Are There Upsides if a Virus Goes Viral?

Psychological silver linings to the pandemic.

Posted Mar 15, 2020

How should you respond when the world seems to be coming apart at the seams? 

Wikimedia commons. Public domain.
Photo by Zhizhou Deng, from Wikimedia commons
Source: Wikimedia commons. Public domain.

One answer comes from a classic program of research comparing executives who succumb to stress versus those who thrive under the same adverse conditions.  The research was conducted by Salvatore Maddi and Suzanne Kobasa, along with several other colleagues at the University of Chicago. Their initial group of subjects were managers for the Illinois Bell Telephone company.  In the middle of a 12-year longitudinal study, the company underwent a cataclysmic upheaval. As a result of the deregulation of the telephone business, the company fired half of its workforce in one year, and the remaining employees were faced with mass confusion about what the future would bring, and who was in charge of what.  

As Maddi observed in a retrospective article, the research revealed that although stress can be debilitating for some people, for others, it could actually be an inspiration for growth. His research team discovered a few key differences between those who succumbed to stress (by becoming physically or emotionally ill) and those who thrived. One of the differences was that the managers who flourished were those who approached the upheavals not as threats but as challenges, as opportunities to learn and grow. 

Threats and opportunities of the pandemic

We’ve certainly been hearing a lot about the disastrous threats that are looming from the coronavirus pandemic.  But is there any way to view the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity?

Here are a few thoughts:

1.  It’s a chance to take a break from the workplace without the pressure to add more stress to your life by traveling to some distant location. I just returned from conferences in Australia and New Orleans, and had a side trip to New Zealand in between. Although I had some fun in all those travels, there was also a lot of waiting in long lines at airports, worrying about car rentals, having to unpack and repack every few days, and squeezing as much as I could into a carry-on bag so I wouldn’t have to lose a bag in transit (which happened to my wife on the way to Australia). When I heard this week that another conference I planned to attend in two weeks was cancelled, I was actually relieved.

2.  While you’re quarantined at home, you could:

a.  Do some gardening, so you’ll have food to eat if things get worse in a few months

b.  Catch up on your reading. Here's a recommendation of my favorite book of the last year: (2019's best selling novel weaves in evolutionary psychology)  

c.  Spend some actual quality time with your family members, maybe go for a daily walk or bike ride with your kids whose schools have been closed.

3.   What if things get really bad, and the virus indeed goes viral?  Let's imagine the real possibility that almost everyone gets it, and people start dying all over the place.  Is there anything opportune about that?  

Maybe.  For example:

a.  Most of the people who die will be old people.  For those in their 70s, like me, the death rate looks like it will be quite high, almost 1 in 10. For those over 80, it’s even worse, closer to 1 in 5.  But the death rate for young people may be more like 1 in 1000.  I am included in that over-70 category, so I should not say all this so lightly.  But let’s face it, people of my generation have lived long lives, and we lived through incredibly interesting and productive times. If I come down with the coronavirus, and I’m in the unfortunate 10%, I hope to go out listening to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young on my iPod, after finishing off a final glass of Cabernet from the Napa Valley. 

b.  If a substantial number of elderly people die, it might have some downstream benefits for younger people in the long run, such as possibly lowering the cost of real estate.  And a few less dangerous drivers on the road (yes, I also count myself in that category).

c.  If a lot of elderly people die, it could reduce the burden on social security, making both Republicans and Democrats happy.  

d.  Maybe all those frightened people will finally realize that the United States needs to get up to speed with our health care system, and they'll change their voting patterns in ways that will increase the odds of future care of the children and grandchildren.  The U.S. still has the largest economy in the world, but is a shameful outlier in that our citizens do not all have access to healthcare.  I used to tell my students that among the OECD nations (advanced countries with market economies and democratic governments, including Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan), only the United States, Mexico, and Turkey do not have universal healthcare.  But I just went online to double check that, and it’s out of date: Mexico and Turkey apparently now do have universal healthcare. The United States stands alone.  Besides a lack of access to medical care for everyone, though, we can take a perverse pride in being Number One when it comes to healthcare bills – Americans pay about twice as much for healthcare as do comparable first world countries. 

In a later post, I’ll talk a little more seriously about the research on psychological hardiness, which has lessons that apply beyond the current healthcare crisis.  But meanwhile, try to keep learning, and look for those silver linings.  And of course, since we don't want to let optimism trump realism, wash your hands frequently. 

References

Kobasa, S. C. (1979). Stressful life events, personality, and health: an inquiry into hardiness. Journal of personality and social psychology, 37(1), 1-11.

Kobasa, S. C., Maddi, S. R., & Kahn, S. (1982). Hardiness and health: a prospective study. Journal of personality and social psychology, 42(1), 168-177.

Maddi, S. R. (2002). The story of hardiness: Twenty years of theorizing, research, and practice. Consulting psychology journal: practice and research, 54(3), 173-185.

Maddi, S. R., Khoshaba, D. M., Persico, M., Lu, J., Harvey, R., & Bleecker, F. (2002). The personality construct of hardiness: II. Relationships with comprehensive tests of personality and psychopathology. Journal of research in personality, 36(1), 72-85.