2020 has seen a change in global society that is unprecedented in the technological age. The nuclear bomb may have been what most would have predicted as being the only entity capable of blowing apart the world as we knew it; in fact, that’s been achieved in just a few months by an invisible pathogenic virus.
Fascinated by my own reaction to what has occurred over the last few months, I began to keenly observe the effects on adults and children. In some ways, this was to find out what might help me to deal better with the sudden change to life experienced by all. In others, it was to confirm that what I had already learned about coping with major life change might actually be the case. Thus far, I have only become more convinced of my innate feeling that the two best tools for coping with major life upheaval in a way which supports good mental and physical health are the ability to create and the desire to help others.
Check the initial declaration of ‘lockdown’ to counter the spread of Covid in any country, and there will likely be a correlation with increased social media posts about creative activities – from cuisine, to art, to the initiation of new businesses. Also strikingly apparent since the phenomenon of lockdown came to pass has been the sharing of charitable causes which need support, encouragement to engage in altruistic activities and condemnation of egotistical actions – whether by governments or individuals.
Human beings, indeed all animals, resort innately to those activities which they feel most support their ability to survive. Basic psychology suggests therefore that, whether consciously or not, creative and altruistic activities have rapidly increased during this latest pandemic to enable us to combat worldwide societal upheaval. Look up the definition of trauma – “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience” – and it is clear to see that as a global population we are undergoing a period of collective trauma. We’re therefore regularly employing the appropriate tools to cope with the associated feelings of shock, anxiety, disconnection, grief and loss.
Social isolation is one of the worst experiences that can befall a human being, given we are social creatures by nature. A simple observation of the effect of solitary confinement on all but the most resilient of human beings illustrates the way in which it can break the human spirit. Yet, after being cut off from other human beings for a prolonged period, it is incredible to read accounts of those who emerge least scathed explaining that creativity and altruism are tools that they used to build their mental resilience to such a torturous circumstance. Often, these tools had to be employed merely in their minds owing to the lack of external resources – creating stories, or ideas, pictures in their head, and thinking about things they would like to do for or with family members or friends. But in so doing, they were able to survive extensive periods of uncertainty and isolation. And science explains why. Creativity releases serotonin and dopamine, two chemicals which make us feel good. Conversely, good levels of serotonin and dopamine together promote divergent, creative thinking. So creating is a very positive behaviour to adopt for continued well-being, and is self perpetuating.
If creativity and altruism are the tools to which we resort almost unwittingly when facing a situation which most human beings find incredibly difficult to cope with mentally, then explicitly acknowledging their benefits can be of help in two very important ways: we can educate children from a very young age to employ these tools, so as to build up resilience to life traumas; we can also practise using these tools as adults to build up resilience before, during and after any life trauma.
Having observed many children around me during the Covid period, those who have undoubtedly shown signs of the most consistent mental and physical good health are those who have been permitted to use their creativity and to participate in activities designed to benefit others, rather than themselves. Children who have painted, danced, sung, written, played sports, made up games, dressed up, done something to contribute to a charitable cause, or been able to help care for siblings or older relatives show a constant ability to put the current situation in to perspective. They readily express their feeling that the time during which they have been more restricted has been fun and pleasurable in many ways. In fact, among adults, conversations to this effect have often become more commonplace. We are realising en masse the things that actually give us purpose and make us feel content and soothed, when externally prescribed indicators for resilience and happiness – material items and income – are no longer available in the same way.
I have also spent some of the pandemic period undertaking Yale’s University’s renowned ‘Science of Well-Being’ course, something there just didn’t seem to be time for previously. (https://www.coursera.org/learn/the-science-of-well-being). I can highly recommend it. One of the most memorable components explains the science behind super-altruism, and also the fact that those who engage in it are happier than those who don’t. Altruism naturally stimulates those feel good substances in the brain, dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin. This is something to bear in mind whenever life circumstances bring about uncertainty and challenge our familiar means of making ourselves happy. Science says that doing things for others is actually one of the best means of maintaining our well-being. Combine this with creating, perhaps in a way which provides a service or product that helps others, and not only is better well-being a result. These two things in combination are often at the heart of how new, and successful, businesses begin. With constant talk of a global recession being on the horizon, now is perhaps the time to consider that the best enterprises of tomorrow will be those which not only serve others, but are also born out of the tools we use to best cope personally with our ever-changing world.