Maureen Gaffney: What are we missing most? Each other

Only when we can meet others will the sense of possibility in our lives be restored

Half of us feel that the pandemic has had a profoundly negative impact on our lives. Illustration: iStock

Half of us feel that the pandemic has had a profoundly negative impact on our lives. Illustration: iStock

 

The results of the 2021 Sign of the Times survey by Behaviour & Attitudes are published by The Irish Times today. The annual snapshot of Irish life combines quantitative and digital qualitative techniques with B&A published data on the economy, health, working life and shopping. The research was conducted in January and February 2021.

It’s just a year since the pandemic started, yet 2019, the last pre-Covid year, now seems like another era. We can remember what we used to do but it’s getting harder to conjure up how we used to feel, to remember the feeling of ease when we met someone and not immediately thought of social distancing; the exact feeling of pleasure that came from sitting with a group of friends in a crowded restaurant and not feel anxious about sitting close together – a time when other people had not become potential vectors of disease.

So here are the questions we are all now pondering: When this pandemic is over, will life go back to normal, or will we and the world we live in have changed in some enduring way? Will our world view, our lifestyle, and our priorities be different? We won’t know the answer to those questions for a while yet, but today’s Irish Times B&A Survey throws light on where we are now.

For a start, we are gloomy about the economy: 87 per cent think that the country is worse off than it was last year, and are only slightly less pessimistic about the economic prospects in the year ahead. But the gloom lifts considerably when asked about our own financial situation – only one in three feel that we are worse off than they were last year; 59 per cent think that our own household is getting by financially, 28 per cent report that they are living comfortably, but 14 per cent are struggling to make ends meet. Only 28 per cent expect that the value of their house, savings, pension entitlements or shares will be lower next year than they are this year, and 24 per cent expect that they will be higher. Still, we are taking no chances – 40 per cent of us expect to spend less in the year ahead

But when it comes to our own personal lives, it’s a different picture. Half of us feel that the pandemic has had a profoundly negative impact on our lives, and that our mental health has suffered because we are spending so much more time at home. And the younger we are, the worse the impact – 69 per cent of those aged under 24 feel that way, falling to 40 per cent in the over 65s. But then again, the disproportionately negative effect on young people is hardly surprising – it can’t be easy to be young and trying to find a foothold in life in the middle of a pandemic.

A shocking 43 per cent of people, 48 per cent women and 38 per cent men, say that they “feel tired all the time”, rising to 65 per cent in those under 24, and it’s not much better for those aged 25-34. Is this because trying to balance work, family, and personal life is now under more pressure? Partly. Between 20 per cent and 41 per cent complain that their work-life balance is poor, particularly those who work in business and the professions, a problem well flagged before the pandemic. But it’s not the whole story.

Low mood

Feeling tired all the time is a classic symptom of low mood, or sometimes depression. Most of us are finding this third lockdown harder to bear. In the spring, lockdown had some novelty value, in the autumn we were fortified by the respite provided by the summer. But this time, we are struggling to adapt once again to the restrictions, to impose structure on what are often formless days. As one respondent put it, “I find myself floating through the day… I work and then straight to the couch for the evening” – our evening made or unmade by what’s on TV or Netflix.

At the best of times, trying to control consciousness is inherently difficult, constantly prey to anxiety on one side or boredom on the other. This pandemic has managed to combine the two predators – we are simultaneously anxious and bored. We try to fend off these feelings by putting structure on our days. We try to instil routines that give us some sense of purpose that extends beyond wondering what we will have for dinner. But the sense of what we are missing is always lurking on the edge of awareness.

What are we missing most? Each other. When this pandemic ends, the main priority for nearly seven in 10 people is to spend more time with their friends. They are right. We are in a parlous state. Prolonged lockdowns come into direct conflict with our hardwired drive to seek connection with other people. We depend on others not just for emotional security, companionship, and enjoyment – most people report greater enjoyment while socialising than they do when engaged in any other activity. We rely on our friends to strengthen our identity and sense of self, to remind us of who we are as individuals.

Surprisingly, respondents were not asked about their relationship with their families. But if they did ask us, we would surely say that we are now relying more and more on the small circle of people that they we live with or meet regularly for one-on-one socially distanced walks. And as everyone’s activities become more limited, and plans are put on indefinite hold, there is less to talk about to each other. “Did I tell you this before?” is becoming the constant refrain of pandemic conversations.

Optimism won’t stop you getting Covid-19. But we do know that when it comes to other serious illnesses, like cardiovascular disease, being optimistic has a protective effect on your health.

What is glaringly missing from our lives is the kind of unique interaction that happens when a group of friends or work colleagues get together socially, the way conversations can take off in unpredictable ways, lending that element of surprise, excitement, and communal enjoyment that is now so lacking in our lives.

We are missing the dense web of more casual social connections – the people we used to meet as we went about our normal lives, acquaintances, friends of friends, former work colleagues or schoolmates – all the people who recognise us and may stop to chat. Now, these encounters are confined to whoever we meet in the 5km circumference that bounds our daily lives, and our interactions are hedged by a lurking anxiety: will the other person move too close, or if you are in a shop, will you delay the queue of people behind you waiting to be served.

Yet, it is in this web of casual connections where we pick up useful information about ourselves and the world we live in. These are the encounters that offer the surprise, novelty, and sense of possibility that lift us up. They are light, needing no heavy investment. Yet, cumulatively, they have far-reaching effects on our health and wellbeing. They buffer us from the negative effects of stress, boost our feeling of confidence, enhance our cognitive functioning, and increase our general trust in other people. When that sense of connectedness and belonging is disrupted, the result is a sense of isolation and loneliness that reveals itself in increasingly low mood, diminishing pleasure in ordinary daily routines, vague symptoms, more fragmented sleep.

That is where we are now. But when this pandemic is over, will we or the way we live be changed in any significant way? The survey suggests some things will change, the most obvious being the way we work. Of those surveyed, one in five are now working full-time at home because of Covid, and a further 12 per cent work at home for some days a week – an arrangement that three out of four would like to continue, even though many struggle to separate work and personal life and as a consequence 48 per cent of men and women feel that they get more work done in the office.

The environment

A lot of us, 61 per cent, have become more health conscious. We have developed a new appreciation of our physical and psychological wellbeing and want to protect both from our own excesses. Spending more time in nature is now a priority for us, especially for the young. This may be one of the most enduring changes of the pandemic.

But there may be a way to go before this new environmental awareness changes our shopping behaviour. Compared to last year, for example, the proportion of people who give a lot of consideration to sustainability when shopping has slipped from 54 per cent to 44 per cent. And the changes we are prepared to make to protect the environment are, as the researchers delicately put it, in the low-effort, low-sacrifice category, so to that extent, when we are being good it is inadvertent.

But on the other hand, this slippage may be temporary and may simply be a function of being stressed. When people are stressed, they are more likely to think in a short-term way. When contending with multiple losses, we are more inclined to shore up our depleted resources by little indulgences. This effect is in full view is this survey: we are consoling ourselves with luxuries, by self-gifting, by redefining self-care as self-deserving. But that trend was already well established well before Covid-19 fell upon us, and like many other changes, the pandemic has simply accelerated it.

Yet, for all the stress and privations of the last year, 53 per cent of us remain defiantly and valiantly optimistic about our future. That counts. Optimism won’t stop you getting Covid-19. But we do know that when it comes to other serious illnesses like cardiovascular disease, being optimistic has a protective effect on your health, it buffers you from the worst effect of the stress of being sick, and it helps you to recover faster. Conversely, being pessimistic puts you at increased risk of death from all causes, including cancer. Maybe this is because being optimistic has the effect of making you more proactive about protecting your health. It helps you to do the trick of turning what you have to do into what you want to do.

So as the roll out of the vaccines lumbers along at an agonisingly slow pace, it’s worth reminding ourselves that this pandemic will eventually end, this too will pass. That reminder will revive our souls, enliven our flagging spirits, and get us ready to engage in life again with the kind of vital energy that has been well and truly quenched over the past long and trying year.

Dr Maureen Gaffney is a clinical psychologist and author of Flourishing: How to Achieve A Deeper Sense Of Well-Being, Meaning And Purpose – Even When Facing Adversity (Penguin 2011). Her new book Your One Wild And Precious Life will be published in September.

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