How to keep up wellbeing during the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Global Perspective

For half a decade the World Wellbeing Panel (WWP) has promoted wellbeing as the ultimate purpose of all major decision makers, particularly government. In mid April 2020, while locked in our homes in fear of contracting COVID-19, the World Wellbeing Panel experts were asked: “How to maintain well-being during isolation while facing huge emotional stress from the threat of the COVID-19 virus”. Their responses give us a global view of how to cope in these difficult times because they come from economists, psychologists and sociologists from around the world: Australia; Germany; Italy; Luxembourg; Netherlands; New Zealand; Spain; Sweden; Switzerland; United Kingdom, and; the USA. Of course, all these views come from the ‘Western’ developed world; it would be insightful to understand if views differ for people living in other cultures. 

How can we maintain well-being during isolation while facing huge emotional stress from the threat of the COVID-19 virus?

Some of our wellbeing experts talked about what social isolation does to us, but most offered suggestions on what we can do to maintain our wellbeing. Stefano Bartolini, Professor of Economics at the University of Sienna Italy, points out that we do have knowledge of lengthy social isolation among well-prepared groups, namely astronauts and small groups of polar scientists. Studies show that isolation often provokes a sort of “psychological hibernation”. People find it difficult to remember things or perform certain tasks. Other effects include depression, concentration difficulty, sleep disorders (sleeping too much or too little) and irritability: Even astronauts experience “Growing interpersonal stress as a function of isolation and confinement with the same small group…“ (NASA, 2011). Most scientific polar adventures of the 19th century ended in riots, madness, suicides, and cannibalism.”  Social isolation extended for many months can have serious mental health and eventually physical health implications, even among well-prepared groups like scientists and astronauts. So, what can one do while in isolation? We discuss suggestions thematically.

Maintain social interactions…

Almost everybody in the WWP panel emphasized the importance of maintaining social contact with friends and family. Ruut Veenhoven Professor of Sociology, Erasmus University Rotterdam Netherlands says: “research on effects of coping with disasters suggests that social contacts help”. Coping suggestions from the WWP Panel:

  • Use the phone to maintain social contact with family, friends and workmates; the internet allows us to reconnect (Arthur Grimes, Wellbeing and Public Policy, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand);
  • Chat with available people close by, the neighbors (Maarten Vendrik,  Maastricht University School of Business and Economics); 
  • Develop closeness/communication rituals, like a story-telling session every night at dinner, or sharing the best and the worst of each person's day. Ritualising time for sharing stories, gripes, and information helps keep people close and gives them something to look forward to (Gigi Foster, School of Economics, UNSW Business School, Australia);
  • Make a point to meet with at least someone every day! (Francesco Sarracino, Statistical Office of Luxembourg);
  • Giving is better than receiving, even during lock down. So, think how you can help those in worse circumstances (Christian Krekel, Psychological and Behavioural Science, London School of Economics);
  • Look for volunteering opportunities in your neighborhood or circle of friends; help with online schooling (Ada Ferrer-i-Carbonell, Barcelona Graduate School of Economics). Volunteer or help a neighbor (Daniel Haybron, Vitali Chair in Philosophy, Saint Louis University, USA). Citing Fleurbaey and Schwandt (2015), Maurizio Pugno (University of Cassino, Italy) suggests: “Look to share social and environmental problems”. 

Deal with negative thinking…

The astronaut data tells us that over time negative thinking starts to creep in and is hard to avoid; some coping tips:

  • Assuming one is fortunate enough to be healthy and have sufficient financial security, then we can tell ourselves that we are given the gift of quality time with family and loved ones (Ori Heffetz, Cornell University and Hebrew University, USA); 
  • Actively avoid hearing too much bad news, especially for individuals with a more neurotic personality; and think about your "exit" strategy when negative thoughts start to populate the mind (Eugenio Proto, Applied Economics University of Glasgow). More generally, just don’t read too much news (Ori Heffetz Cornell University and Hebrew University, USA; Heinz Welsch, University of Oldenburg, Germany), and; Maarten Vendrik (Erasmus Happiness Economics Research Organisation, Netherlands) says, “limit oneself to checking the news at one or two particular times a day helps cement such habits”;
  • Avoid informing yourself about the most gruesome details of the sanitary and social effects of COVID-19. (Maurizio Pugno, University of Cassino, Italy). 
  • Stay away from passive social media use which has been found to be negatively associated with wellbeing” (Anke Plagnol, Behavioural Economist, City University of London);
  • Distract yourself. Emphasize what you can control, not what is out of your control. Look for gratifications. Try to look beyond the obviously available ones: sex; food; good movies; music, and; reading. Learn something new, it’s plenty of online activities now. Try to have fun. Humor and laughing are the best medicine (Stefano Bartolini, University of Sienna, Italy) 
  • Improve your house or garden, as house quality also increase happiness (Ada Ferrer-i-Carbonell; Ruut Veenhoven, World Database of Happiness).
  • Get outside - Even just a few minutes outside can help reduce feelings of isolation and claustrophobia. Do something physical every day (Daniel Benjamin, Behavioral Economist & Genoeconomist, University of Southern California), and;
  • Practicing arts: Art is a tool to maintain intersubjective experience and getting the sense of “doing something now”. So make art and share with others. (Alpaslan Akay, University of Gothenburg, Sweden). 

Organise your day…

One of the most successful ingredients of cognitive behavioural therapy against many mental health problems are tips on how to form routines that give one a sense of control (Christopher Boyce, Wellbeing Economy Alliance Research Fellow, UK); 

  • Maintain a strict daily time structure:working in the home office; sport activities; leisure time, and; fixed time to get up and to go to bed” (Ronnie Schöb, Freie Universität Berlin; Maarten Vendrik, Francesco Sarracino), and; 
  • Maintain diaries that emphasise the positive, such as writing down every day 5 nice things you have seen others do (Paul Frijters, CEP Wellbeing Programme, London School of Economics).

Face the fear…

Cognitive behavioural routines have found out anxiety can be reduced by facing fears in the sense of putting them in perspective and seeing them as normal and something that can ultimately be accepted. 

  • Find out what the threat of Covid-19 is to your personal health and to that of your family members; this helps detaching from the fear. (Maurizio Pugno); 
  • One can train oneself to be comfortable with the idea of death so that one cannot be frightened too much by the prospect of it. To those who do not believe in afterlives, viewing death as a normal part of life helps. What helps is the realisation that human minds change continuously, including our memories, our identities, and our skills, such that our ""old selves"" die a little every day anyway, making death seem less dramatic. (Paul Frijters), and;
  • Optimism and positive thinking (as well as material comfort) can help in dealing with the crisis (Rainer Winkelmann,  University of Zurich, Switzerland)

Work on the future and on oneself…

”Prepare for life after the epidemic” (Ruut Veenhoven). 

  • Reflect about one's beliefs of what contributes to personal well-being, i.e. the personal well-being of oneself and of others (Alois Stutzer, University of Basel, Switzerland);
  • Observe ourselves, understand the fragility of life, and develop meaning in life, such as from small things that they ignore in their normal life (Alpaslan Akay, citing Yourcenar, 2005);
  • Think about what was wrong with your life before the pandemic, and plan what to do now and in the future to remedy it. Focus on: healthy lifestyle and importance of close relationships (Maurizio Pugno), and;
  • Think about how you want to live and what kind of society you want to live in, and, want the next generations to live in, and how you can help to make that happen. What matters is: ”love, family, community, doing something worthwhile, appreciating the beauty around us” (Daniel Haybron).

Healthy habits…

The literature has widely recognized the importance of maintaining the healthy habits: exercising, eating healthily and trying to sleep regularly Cobb-Clark et. al , 2012; Smith et. al. 2014): We can: 

  • Continue to eat healthily and exercise; both to feel better and keep your immune system strong (Daniel Benjamin): prioritise sleep (Gigi Foster), and exercise, particularly in green spaces (Christian Krekel);
  • Eat healthily as obesity negatively correlates with happiness (Ruut Veenhoven, 2019). In those countries where you can go out, it is very important to do sport, and, with less pollution, this should increase happiness (Ada Ferrer-i-Carbonell), and; 
  • Do low intensity exercise (jogging, biking) which gives your brain small injections of dopamine that improve your mood (Stefano Bartolini). 

A final word from the WWP Panel Editors on emerging from the covid lockdown

In a recent Australian Broadcasting Commission Q&A discussion on COVID-19, WWP Panel member Gigi Foster encouraged all assembled to consider the real costs of a covid lockdown; this is how Tony Beatton interprets the counterfactual that Professor Foster sought to communicate: 

  • We are in the midst of a covid paradigm shift: social distancing; stay at home; closed borders; stagnant economies.  
  • It is well understood that humans like a steady as she goes life, free of uncertainty. But, we now live in uncertain times experiencing life shocks on a daily basis: fear of catching covid-19; locked in our homes; denied the right to go about our normal lives; police fining us for behaving normally; our fellow citizens falling sick, dying. We miss contact with our loved ones, our extended family, friends and workmates. Millions of us have lost our jobs and are dealing with financial ruin; how do we feed our children? 
  • Dealing with so much change usually takes a lifetime, gives us time to adapt. With more life shocks hitting us in a month than we experience in a lifetime, how will we mentally cope. While current political response rightly focusses on flattening the curve, this covid lockdown is leaving a long-term physiological scar on society that may never heal.
  • There are windows of opportunity to end this covid lockdown earlier rather than later: as Professor Foster discussed, the young appear to be more resilient to the virus. Our political leaders need to open their minds and consider how a longer covid lockdown is causing irreparable damage to the mental health of the people. 
  • Healthy citizens restart economies, create markets, pay taxes; the mentally ill remain locked in their homes, depressed, with suicidal thoughts, incapable of resuming normal lives, a long-term cost on society. 

List of WWP respondents

  • Alpaslan Akay, Economist, University of Gothenburg, Sweden. 
  • Stefano Bartolini, Professor of Economics, University of Sienna, Italy. 
  • Tony Beatton, Institute for Social Science Research, University of Queensland, Australia.
  • Daniel Benjamin, Behavioral Economist & Genoeconomist, University of Southern California.
  • Christopher Boyce, Wellbeing Economy Alliance Research Fellow, UK.
  • Gigi Foster, School of Economics, UNSW Business School, Australia. 
  • Ada Ferrer-i-Carbonell, Barcelona Graduate School of Economics.
  • Paul Frijters, CEP Wellbeing Programme London School of Economics.
  • Arthur Grimes, Wellbeing and Public Policy, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.
  • Daniel Haybron, Vitali Chair in Philosophy, Saint Louis University, USA.
  • Ori Heffetz, Associate Professor of Economics, Cornell University and Hebrew University, USA 
  • Christian Krekel, Psychological and Behavioural Science, London School of Economics. 
  • Eugenio Proto, Professor of Applied Economics University of Glasgow, UK.
  • Maurizio Pugno, Full Professor of Economics University of Cassino, Italy.
  • Francesco Sarracino, Economist, Research Division of the Statistical Office of Luxembourg.
  • Ronnie Schöb, Professor, School of Business and Economics, Freie Universität Berlin. 
  • Alois Stutzer, Professor of Political Economics, University of Basel, Switzerland.
  • Ruut Veenhoven Professor of Sociology, Erasmus University Rotterdam Netherlands. 
  • Maarten Vendrik,  Maastricht University School of Business and Economics, Netherlands.


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