.
  • Day 8: Share a funny meme or joke with someone.
  • Day 9: Get up and move! Learn a TikTok dance, go on a walk and wave to people you pass or do yoga with friends over FaceTime.
  • Day 10: Encourage others to spread positivity by sharing these ideas! 

To some, these efforts may seem trivial amidst a global crisis; the results were anything but. 

The students learned that people are craving positivity during this time of social isolation. They witnessed how small actions can start positive chain reactions. They learned the importance and benefits of looking outward when your natural instincts (and social-distancing guidelines) are drawing your focus inward. Students experienced firsthand the truth behind the saying attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson: “It is one of the most beautiful compensations of life, that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.” 

These important life lessons may not be rocket science, but they are social and behavioral science. For example, in 2013, researchers examined whether people are happier spending money on themselves or others. They gave research participants a voucher to buy a small goody bag, with half the participants receiving the opportunity to buy the goody bag for themselves, while the other half could buy it for a sick child at a nearby hospital. Perhaps not surprisingly, people who bought the goody bag for a sick child reported higher levels of happiness than those who bought it for themselves. But that was just one study. In 2018, a meta-analysis synthesized data from 27 experimental studies involving over 4,000 research participants. They found that, on average, doing kind deeds for others increases well-being, life satisfaction and happiness. Moreover, looking outward and spreading positivity is contagious. Another stream of research shows that after people witness the virtuous behavior of others, they are more motivated to be kind and help others themselves. 

Spreading positivity doesn’t mean that you have to minimize or overlook the devastating effects of COVID-19 and the genuine tragedy of both livelihoods and loved ones lost. Rather, focusing outward pushes you to do the small, simple, meaningful things that are within your control, when so much of life right now is not.

Simple acts. Powerful results. Contagious efforts. 

While spreading positivity won’t accelerate the discovery of a vaccine or help revitalize the macro economy, stepping up to a 10-day positivity challenge might just help you maintain a healthy positive perspective during this abnormally unhealthy time. Will you accept the challenge?

Isaac Smith is a faculty member at the BYU Marriott School of Business.

Katie Wade is a senior majoring in experience design and management at the BYU Marriott School of Business