When I first proposed using a wellbeing model for my Ph.D. research, I was cautioned that I might not be taken seriously. That wellbeing and wellness were the domain of self-help gurus and yummy mummies—mostly privileged, primarily white, affluent, women. That was over a dozen years ago.
As the time since the start of physical distancing starts to be measured in weeks and months instead of days, the importance of wellbeing is now widely recognized. As countries that had begun to relax restrictions predictably enter a second wave and populations face the dreaded third quarter, anxieties about how to support wellbeing over time mount. As the death tolls in long term care facilities mount, incidence of domestic abuse rise, and marginal communities face disproportionately high rates of COVID-19, it has become entirely apparent that wellbeing is not fluffy and must not be reserved for the privileged.
We actually know quite a lot about wellbeing and resilience. Material security matters. Of course, we all need food, water, housing and political stability but we also need to feel secure in our bodies, our space and our natural environments. This is one of the reasons that sheltering in place is so hard—even literally having all the comforts of home, being constrained in space with limited access to nature undermines our wellbeing.
The presence of positive relationships is the most consistent factor contributing to wellbeing both over time and across cultures. Today, whether isolating alone or with family, relationships are taxed. As much as many people use digital tools to minimize the impacts of this, there is a growing understanding of zoom fatigue and of the need for face to face interactions and touch. Animal shelters report the highest rates of adoption as people strive to find ways to connect and have an intuitive appreciation of the loss of something visceral.
The impact on the feeling of engagement seems to be, at this point, the most variable. There are some who, especially in the early weeks, found the time to create, connect, expand and explore. Others found it more difficult to do so in the absence of nourishing social interactions. Among friends, I referred to elated introverts and suffering extroverts. As time wears on, even the introverts are becoming keenly aware of their social needs.
Yet if Viktor Frankl’s writings about surviving the concentration camps has taught us anything, it is that a person can survive even the worst conditions with the knowledge that there is meaning to their life. It is for this reason that it is imperative that we use this time to design, plan for and establish a new normal that addresses the toxicity of the before world.
We have been living in a world of exploitation, planetary degradation, polarization of wealth and poverty. We have been living in a world of daily grinds that constrain opportunity for relationships and limit meaningful engagement. We have been living in a sick planet that is now, literally, making us sick.
We have been given an opportunity to see, more clearly, what matters. We have seen the ways the people have turned to arts and culture to cope and we are witnessing the natural world rebounding. We have seen that the global system can turn on a dime, social supports can be put in place, when the political will is present. We are at a unique moment in history. The chance to create another world that is more conducive to wellbeing is within our reach. Let’s take that chance. Let's ensure that wellbeing for all is prioritized in the new normal.