In this second installment of a three-post series about mental health during a pandemic, Fred Schott of The Council for Disability Awareness picks up from where he left off in part 1, and shares four additional things he’s learned about life during a pandemic.
4. There’s a difference between being alone and feeling lonely
Even before we went into lockdown, there was lots of talk about a “loneliness epidemic,” which I always found a strange term. An epidemic implies there’s some kind of disease being transmitted from person to person – but if people are lonely, then how can they “catch” loneliness? At any rate, if we’re going to use public-health type language here, then maybe we should be talking instead about a pre-existing “pandemic” of loneliness in the sense that everybody is affected: youth, working-age, and older people alike.
At the beginning of 2020, when the new virus was barely on anybody’s radar screen (except for a small community of public health experts), health insurer Cigna released a report on the results of their 2020 Loneliness Index. Cigna surveyed 10,000+ people (including 6,000 who were working) and used the UCLA Loneliness Scale to measure their levels of loneliness and social isolation. The bottom line? “Loneliness is defined as a score of 43 or higher on UCLA’s Loneliness Scale. Currently, 61% of Americans have a loneliness score of 43+, compared to 54% in 2018.”
I could have a ton of people around me but if I’m not feeling connected to them, I may be lonely.
The UCLA Loneliness Scale is widely-recognized as an authoritative standard. A closer look at the questions reveals they all start with “How often do you feel….” And that’s important to keep in mind when following the conversation around loneliness.
Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy recently published a book on loneliness. In a pre-publication interview, he defined loneliness as “a subjective feeling that you’re lacking in social connections.” He continued: “This is different from isolation, which is the more objective measure of how many people you have around you. I could have a ton of people around me but if I’m not feeling connected to them, I may be lonely.”
So, being isolated because of “social distancing” requirements doesn’t necessarily mean you’re lonely. The good news is, there are things we can do, even in the midst of the pandemic, to improve the quality of our connections. Which brings me to my next “learning.”
5. Being virtually connected is better than not being connected at all….
…but you’ve got to work at it– and even then, it’s no substitute for the real thing
In the fall of 2014, I enrolled in a MOOC (massive open online course) on “The Science of Happiness” offered through the University California Berkeley. One of the topics covered how we’re physically wired – literally – for connection with others. For me, it was a powerful “aha” moment in understanding how and why face-to-face, in-person meetings at work were almost always so much more valuable than conference calls. Check out this recent article in Psychology Today that gets into the neuroscience behind why face-to-face interaction is superior in building empathy, trust, and more effective communication.
But in this time of “social distancing,” coming on the heels of a “loneliness crisis,” what are we supposed to do?
Give everybody in your “zone of quarantine” a 20-second hug every two hours.
I listened to a great podcast the other day where the host, Harvard professor Arthur Brooks, and Claremont Graduate University professor and “neuroeconomist” Paul Zak addressed exactly that point. Based on Zak’s extensive research on the neuroscience of trust and the role of the neuropeptide oxytocin, they came up with three practical strategies for maintaining meaningful connection in our current situation. (You can listen here; they address the specifics starting at 26:14.)
- Use more visual technology, like Zoom, FaceTime, Skype, and the like. Make that your default option for communicating. Schedule one to two hours a day to connect with people. And make sure to focus on interacting with people you don’t interact with as frequently, but who might be a bit isolated and could benefit by your reaching out to them. (Zak and Brooks put this last item as “#1a.” It gets at the idea of being of service to others, which is another way of boosting oxytocin.)
- Make more eye contact with people in your “zone of quarantine” (your immediate household). Do the same thing with strangers when you’re outside your house. Zak calls this “listening with your eyes” and says it’s a way of letting people know you’re fully present with them, even if for a brief instant.
- Give everybody in your “zone of quarantine” a 20-second hug every two hours. If you can, they hasten to add – acknowledging several situations where that might not be feasible or desirable to do.
Zak says that even the best form of virtual communication (visual) doesn’t have the same neuro-chemical bandwidth as true face-to-face, which means you have to invest more time online to get a boost similar to what you’d get from a shorter in-person interaction. And that may be a factor contributing to the reports of “Zoom fatigue” that have been cropping up.
Speaking of “Zoom fatigue,” the author of this piece made a point that really hit home: “Every video call to someone you wish you could see in person but can’t is a memento mori of a world that’s been shattered and can’t be revived.”
One of my hospice patients died at the end of March. Her family held a virtual service using Zoom. It was an odd experience. On the one hand, it was better than not doing anything at all. But on the other, it was a sharp reminder that the comfort that comes with literally being with other people, when you’re grieving the loss of a loved one or a person you’ve come to grow close to, that kind of comfort is no longer available.
The “world that’s been shattered and can’t be revived” also includes small moments of joy and happiness: sitting in a coffee shop and chatting with the other regulars or listening to the band in a Nashville saloon along with four other college roommates from half a century ago. And recognizing that loss isn’t an easy emotion to process.
Which brings me to the next thing I learned:
“’I’m telling my coworkers I’m having a hard time,’ or ‘I cried last night.’ When you name it, you feel it and it moves through you. Emotions need motion. It’s important we acknowledge what we go through.”
6. “That discomfort you’re feeling is grief”
When I was going through my Daily Alert newsletter from the Harvard Business Review in late March and saw this headline I knew right away that the author was on to something. When I realized the article was an interview with David Kessler, a long-time colleague of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (one of the pioneers of the hospice movement), I was impressed that HBR – of all publications – would tackle a topic like this.
“There is something powerful about naming this as grief,” says Kessler. “It helps us feel what’s inside of us. So many have told me in the past week, ‘I’m telling my coworkers I’m having a hard time,’ or ‘I cried last night.’ When you name it, you feel it and it moves through you. Emotions need motion. It’s important we acknowledge what we go through.”
All too often, we not only don’t name our grief, but we put on a smiley face and when people ask us how we are, we say “I’m fine.”
Kessler makes the point that “we’re feeling a number of different griefs.” It reminds me of another group’s definition of grief as “the conflicting feelings caused by the end of or change in familiar pattern of behavior.” That means you can experience grief as a result of many other losses besides death of a loved one (divorce, job loss, legal problems), and you can even experience grief as a result of life-changes that on the surface may not necessarily look like or be perceived as losses (moving, marriage, retirement).
How do you manage grief? I like what Kessler has to say:
“Understanding the stages of grief is a start. But whenever I talk about the stages of grief, I have to remind people that the stages aren’t linear and may not happen in this order. It’s not a map but it provides some scaffolding for this unknown world. There’s denial, which we say a lot of early on: This virus won’t affect us. There’s anger: You’re making me stay home and taking away my activities. There’s bargaining: Okay, if I social distance for two weeks everything will be better, right? There’s sadness: I don’t know when this will end. And finally there’s acceptance. This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed.
“Acceptance, as you might imagine, is where the power lies. We find control in acceptance. I can wash my hands. I can keep a safe distance. I can learn how to work virtually.”
“We find control in acceptance.” I interpret that as: Once we get to the point of accepting what’s happened to us, we become aware of what really is under our control, and we can work on that.
What I find especially valuable in what Kessler has to say here is his description of a sixth stage of grief: meaning. I haven’t yet read his book on the subject, but from a review I’ve read, it looks like finding meaning in and through grief is very much a form of post-traumatic growth. This is a topic of great interest among positive psychology researchers like Sonja Lyubomirsky (watch her brief video overview here where she describes examples of people who came out of a tragedy at a higher level of happiness than they had going in).
Speaking of positive psychology, that brings me to my seventh lesson on what-I’ve-learned about mental health during the pandemic:
7. The key to living in the “new normal” is in the disciplines and practices of positive psychology
I’m a member of the Society for Human Resources Management. Last month, I received a notice about a webinar (Three Key Issues HR and Business Leaders Need to Think About Now to Prepare for the Post-COVID Future) featuring SHRM’s CEO Johnny C. Taylor, Jr. and Harvard’s Arthur Brooks. I’ve followed Brooks for a couple years, and given his somewhat unconventional career path, I was intrigued about what he might have to say.
It was fascinating. The topics of positive psychology — happiness, connection, gratitude, service, meaning — were front and center. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to locate a publicly-available recording of the webinar, so you’ll have to settle for this copy of Brooks’ slide deck, graciously provided to me by his assistant.
The role of positive psychology in the upcoming “new normal” is a big topic, and one that merits a separate post of its own. Stay tuned for my next installment.