In times of crisis we need to counter our innate negativity bias, drawing on our capacities for connection and compassion as well as the rich knowledge base of wellbeing science. Last year my group and I published an innovative model of health and wellbeing that takes into consideration major societal challenges.
Even before the coronavirus crisis, society was facing several major challenges including a loneliness epidemic, increasing burden of chronic disease and anthropogenic climate change, amongst others. Our model was inspired by developments in positive psychology, but moves beyond the individual, spanning community and wider environments within which we live.
The Coronavirus has changed our society dramatically within a very short period. Within less than a week, our university community has embraced working from home, rethinking how we deliver our teaching and conduct our research. While the university community appears to have adjusted to this new way of working remarkably quickly, we also face various challenges including home schooling our kids, and the prospect of the majority of us falling victim to the virus. Home working can also be a lonely experience for some, even with technological solutions such as Zoom and Skype. Positive social ties are a fundamental component for health and wellbeing with some researchers finding the effects to be even stronger than those for physical activity and smoking cessation.
So how might we adjust to the new way of working and what opportunities might there be to facilitate individual wellbeing and flourishing at this time? The answer is to draw on evidence-based research and theory to help us shift our innate negativity bias to a more positive frame of mind. Our own theoretical model emphasises the need to focus on the individual, community and the wider environment within which we live. I will now discuss each of these components in turn highlighting the implications of each with specific examples.
Individual wellbeing is the focus of psychological science, and several influential - albeit controversial - models have been proposed. Key components of wellbeing include positive emotions, engagement and psychological flow, positive social relationships, meaning and purpose in life and a sense of achievement. Research shows how positive emotions undo stress responses; engaging in challenging tasks can lead to a positive experiences known as psychological flow; positive social relationships have substantial impacts on our physical health; having a strong sense of purpose and meaning in life is able to help us to overcome adversity; and that a sense of achievement can contribute to personal flourishing.
It is important therefore to think about what the implications of working from home might have on psychological wellbeing, and how we might apply some of these principles in our new way of working? Working from home is at risk of many distractions including a constant barrage of negative news stories, social media, and online streaming. These distractions impact on our ability to focus and engage in tasks that we need to complete, as well as our experience of psychological flow - task absorption is an important component to happiness - and our sense of achievement. I have been using tools such as RescueTime and the Forest app to help reduce the likelihood of distraction, although these have not yet been developed to the stage where they can help our kids with their school work!
Working from home is isolating and the constant regular delivery of negative news can quickly lead to chronic feelings of distress, anxiety and hopelessness. Looking after our mental health will be especially important in the weeks and months to come. Meditation is a practice that has gained increasing attention from scientists in recent years. Practicing meditation is an important opportunity to focus our thoughts on the present, countering ruminative thoughts which are past-focused and feelings of anxiety which are future-focused. In other words meditation forces us to be in a state-of-mind that is incompatible with depression and anxiety. There are many ways to commence meditation practice even if you have not done this before. For instance, I learnt this morning that a local meditation centre is offering regular online classes for a small monthly fee.
Individual wellbeing is also intimately connected to our physical health, so thinking about how to incorporate - for example - physical activity into our routine will be an important consideration over coming months especially if stricter lockdowns are imposed including banning access to public parks and outdoor spaces as is now being discussed in the media. I am heartened to see fitness clubs quickly moving to an online space and harnessing technological opportunities such as Facebook Live and Zoom. My local kickboxing club - which as it happens is co-owned by a member of our university community - has embraced the online world, providing family classes most days of the week using Zoom and a private Facebook groups. The Chinese word for crisis includes two characters, one for danger and another for opportunity.
Positive social relationships and community connectedness are fundamental components to health and wellbeing. Social isolation and loneliness are already endemic in society and the present situation is not helping. While our innate negativity bias takes over in times of crisis, it is important sometimes to take a step back to think about others and how our actions impact on those we interact with. Take for example, a recent story of a neighbours son who works in a local supermarket. She mentioned that panic buying has led to much shopper frustration and anger, and unfortunately some shoppers are now venting their frustration onto staff. This experience was countered recently by one shopper who came up to my neighbour's son, thanked him for his efforts and hard work while giving him a box of chocolates to share with his colleagues. A new Facebook group, titled the ‘kindness pandemic' has emerged as a means to share stories that reaffirm our sense of positive social ties, community and humanity at a time of great distress and uncertainty. These stories give me hope. I read an article by a sociologist last week who suggested that we learn from the actions of many daddy long-leg spiders who pulsate as one living organism in a cave to protect themselves from the 5000 bats in search of individual insects for food. In the words of an Oxford-based anthropologist, “community, in a word, is the beating heart of life, and we neglect it at our peril.”
Finally, isolation will mean that we have will less time to spend in nature, something research is now telling us is critical for individual health and wellbeing. Italy has now banned access to parks and outdoor environments substantially curtailing access to positive environments. Might this be an opportune time to harness our gardening skills or to delve into the fine art of pruning a bonsai?
The implications of wellbeing science for the academic community at this time are profound. It is a good time therefore to reflect on what is important, not only for how we might adapt to our new ways of working, but for our health and wellbeing generally at time of great distress and uncertainty.