In April 2020, Tomos Roberts, a 26-year film maker, released a poem called “The Great Realization”. It has now been viewed millions of times and is available in multiple languages. Through it, he provokes reflection about the resilience of communities the world over during the COVID-19 pandemic – about the potential good that came of it – which he frames as the great realization of 2020.
As we gradually return to a life that resembles “normalcy” following the pandemic, and consider the challenges that were faced and, in many cases, continue to be faced – we should ask ourselves what lessons can be collectively taken away from it to continue to nurture some of these “realizations”. Isolation and restrictions on movement stressed our relationships with others and our environment around us, motivated reflection about our personal wellness and forced us to question priorities in life.
The pandemic highlighted the importance of social connection and how easily we can take it for granted. We missed out on social rituals, small and large, and many found themselves isolated. When social connection was less available, we learned (the hard way) how critical it can be. After an initial period of severe isolation, the world opened up gradually to allow for a small circle of social interaction. We were forced to be intentional about socializing – we made plans, organized outdoor events, and prioritized seeing others because we were spending so much of our time alone and indoors. We created new rituals to incorporate social time with others as much as possible. And when we were with others, it was precious and we were present. We were creative – finding ways to connect to others like we hadn’t in the past. We also spent more time with close members of our family such as partners and family members. It was structured and generally less fragmented and distracted.
The intentionality with which we approach our connections to others during the pandemic is something we should strive to protect. Research consistently shows a robust connection between social connection and happiness. So as we settle back into busier schedules, and typically more time spent physically away from home in a post-pandemic world, let’s hold on to this sense of intention and presence when we spend time with the people we love.
We also learned that connecting to others in real time is a form of relationship that can’t be replaced – regardless of how many messages we send and receive through social media apps, we need tangible, “live” interactions with others to satisfy our thirst for connection as social animals. During the pandemic, we were resourceful and designed social events that could run entirely online, connecting people in places all over the world. Entire online communities were created and can now be harnessed to continue to promote a sense of social cohesion.
The pandemic also highlighted important issues in mental health and wellness. It goes without saying that burnout in medicine existed long before the pandemic. But, the pandemic created an environment in which we began speaking about it more openly. There was an overriding sense of collective suffering (in medicine and beyond), which encouraged collegiality and closeness amongst those working together. Not only should we hold onto this sense of togetherness that was cultivated during the pandemic, but we must continue to work towards fixing the structural components of our healthcare system which accelerate burnout amongst physicians and trainees.
For many, the pandemic created space and time to invest in passions and hobbies outside of our regular day to day lives. Many discovered new activities or rituals that made them feel well and there was a global re-ordering of priorities. While it is easy to lean into old habits, we should encourage one another to remember what really mattered to us when life was moving a little more slowly.
Enacting lessons from the pandemic requires a whole additional period of adjustment. Just as we were beginning to get comfortable with the pace of life during the pandemic, we are now being forced to unlearn and relearn new habits, rituals and ways of being. Self-compassion as we make these adjustments will be key: we need to recognize that there are long lasting impacts from the pandemic that will continue to influence our endurance for activities like socializing. We also need allow ourselves space to grieve the many things that were lost to the pandemic. There is this notion of “post-traumatic growth” that we can lean into as the roller coaster of COVID 19 stills. The pandemic has proven how psychologically resilient we can be. Let’s try and not forget this as we move forward.
Dr. Laurie Santos and Dr. Amy Comander. The Happiness Lab. “What did the Pandemic Teach Us About Happiness?”. 01 Aug 2022. Pushkin.