Beth Cabrera, the first lady of Georgia Tech, is a psychologist and Tech alumna (M.S. PSY 1993, Ph.D. PSY 1995). Her research focuses on the power of positive psychology to achieve greater success and well-being. For the last few years, she has been sharing her expertise on positivity with Tech students as a guest presenter in a five-week course called "Resilience Building Strategies: Growing Through What We Are Going Through." It was developed in 2019 by Sonia Alvarez-Robinson, executive director of Georgia Tech Strategic Consulting, and Joi Alexander, director of Health Initiatives.
“Social support is the number one factor for well-being," Cabrera said. "We need people. It’s an evolutionary thing, because back in the caveman days, if you didn’t have your tribe to help keep you safe, you died. You could not survive alone.”
Today, because of physical distancing in work and social environments brought about by the pandemic, many people are less connected to others.
“Some people feel like they’re connected because they’re using social media, but that’s not the same kind of connection,” she said. “We are less connected to our communities. We aren’t as involved in our churches or different associations. During the pandemic it was important to have physical distance, but not social distance.”
Cabrera said that having a positive outlook and experiencing happiness are also important to well-being. But she said that “being happy” should not be the goal.
“There’s a difference between doing things that allow you to experience positive emotions and having the goal of being happy,” she said. “Being happy all the time is never going to happen, so if you set a goal to be happy, then you’re always going to fall short.”
Instead, Cabrera suggests participating in activities that make you happy. That could be anything from reading to exercising to hanging out with friends. The result will be a feeling of happiness that can be repeated as needed.
Positive psychology does not mean you deny your negative feelings. “Positive psychology first and foremost recognizes that we are human and that humans are going to experience a wide range of emotions," she said. "It’s very important to accept all of your emotions, the good and the bad. We know that if you try to ignore or suppress any of those negative emotions, they just get stronger.”
Cabrera is encouraged to see that society is more attuned to mental health issues than ever before.
“I started talking to companies in 2004 about employee well-being, telling them that it actually is linked to performance. Happy employees will be smarter, more creative, and they will work together better,” she said. “Today there is a heightened awareness of the importance of mental health and the need to help people address these issues.”
Alvarez-Robinson said, “Having Dr. Cabrera come and speak to our class has been a highlight of the students’ experience since we started the class in 2019. We recognized that our students needed additional skills for navigating change, challenges, and uncertainty. We proposed it as part of the mini-mester pilot program and the first cohort launched in Spring 2020.”
The one-credit course will be offered again in the fall and is listed as Resilience Building Strategies 4801/8801 (cross-listed for undergraduate and graduate students).
A recording of Cabrera’s most recent workshop, along with other related sessions, is available on the Georgia Tech Resilience ERG website.