In the midst of a pandemic, positivity can be hard to come by, particularly when protests and racial tension may compound emotions already running high from months of staying at home and from uncertainty over a new virus.
Looking for a way to contribute constructively to the challenging situation, husband-and-wife duo James Pawelski, a professor of practice in Penn’s Positive Psychology Center (PPC), and science of well-being writer and double Penn alumna Suzann Pileggi Pawelski, teamed with Larry King to create a free online video series called “Coping with COVID.” Each 30-minute show lives on the site of Positive Voices, an online business founded by several Penn alum, with the social mission to increase global well-being.
Together, Pawelski and King interview experts and researchers on subjects from parenting in a pandemic to spirituality. “We wanted to be a bridge between the research and the application,” says Pawelski, who is the PPC director of education and runs Penn’s Master of Applied Positive Psychology Program (MAPP). “There’s a lot of information going around and we wanted to add to the conversation, but from a standpoint well-rooted in science.”
The seeds of this partnership began after King interviewed Pawelski and Pileggi Pawelski about their 2018 book “Happy Together.” As the Positive Voices team, led by 2015 MAPP graduates Danny Southwick and Donna Hemmert, better shaped what a new COVID-related series would look like, they felt that someone like King could help the information reach a broad audience during a troubling time.
He readily agreed to the project, and to do it for free. “When you’re in a situation that we’re in, what’s better than learning,” King says. “This series offers tremendous growth potential for people. It’s only beneficial, and I’m proud to be a part of it.”
During the first episode, which aired in mid-April, Pawelski and King discussed why such conversations are needed and what positive psychology is all about. In seven others so far, they’ve broached topics with researcher-guests like how families can thrive during the pandemic, the role of exercise in boosting the mind, and why someone doesn’t need to be religious to benefit from spirituality.
“Larry and James have great chemistry and work well together,” says Southwick, who is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology at Penn.
“Larry asks these open, authentic questions that people on the street want to know, but the series offers more than just media interviews,” Hemmert says. “We’re providing information that people can use to improve their lives, and James is a master at synthesizing great research from the best people on the planet.”
Pawelski says he’d like to keep the program going for as long as there’s a need. To that end, upcoming interviews will feature discussions about race and other topics pertinent to current national events spurred by the death of George Floyd.
The partnership will also soon move beyond the “Coping with COVID” series, when King and Pawelski interview actor Kevin Bacon—virtually, from their homes—about Bacon’s nonprofit SixDegrees.org. That event is being hosted by New York City’s 92nd Street Y.
“Relationships are such a key part of Kevin’s life,” Pawelski says. “He realized the ‘six degrees of Kevin Bacon’ phenomenon was something he could use to connect people and causes with celebrities to raise money for charity.”
During the pandemic, that’s meant SixDegrees.org has raised funds to feed frontline workers. Bacon has also created a movement around the hashtag #Istayhomefor to encourage people to stay home and to tell the world why they’re doing so. The live June 11 event, called “The Art of Positive Conversation,” will also explore the role of arts and culture in well-being and the importance of open dialogue at this moment in history. It will include an opportunity for attendees to join the conversation by posing their own questions to the trio.
“Positive conversations aren’t necessarily always pleasant and comfortable, but they put into practice what is, perhaps, the central finding of positive psychology: ‘Other people matter,’” Pawelski says. “We want to emphasize the importance of listening with openness and curiosity to understand other people and their experiences, interests, and needs. And we want to connect that explicitly to combatting racism in the quest for social justice.”
All of these conversations, the “Coping with COVID” series, the event with Bacon, and several others on the horizon, aim to make sense of a situation for which there is no playbook. “Unless you were a young adult in 1918, you’ve never experienced this,” King says. “This is a terrible time, but in terrible times great people pull together.”
James Pawelski is a professor of practice and director of education in the Positive Psychology Center in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also director of the Humanities and Human Flourishing Project, which investigates connections between engagement in the arts and humanities and human flourishing.
Danny Southwick is a 2015 graduate of the Master of Applied Positive Psychology Program at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in the Department of Psychology in the School of Arts & Sciences.
Donna Hemmert is a 2015 graduate of the Master of Applied Positive Psychology Program at the University of Pennsylvania. Prior to MAPP, she spent more than two decades as an executive in internet entrepreneurial ventures.