by Dr Rui Sun, Social Psychologist

Wellbeing is an age-old topic. Even though its meaning may differ across cultures and time, most people would agree that it is one of the most important themes in life. Going back to the Greeks, Aristotle declared that “happiness is the meaning and the purposes of life, the whole aim and end of human existence”. In the east, echoing Aristotle, the Dalai Lama also agreed that “the purpose of our lives is to be happy”.

Psychological wellbeing – what research tells us

Social psychology studies psychological wellbeing and factors leading to wellbeing. Traditionally, the definition of psychological wellbeing is limited to satisfaction with life, meaning feeling more positive emotions and less negative emotions. Yet, the empirical science of wellbeing studies has grown enormously in the past decade, and the concept of wellbeing is much wider: besides the hedonic feelings of happiness, wellbeing also includeseudaimonic features such as finding purpose and meaning of life, mental and physical health, and the ability to act with resilience when faced with difficulties.

There are many intra-personal factors contributing to individuals’ psychological wellbeing, including aspects which tend to remain relatively stable, such as objective individual-level factors like income, personality and education. In addition to such relatively static factors, wellbeing is also affected by transient states that fluctuate considerably such as emotional experiences. Moreover, there are also inter-personal factors such as social connectedness and social support that contribute to wellbeing.

Psychological wellbeing in challenging times: How to stay mentally healthy in times of a pandemic

To date (Apr 2022), there have been more than 500 million confirmed cases and over six million confirmed deaths due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Pandemics, including the current COVID-19 crisis, are linked to substantive deterioration in mental health. It is therefore essential to gain insight into the factors associated with better and worse wellbeing during periods of collective stress. As we are currently in the first word-wide pandemic of this century, research on the impacts to mental health as well as factors to help improve or sustain wellbeing in these extraordinary times is still at its beginning. In this post, I will introduce two research projects conducted during the outbreak of the pandemic. The first study examined the role of emotions on wellbeing around the world during the pandemic. The second study researched the effects from different ways of human communication (face-to-face interactions and technology-mediated communications – including social media) on wellbeing during a strict lockdown period. 

Emotional experience and wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic: 1st study

Unsurprisingly, experiencing less negative and more positive emotions in one’s daily life is associated with enhanced wellbeing. However, emotions are generally experienced as being of different intensities and varieties: we do not just feel good, we feel triumphant or determined or calm. Similarly, we typically experience feeling bad as one of a variety of flavors: we might feel angry, or sad, or lonely. These differences may result in differentiable relationships with wellbeing. In this study, we tested this prediction empirically.

To examine the relationship between distinct emotional experience and psychological wellbeing, we conducted a survey during the outbreak of the pandemic. In 6 weeks, nearly 30,000 participants in 151 countries took partin the survey, made available in 50 languages. We examined 20 emotions: admiration, calm, compassion, determination, feeling moved, gratitude, hope, love, relief, sensory pleasure (such as smell, sound, touch, etc), anger, anxiety/worry, boredom, confusion, disgust, fear, frustration, loneliness, regret, and sadness. We also examined participants’ momentary wellbeing, which fell into four facets: wellness, resilience, health anddistress. 

After data cleaning, data from more than 24,000 participants from 51 countries was retained in the statistical analyses. Overall, we found that among the positive emotions, calm and hope were consistently positively related to wellbeing, and among the negative emotions, anxiety, loneliness and sadness were consistently negatively related to wellbeing. We also examined whether there were cultural differences in our findings. Surprisingly, the key emotions were almost universal in predicting wellbeing in the 51 countries we examined. This might be because the COVID-19 pandemic posed similar stresses to people around the world just after the outbreak of the pandemic, decreasing potential cross-country differences.  The findings are important for both individuals and policy makers to fight against sustained stress such as the pandemic.

Human communications and wellbeing during periods of lockdown: 2nd study

Humans are social animals. For most of human history, essentially all interactions happened face-to-face. Previous research has consistently found positive associations between the quantity of face-to-face interactions and wellbeing. In the past decades, thanks to the development of technology, especially smartphones, people are able to maintain and expand their social networks despite physical distance. Pre-pandemic research suggests that communication via video, phone, and text is also associated with better wellbeing, including benefits such as reduced risk of loneliness, increased subjective wellbeing, and reduced negative mood.

Technology-mediated communication vs. face-to-face contact 

Physical interactions have been limited during the COVID-19 pandemic, and especially in periods of lockdown. Given the advantages of connecting to others online, the WHO suggested at the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic that people use technology-mediated communication to connect with others. But how helpful is technology-mediated communication, especially compared to face-to-face interactions?

To examine this question, we conducted an experience sampling study in the United Kingdom during the first lockdown period. In an experience sampling study, participants answered the same survey multiple times in a longitudinal period. In our study, participants answered the survey daily, it can also be called “daily diary method”. In the course of the study, participants filled in a daily diary questionnaire on their smartphone for 30 days, wherein they answered how many hours they spent on face-to-face interactions and technology-mediated communications. They also reported their end of day wellbeing.

Facetime, Zoom, Messenger Apps – Endless Options, but No Comparison to Real Face-to-Face Contact

We found that increased face-to-face interactions, both among household members and people outside of one’s household positively predicted wellbeing. Technology-mediated interactions, however, overall had weaker influence on wellbeing. Even though the World Health Organisation encouraged people to limit face-to-face interactions and use technology-medicated-communications to keep connected during the pandemic, our findings suggest that face-to-face interactions are still the most powerful in bringing wellbeing benefits. Moreover, we found that, whether face-to-face interacting with people living in the same household or with people outside of one’s household (such as neighbours and acquaintances) are beneficial to psychological wellbeing. Our findings echo what Charles Dickens said in 1856 when speaking about telegrams: “I am as thankful to it as any man can be for what it does for us. But it will never be a substitute for [a] face”. 

Staying calm, hopeful, and connected: The key factors for psychological wellbeing during the pandemic

In summary, through the two studies, we found that individuals’ recent momentary experiences of five specific emotions are particularly crucial for predicting psychological wellbeing: calm, hope, anxiety, loneliness, and sadness. We also found that, even if technology-mediated communications are beneficial to wellbeing during periods of lockdowns, face-to-face interactions are the most beneficial to wellbeing. Responding to the collective crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic will require not only individuals, but also organizations and public institutions to create opportunities for momentary experiences of calm and hope, as well as providing interventions to tackle anxiety, sadness, and loneliness. Governments need to create safe policies for individuals to build face-to-face interactions, even when physical distancing is necessary to control the spread of the coronavirus.

Cover photo: © Samson Katt, Pexels

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