Allen R. McConnell

Allen R McConnell Ph.D.

The Social Self

Finding Joy and Resilience During Stay-at-Home Times

Positive psychology offers lessons for making the most of the COVID-19 period.

Posted Apr 19, 2020

Allen R McConnell
Taking a walk in nature with your pets improves well-being.
Source: Allen R McConnell

With many Americans continuing to shelter at home during the COVID-19 global pandemic, people are finding adaptation to limited travel and fewer activities stifling. Although many individuals (e.g., health care providers, grocery store employees, parents caring for children at home) are finding work responsibilities to be incredibly consuming, others complain about having too much time on their hands.

As a professor who is teaching a class on the health benefits of positive psychology this semester, I have found the science covered in our readings to offer useful lessons in this moment. In reflecting on the course, I wanted to provide some suggestions to help us make the most out of stay-at-home conditions.

Embrace time affluence

Many people have suddenly found themselves with a lot more time on their hands than they want because of constraints on travel and social opportunities. COVID-19 has brought an end to many people's normal leisure time activities (e.g., date nights with movies and dinners in quaint restaurants, attending concerts and plays, watching sports on television), leaving many people feeling lost without once-packed calendars dictating their fast-paced, on-the-go lifestyles.

Although many people bristle at having extra time on their hands and feel that being-on-the-go is a desirable outcome and reflects the importance of their daily lives, research shows that time affluence (i.e., feeling that time is not scarce) is a boon for experiencing happiness. It's not uncommon to witness people eating dinner in their living rooms while watching television and at the same time checking social media on their phones, but ironically, feeling that every moment of one's day is highly valued is counterproductive to experiencing happiness.

This feeling of not having spare time leads people to feel stressed (i.e., "I have so much to do today!"), and often they try to make more money or devote more energy to work (e.g., taking an extra job to pay for a summer vacation to relieve their work-related stress) rather than pursuing more beneficial activities that actually promote well-being such as socializing (Mogilner, 2010). Further, valuing money over time predicts lower levels of happiness (Whillans et al., 2016). Thus, feeling overwhelmed by rat-race lives not only harms people's health, but it often takes them away from meaningful outlets (e.g., social connection, physical activities) that reduce stress and enhance personal resilience.

Spending time outdoors improves mental and physical health

Although many outdoor activities (e.g., attending sporting events, outdoor concerts) are currently not available to people, there are still many opportunities to get outside and experience health benefits.

Obviously, getting exercise is important for maintaining health, so even simple acts such as taking a hike in a nearby park or walking the dog around the block have well-being benefits. Research has shown that pet owners are happier and healthier people on average (McConnell et al., 2011, 2017) and that even simple interactions with animals (e.g., taking them for walks) improves pets' health (Coppola et al., 2006) as well as their owners' health (Coleman et al., 2008).

Further, there is considerable evidence that being in nature improves people's well-being in many ways. For instance, having people walk in natural settings compared to urban settings has been shown to make people more prosocial (Piff et al., 2015), more creative (Atchley et al., 2012), and have greater attention spans (Berman et al., 2008). In fact, attention restoration theory is a body of research establishing that being in nature is mentally restorative and reduces stressful physiological responses.

Expressing gratitude and self-transcendent emotions

Finally, although some people report feeling "stir crazy" by spending so much time with their families, this extra time provides opportunities to express gratitude for the importance of family in one's life.

Gratitude is when people freely and openly acknowledge that they received something of value from others, expressing appreciation for others' benevolence. When people express gratitude, they cope better with stress, worry less about materialism, build stronger social networks, and experience better health (for a review, Emmons & Mishra, 2011). Thus, having more time with loved ones allows us to express gratitude toward these important people in our lives, which reinforces the positivity of these relationships and improves our own well-being.

Moreover, as people express self-transcendent emotions such as compassion, appreciation, and gratitude, people focus less on selfish concerns and are more attuned to others' needs. Expressing these self-transcendent emotions strengthens social bonds between people and improves people's health (Stellar et al., 2017). In other words, showing concern for others and gratitude toward them builds social capital and encourages more healthy social relationships, which in turn, benefits all parties involved.

Less can be more when we appreciate things more fully

Despite many people's disappointment in having less to do and more constraints, there are opportunities in these stay-at-home times to find qualitatively more meaningful lives. By appreciating free time and making more of it, by getting outside more in ways that promote health and well-being, and in expressing gratitude and concern for those around us, we can find more resilience and greater happiness in these challenging moments. As is often the case, it often takes forces we cannot control (e.g., natural disasters, severe weather) to appreciate the small but important things in life. Hopefully, as the world begins to emerge from stay-at-home confinement, we can transport some of these lessons to enjoy lives with greater meaning, happiness, and health.

References

Atchley, R. A., Strayer, D. L., & Atchley, P. (2012). Creativity in the wild: Improving creative reasoning through immersion in natureal settings. PlosONE, 7, e51474.

Berman, M. G., Jonides, J., & Kaplan, S. (2008). The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature. Psychological Science, 19, 1207-1212.

Coleman, K. J., Rosenberg, D. E., Conway, T. L., Sallis, J. F., Saelens, B. E., Frank, L. D., & Cain, K. (2008). Physical activity, weight status, and neighborhood characteristics of dog walkers. Preventive Medicine, 47, 309-312.

Coppola, C. L., Grandin, T., & Enns, R. M. (2006). Human interaction and cortisol: Can human contact reduce stress for shelter dogs? Physiology and Behavior, 87, 537–541.

Emmons, R. A., & Mishra, A. (2011). Why gratitude enhances well-being: What we know, what we need to know. In Sheldon, K., Kashdan, T., & Steger, M.F. (Eds.), Designing the future of positive psychology: Taking stock and moving forward (pp. 248-262). New York: Oxford University Press.

McConnell, A. R., Brown, C. M., Shoda, T. M., Stayton, L. E., & Martin, C. E. (2011). Friends with benefits: On the positive consequences of pet ownership. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 1239-1252.

McConnell, A. R., Lloyd, E. P., & Buchanan, T. M. (2017). Animals as friends: Social psychological implications of human-pet relationships. In M. Hojjat & A. Moyer (Eds.), Psychology of friendship (pp. 157-174). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Mogilner, C. (2010). The pursuit of happiness: Time, money, and social connection. Psychological Science, 21, 1348-1354.

Piff, P. K., Dietze, P., Feinberg, M., Stancato, D. M., & Keltner, D. (2015). Sublime sociality: How awe promotes prosocial behavior through the small self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108, 883–899.

Stellar, J. E., Gordon, A. M., Piff, P. K., Cordaro, D., Anderson, C. L., Bai, Y., Maruskin, L. A., &* Keltner, D. (2017). Self-transcendent emotions and their social functions: Compassion, gratitude, and awe bind us to others through prosociality. Emotion Review, 9, 200-207.

Whillans, A. V., Weidman, A. C., & Dunn, E. W. (2016). Valuing time over money is associated with greater happiness. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 7, 213-222.