For many, the pandemic has taken mental health out of the four walls of the psychologist’s office and brought it into the everyday – into dinner table conversations and workplace video-calls. We are more comfortable asking each other how we are, and more comfortable answering honestly when we respond ourselves.
We’re also talking more about mental health in public forums and media outlets, meaning we’re confronting the dire statistics of just how many people are struggling globally. These reports might be validating for a significant proportion of us who are grieving, isolated, anxious and uneasy about our uncertain future.
For others of us, living a life that is “locked down” has offered a welcome reprieve from the busy demands of our pre-pandemic lives, giving us more time and space to “just be” and strengthen our mental health.
A third group of people are likely to be swinging between emotional states like we are riding a dizzying rollercoaster.
This “swinging back and forth” might feel particularly pronounced during times of great uncertainty, like those that we are all experiencing at the moment as the threat of the Omicron variant looms large.
Irrespective of which group you fall into and acknowledging that there are no silver-bullet fixes, there are insights we can glean from psychological science to nudge us more towards a flourishing state, more of the time.
Of course, for those who are struggling with those large stressors in life that really test our coping strategies to their limits – grief and bereavement, serious illness, depression, unemployment, and more – these strategies may not resonate. Please reach out for help and utilise the networks available to you through loved ones and support services.
Fortunately, for many of us, it’s the small things, our everyday habits and rituals that we can use to create the nudges towards flourishing. A team of positive psychology researchers from around the world recently described these habits as “buffering, bolstering, and building mental health”.
Buffering mental distress with flow
At a time where we are experiencing the news “live”, not just once a day or once a week but every hour (or what can feel like every minute), our brains can feel like they are always on, always processing, and always alert to threat.
We may feel hungry for updates, constantly refreshing our phones. The downside of this is that we are alert to the threat of the virus, or its latest variant, but unable to do anything about it.
When we are in a constant state of anxiety that’s difficult to pin down, or even boredom or apathy, we miss out on experiencing that sweet spot psychologists call being in “flow”.
We are in flow when our abilities match the challenge of the task – leading us to a state where we feel focused and engaged, whether that’s alone or with others. Flow shakes off that sometimes heavy sense of self-consciousness that we carry with us, and we lose track of time altogether.
Depending on who you are, you might find your flow state when you are running, cooking, having a deep chat with a friend, playing video games or even cleaning. It’s important to note that you don’t need to be an expert in any one of those things – you can achieve flow on a gentle run around the block just as easily as a seasoned marathon runner might.
Experiencing a flow state helps to buffer distress because it shifts our focus away from what we can’t control, and towards what we can. It keeps our minds (and usually our hands) engaged, and doing more of it, more of the time, can bring us back in touch with the things that bring us joy.
Bolstering mental health with connection
As well as finding our flow state, research shows that we can strengthen our pandemic mental health by boosting what psychologists from the University of North Carolina call “positivity resonance” – a technical name for intentionally sharing positive emotions with others.
It may sound obvious, and for many of us it comes naturally when we eat dinner with our family or video-call a friend, but it can also slip away from us if we aren’t fiercely guarding it. Dinner conversations can give way to dinner around the TV, or we can feel “too busy” to spend time with friends.
The key idea of positivity resonance is that positive emotion is much more powerful when it is shared with someone else, and that the quality of these interactions is more important than quantity.
That’s because shared positivity has been found to “broaden and build” our emotional resources, meaning that it isn’t only enjoyable in the moment, but that it multiplies, leading to more and more positive emotion, and connection, over time.
Whoever you share your household with, we understand that it can feel like a stretch at times to even get along – let alone to reach a state of positivity resonance – but remember that bolstering our mental health is about strengthening what we already have.
Try adding just one new habit to your daily routine with a loved one, such as turning up the feel-good music when you’re both driving in the car. Remember, the goal is about shifting the dial more towards flourishing more of the time, not about eliminating unpleasant emotions altogether.
Building new outlooks with meaning
Alongside engaging in flow and boosting connection, some astonishing research speaks to the power of meaning and purpose as a step towards better flourishing.
Having a sense of purpose at work, for example, is significantly associated with higher wellbeing, satisfaction with life, and lower psychological distress in our Umbrella Wellbeing Assessment dataset of working New Zealanders. Even more compelling, in a fascinating study that tracked North American adults over time, stronger life purpose was associated with decreased mortality.
Sometimes it can take a major life event – like a pandemic – to reconnect with what is truly important to us. When push comes to shove, what makes you feel like your whole, happiest self? What do you miss the most when so much is taken away from us? Is it the work you do? Caring for your family? Exploring new places? Meeting new people?
Take time to recognise where you find your meaning (knowing that it might change over time!) and give yourself full permission to prioritise that. Hold it close to your chest now and into the future.
It can feel overwhelming when you are feeling down, or languishing, to read about all of the many different things you are supposed to do to feel better (exercise, connect, meditate, eat healthy, sleep well… the list goes on!)
If you’re looking for just one place to start, pick an activity that fulfils your sense of flow, bolsters shared positive emotion or builds your sense of meaning – or, better yet, does all three!
Dr Amanda Wallis leads the research programme at Umbrella Wellbeing and is passionate about making psychological research useable in our everyday lives. Gaynor Parkin is a clinical psychologist and CEO at Umbrella Wellbeing, a team of psychologists who provide workplace wellbeing support.