On Coronavirus Lockdown? Look for Meaning, not Happiness
– New York Times, April 7 2020, Emily Esfahani Smith
A Silver Linings Playbook
“The coronavirus pandemic has not just threatened the physical health of millions but also wreaked havoc on the emotional and mental well-being of people around the world. Feelings of anxiety, helplessness and grief are rising as people face an increasingly uncertain future — and nearly everyone has been touched by loss. A nationally representative poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation finds that nearly half of all Americans — 45 percent — feel that the coronavirus has negatively affected their mental health.
Which raises a question: Is there anything people can do to cope with the emotional fallout of this confusing and challenging time?
How people respond to adversity is a topic I’ve investigated for years as a journalist. Over the past decade, I’ve interviewed dozens of people about their experiences of extreme stress and have scoured the academic research in psychology on resilience to understand why some people are broken by crises while others emerge from stressful experiences even stronger than before.”
Through the WI lens
The expression ‘tragic optimism’ describes a state whereby, in the face of crisis or traumatic events, you protect your mental health by not recoiling but rather, extracting some meaning from what has happened. The term, we learn, was coined by Viktor Frankl, a Viennese psychoanalyst and Holocaust survivor, who saw that people who clung to hope when confronted with unbearable pain and loss somehow emerged from the experience stronger than those who either succumbed to the anguish or tried to block it out. This observation was backed up by research among young people in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, which concluded that those who detected glimmers of light in the events suffered less depression than their peers, in spite of being equally distressed.
Taking it a stage further, psychologists have concluded that people can grow through finding meaning in traumatic events. The relevance to the Covid-19 pandemic today is obvious: people who help other people through providing care, or through volunteer and support groups will draw strength from that; whereas those who simply dwell on the misery and their own sense of loss will not. Nor is simply striving after happiness, with one’s head ostrich-like in the sand, an antidote to troubling experiences. Better wellbeing comes from making some sense of what life throws at you, not in ‘solve everything’ wisdom but in allowing acceptance and retaining hope. Bad things happen – one of the best ways to deal with it is to understand how it can positively change you as a person.
What this article goes on to explain is how positive thinking – described here as ‘thriving’ – can counter the effects that come from the negativity outlined above, from reduced memory to diminished performance. Based on studying people in a series of organisations in different industries, one of the authors has found that people who attain this state are more resilient, experience less burnout, and are more confident in their ability to take control of a situation
“Behind the jargon what this is really about is how we address the challenge of biodiversity under threat, move away from fossil materials like plastic and concrete, and use nature in a sustainable way, all of which could be summed up by “living in harmony with nature”.”
“In the new ‘consensual contract’ between employer and worker, what’s required is a commitment from the employer to safeguard the wellbeing of their people, and a commitment in return from employees to take personal responsibility for their performance of their job.”
“Could loneliness not only be damaging our mental and physical health but also be making the world a more aggressive, angry place? And if so, what are the implications for a cohesive society and democracy?”
“On such fragile foundations are built the first steps towards a more ethical kind of business, and who knows what virtuous circles might result?”
“Scientific evidence recently emerged that, contrary to earlier beliefs, Covid-19 can be spread by tiny droplets that we breathe out when we respire, called aerosols.”
“Economic wellbeing is part of the story, but it is also about finding less stressful lifestyles, in which healthy diet figures as a meaningful measure of success.”
“The industry has every asset needed to be a guiding light in the shift toward personal health priority. Will that become a prevention legacy, a ‘phoenix rising’ from the Covid-19 ashes?”
“Looking at the bigger picture, putting the measures in this order represents a lost opportunity that the pandemic could have offered for a cultural pivot pivot towards getting people more focused on their health, a powerful statement of intent.”
“Employment is necessary to fulfil our most basic human needs such as food and shelter. Any significant increase in long-term unemployment will spell a retrograde step for human wellbeing like no other.”