Clip Montage: So I’ve been really trying to take pleasure in little things. Um, whether that’s eating a favorite snack or romcoms from the 90s and early 2000s. I dunno, they just seem to be a good escape what I need it. Endorphins are pretty much the only thing keeping me sane right now. I’ve been working out with online videos and also just speaking with friends I haven’t talked to in months and I have taken up cross stitching. Right now I’m working on a flower wreath and I made biscuits and scones, and in the next couple of days I’m going to try and make a loaf. Wish me luck.
Jordan: What you just heard was our attempt, all of us who work on this podcast, to look on the bright side. That’s not always easy, especially right now. As well as the anxiety that comes with worrying about your own health and the health of your loved ones, there’s the depression that comes from the news. There’s the lack of activity that comes from being cooped up indoors. And just generally there’s a feeling of loss of a lot of the things that we might do when we feel down. Going to a movie or a game, going shopping, getting a massage, eating out, all of that. But more important than any of those things is the absence of close human contact. At the root of it, that’s what so many of us are grieving right now. So once we get Claire’s news out of the way– I know it’s depressing, but it’s also crucial right now that you stay informed today– we’ll try to help you understand how we’re wired, which of those wires can disconnect in times of crisis like this, and how we can try through small efforts to plug them back in. Okay. Hit it, Claire.
Dr. Elizabeth: Yes. Sorry. I’d rather not be the most depressing part of this episode, but here we are. Well, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced that a federal wage subsidy to cover three quarters of salaries will go to any company, large, medium, or small, if it can show that it has seen revenues dropped sharply due to COVID-19. There’ll be an $847 cap per week, and this will be backdated to March 15th. In the coming days, we’re expecting more Canadians to be coming home from abroad. Arrangements are being made for those in places that include Haiti, Honduras, and El Salvador. Quebec has now surpassed 3,000 cases. That’s the most in Canada. The Premier Legault says is the number of cases seems to be stabilizing. The government there has announced $133 million in emergency funds for seniors. In the US more than 140,000 people are now infected with COVID-19. That’s the most recorded cases of any country in the world, and it’s followed by Italy and Spain. Hospitals in New York are so overrun with patients now that a hospital is being built in Central Park under white tents. Canada has now reported more than it’s 7,400 cases of COVID-19 with 86 deaths.
Jordan: I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, this is The Big Story. Dr. Elizabeth Dunn is a professor in the department of psychology at the University of British Columbia. She conducts experimental research, determining how time and money and technology and other things can shape human happiness. Hello, Dr Dunn.
Dr. Elizabeth: Hi. Thanks for having me.
Jordan: No problem. I’m gonna start by just asking you how happy you are right now. Do you do like a scale of one to 10?
Dr. Elizabeth: Well, you know, it’s interesting because, I guess I would say I might be around an eight because, and part of that is just that I know that I’m a lot better off than so many other people right now. Of course, I compare it to pre-COVID life, you know, I guess my response might be a little bit different.
Jordan: Well, that’s one reason I wanted to talk to you is just, how happy were we, I guess, before this disease struck? Because I’ve been having the feeling that I should have been happier when I had the chance, if that makes sense?
Dr. Elizabeth: Right. So happiness is partly dependent on our expectations. And I think, you know, most of us had become accustomed to fairly comfortable way of life. And I think COVID may be resetting our expectations about what life can entail. And so, you know, what I think is interesting is that although I certainly anticipate that happiness levels are going to take a bit of a nosedive during this period, I’m curious whether they might actually rebound to levels that are higher than what we’ve observed, you know, in previous years. Because now going back to like being able to go outside and have dinner with your friends and stuff, it’s going to seem pretty awesome. And I think it may actually increase the enjoyment that people get from what were previously activities we took for granted.
Jordan: So what goes into the things that, in a crisis like this can make us happy? What should we be focusing on? I guess if we’re missing everything that we’ve lost?
Dr. Elizabeth: Well, I think the number one thing is finding opportunities for safe social connection. So psychologists like me view social connection as being a really fundamental human need. You know, not so different from things like food and water and sleep. Human beings have a fundamental need to connect with others. And you know, it’s really apparent what you need, when you no longer have access to it. Right? So deprivation really highlights what you’ve needed all along. And so I would say, you know, whether it’s Skyping with people or, you know, sitting out on your balcony and chatting or do making some music with some neighbours, whatever opportunities you can find. It’s really important to carve out time in your day to connect with others.
Jordan: How weird is it that I feel like I’ve actually talked to a lot of people that I know that I haven’t talked to in a while? I’m usually one of those people who’s really bad about reaching out. And though I obviously haven’t actually seen any of them, I’ve sent them messages and, and you know, we’ve replied back and forth and it feels like I’m making more of an effort, which is something I don’t usually do.
Dr. Elizabeth: Yeah. I’ve been hearing this from a lot of people and I’ve experienced this myself, so you know, I hardly ever call my dad, but I like called my dad the other day and he was so happy to hear from me, and it’s just a good reminder that like, you know, we have all of these opportunities for connection in daily life that we may not take advantage of because we’re sort of meeting the needs so easily. So, you know, it’s kind of like, if suddenly you were deprived of food, you might find, you know, new creative sources of nutrition that you hadn’t noticed were there all along. Sort of like, you know, it’d be, it might get good at foraging for berries. So I would say it’s kind of like we’ve gotten good at foraging for social berries. You know, finding those maybe dormant connections or just, you know, I actually talked to the neighbors in the building next to mine for the first time ever last night because we were both out on our porches cheering for healthcare workers at the 7:00PM shift change. You know, I think this crisis is actually creating opportunities to both renew old connections and even spark new ones.
Jordan: When somebody is feeling really down over this, which is totally understandable, and you kind of see social media posts telling them to be grateful for what they have, or to, you know, find the silver lining or, you know, just appreciate the simple things, that kind of stuff can feel impossible right now. Is there a way to try to find that appreciation?
Dr. Elizabeth: Well, first off, you know, it’s easier to engage in those kinds of positive behaviours when you’re not feeling absolutely terrible, right? So if you’re just having one of those moments, and I think all of us have had them at some point in the past couple weeks, of just feeling like this sense of devastation. You know, telling somebody when they’re feeling like that to like savour the taste of chocolate or whatever is probably not that helpful. But, you know, I think a lot of us do have had moments where we’re like, Oh, like feeling a little bit okay, right? You know, again, for example, last night when we were all out cheering for the health care workers at 7:00, I felt like this real sense of connection and warmth and, and I really just tried to hold on to that. So when I got a little bit of it, I made the most of it. So I like shared it on Facebook and looked at other people’s Facebook posts from elsewhere in the city of people posting the same cheering. So I kind of took that like little kernel of positivity and really tried to make the most of it. But I wasn’t just trying to pull it out of nowhere from the depths of devastation. And that’s kind of the strategy that I would recommend for people.
Jordan: When you talk about something like everybody clapping for healthcare workers, which is amazing, I also wonder if that kind of sense of shared purpose can help to bring us together? Because I have never felt before that everybody I talk to, no matter who they are, is thinking about the same thing the entire time.
Dr. Elizabeth: Yeah. It’s this amazing sense of what psychologists call shared reality. That we are all going through this experience together. And so there’s something that we all have in common. And, you know, it kinda reminds me of when my son was born. He was not a good sleeper. It was a very challenging time of life for me. But like other people that I knew who had infants, were also kind of locked up in the house and deprived of social interaction, but like doing their best to get through it, and I actually have a very similar feeling now of like, we’re all experiencing kind of a similar challenge that gives us some common ground and I think it can provide an opportunity for us to really reach out to those around us and connect with them and just find opportunities to be kind to each other to help one another even in really simple ways.
Jordan: What kind of role, either for good or ill, will technology play in all this? Because I know you’ve done some research in that direction and I’ve never been more connected to my phone, my laptop, this recording studio in my basement, like I feel like I’m plugged in every moment. I’m not asleep right now.
Dr. Elizabeth: Yeah. I think the big takeaway message from our pastor search is that technology is not inherently good or bad for happiness. Instead it really depends. How you use it. So if you’re using technology to like scroll through, you know, scary stories about COVID-19 before bed, it’s probably going to be undermining your wellbeing. On the other hand, you know, we’re so fortunate that we’re going through this terrible crisis at a time when there is the opportunity to engage in these, you know, really interesting forms of remote connection. For example, I’ve been finding video calls extremely helpful. And my friends and I had gotten in the habit of having video calls with each other, you know, every few nights or so. And I’ve actually been, you know, as someone who researches the potential downsides of technology, I’ve been really impressed with the upsides lately. About how, you know, in the absence of the typical ways that we would satisfy this deep seated need for connection of actually getting together in person. These video calls can serve as an imperfect but still really valuable source of connection.
Jordan: We’ve done episodes of this show on happiness before, and one of the things that came up back then, I guess it would have been 10 to 12 months ago, was the loneliness epidemic and it feels like this crisis could really exacerbate that, or maybe not, depending on, on how we react. What role do you think the existing loneliness in our lives plays in something like this?
Dr. Elizabeth: Yeah, I mean, I think that people who are having to self isolate, to literally be alone for a couple of weeks, are going to experience pretty severe levels of loneliness. And, you know, there are ways to sort of minimize that by, you know, reaching out to others through video calls and other things. But, you know, I think it’s going to be a real risk that we need to be considering. So I would argue that alongside all of the recommendations in terms of physical distancing. We really need some good public health recommendations about maximizing connection in this time. Because I think, you know, we weren’t starting out necessarily with really great scores in terms of our, our sense of connection, right? A lot of people report worryingly high levels of loneliness, so they really are at risk. You know, I worry a lot about people who live alone, who are now being told, you know, basically just stay at home. You know, only connect with others in your household and, and they’re the only person in their household. You know, I worry about them. And I think maybe we need to start thinking in a little bit more nuanced ways about how can we create opportunities for social connection for everybody? Because again, the number one thing that I really want people to recognize is that social connection is a fundamental human need. We have to satisfy it. It is not a luxury. Loneliness is a real risk factor in terms of a wide variety of health problems. So loneliness is basically equivalent to smoking in terms of its negative effects on health. And so we need to take that part of the puzzle very seriously. And I think, you know, if you were told, Hey, you cannot eat anything but rice for the next two weeks, you would go, okay, are you sure? Is there any way we can find like some, you know, frozen peas in the back of the freezer or something, right? And like, we need to be searching for those, you know, thinking a little outside the box, recognizing this as a human need that, that we’ve got to try to find ways to at least partially satisfy, you know, and making time for that. So, you know, that’s what I hope people really keep in mind as we kind of dive deeper into this incredibly crazy time.
Jordan: If that’s priority number one, what are some other small things that people who are stuck working from home can do? I see a million of them on the internet. You know, make sure you dress everyday, like you’re going to the office and wear pants. Or make sure you keep to the same schedule. Or vary what you eat for lunch. Do we know what kinds of things could work, or is there no rule?
Dr. Elizabeth: Well, I would say, you know, in thinking about a rule that’s going to work really effectively across the board, I would sum it up in two words as, Be kind. So just find opportunities for kindness, whether it’s that you are, you know, on a Zoom call with a coworker and they’re having a rough time, and you can tell and you say, Hey, you want to stay on the call for five minutes afterward and just catch up and give them a chance to talk about what’s going on in their life. Or whether it’s, you know, when you’re going to the grocery store, checking with your older neighbour to see if you can pick up anything for them. You know, these small actions, we feel like we’re doing them for others, but actually they’re very good for our own wellbeing. And you know, in my past research, what we’ve seen is that using what we’ve got to help other people can promote our own happiness, even when we don’t have much, like even when people are struggling to meet their own basic needs, we still see that they benefit from helping others.
Jordan: My last question for you kind of ties back to what you mentioned at the beginning, which is it’s our loss of our expectations. And one of the things I think I’ve struggled with, and other people have, is seeing this news everyday and knowing it’s going to get worse, but not knowing what’s coming next. How can you manage those expectations to keep them from taking over?
Dr. Elizabeth: I mean, it’s tough. I think, you know, I think maybe the best thing to do with that recognition that things are probably gonna get worse, is use this moment right now to put some systems in place for yourself to create those networks of support that you might need even more in a few weeks. So, you know, a friend of mine just created this COVID Mommies group on Facebook, and connected about 20 different moms that she knows, and so now I’m in touch with all of these other moms that are wrestling with the same challenges I’m wrestling with. And so, you know, just having those kinds of networks and structures in place can be really helpful and thinking, okay, you know, my husband and I have already talked about, well, if it gets worse, you know, what’s our plan? Right? So make making those plans now, while things still feel, at least here in Vancouver, things feel kind of still manageable. That’s an opportunity because when you know, when we’re feeling reasonably good, that’s when we are actually more inclined to think creatively and be able to solve challenging problems. So we need to seize those positive moments, try to create the positive moments where you can and make the most of them, and then use those times where you’re feeling reasonably good to do some problem solving and think, okay, like how can we set up the best system for ourselves so that we’re ready for things, you know, if they get even crazier than they are right now?
Jordan: Doctor Dunn, that’s great advice. And thank you for connecting with us today.
Dr. Elizabeth: My pleasure. And now I will head back to the little boys that are waiting outside for me to continue entertaining them.
Jordan: Oh, good. I’m going to go upstairs and do the same thing to a little girl.
Dr. Elizabeth: Sounds great. Thank you for having me.
Jordan: Dr. Elizabeth Dunn of the Department of Psychology at UBC, and that was The Big Story, if you’d like more worth thebigstorypodcast.ca. We’re on Twitter at @thebigstoryFPN and we’re in your favourite podcast feed, and of course we’d still love to hear from you. You can talk to us anytime at email@example.com if you send us a clip, we might very well use it at the end of an episode like this.
Clip: Meow meow meow meow meow meow.
Jordan: This would be just in case you need a moment to smile. My daughter singing a song she composed. It’s uh… It’s about cats. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
Clip: The song is about kitty cats.
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