Means&Matters
Stories of Money and sustainability

What We’ve Learned During COVID-19 Could Help Us Rebuild a More Sustainable World

Aug 24th 2020

By Simran Sethi

In any given year, I will have lived in at least three different countries, taking in local cuisine and culture. I thrive in change—new sights, sounds, and seasonal ingredients unique to people and places. So, if you had told me back in February that I would spend months quarantined at home, making meal plans, transforming a portion of my armoire into a mini-pharmacy, and spending quality time with a needle and thread, I would have thought you were joking—but here we are.

Psychologists tell us these new activities are more meaningful than they might seem. They reflect our extraordinary capacity not only for grief but also for growth.

“It all relates to our psychological immune system,” explains Dr. Simone Schnall, an experimental social psychologist and director of the Cambridge Body, Mind and Behaviour Laboratory at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, during an interview.

“It’s a psychological shield that you didn’t even know you had, and it kicks in when you need it.”

—Dr. Simone Schnall

She describes the psychological immune system as our remarkable ability to deal with setbacks, roadblocks, and whatever else life throws at us—and keep moving forward. “It’s a psychological shield that you didn’t even know you had, and it kicks in when you need it.”

The early days of the pandemic were extraordinarily challenging, but we humans did adapt to the ever-evolving, fear-inducing situation, from stay-at-home measures and school closings to social distancing and the donning of protective equipment.

“When you ask people, ‘How will you feel if such-and-such terrible event happens to you? What are you going to do if you can’t leave the house?’ they assume they will feel miserable forever,” Schnall says. But when it happens, they’re not. We’re not. “We underestimate the coping resources we actually have.”

While facing a historic global challenge, we also developed new skills and abilities that we can now use to build a more sustainable world. Here is what we have learned:

We Can Find Meaning in Trauma

Transformation can occur when we find purpose in grief. Informed by her work with refugees during World War II, Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross pioneered the five-stage model on stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Her colleague David Kessler recently expanded upon this familiar concept.

After losing his 21-year-old son, Kessler explains he was searching for “something more.” He eventually became a grief counselor and found his way to a sixth step: meaning-making. “Loss is simply what happens to you in life,” Kessler told The New York Times. “Meaning is what you make happen.”

Worldwide, people have experienced coronavirus-related traumas big and small—from missing birthdays to losing loved ones. What meaning will we find in these traumas? People everywhere could be inspired to dedicate themselves to a variety of causes—including, potentially, environmental sustainability.

We Have Become More Resourceful

“We have had to be much more self-sufficient and self-reliant,” Schnall says in reflecting on this time, “and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sewing and cooking—doing all these kinds of things—can be quite pleasurable and generative, and foster creativity.”

Since March, we have become problem-solving machines, troubleshooting everything from homeschooling to faulty appliances. While some learned to sew masks, others figured out how to cut their own hair, bake bread, or pursue a hobby. “There’s something to be said for exploring these interests—for taking time and really feeling the process,” Schnall explains.

These new, often surprising skills, demonstrate to each of us our own resourcefulness. We can harness our expanded ideas of what we’re capable of to enable some of the new purposes we’ve found.

We Have Rediscovered Our Resilience

We don’t only have new skills, but new habits—and we’ve broken old ones. In 1995, University of North Carolina, Charlotte, psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun identified the concept of post-traumatic growth, pointing to the many ways grief and trauma lend themselves to new beginnings. The scholars identified five areas of change: a greater appreciation for life, an increased sense of personal strength, a deepened connection to others, a stronger or evolved spiritual connection, and a recognition, due to a disruption in the status quo, of new possibilities.

“We have learned innovative ways of traveling, working, and socializing. We have found new ways to live in the world.”

We have learned innovative ways of traveling, working, and socializing. We have found new ways to live in the world. These new daily habits, like traveling less and virtual work, could make us better equipped to address climate change.

We Have Expanded Our Empathy for Ourselves and Others

Over weeks, we expanded the notion of a “front-line responder” from doctors and nurses to grocery clerks, slaughterhouse workers, delivery people, mail carriers, and trash collectors. People who were once overlooked became visibly essential during the crisis, and we have risen up to support them when possible.

At the same time, we recognize the need for self-care. In a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll, nearly half of all adults in the United States reported their mental health had been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the virus. In response, online therapy is on the rise, as people are seeking out ways to quell anxiety and prepare for challenges that lie ahead.

Online therapy is on the rise, as people are seeking out ways to quell anxiety and prepare for challenges that lie ahead.

As we reconsider what it means to take care of ourselves and one another, society may be receptive to the notion that caring for our planet is one way to do that.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing us to face the reality that our world has shifted,” writes Jessica Carson, Harris Eyre, MD, PhD, and Helen Lavretsky, MD, MS, for Psychiatric Times, “climate change, natural disasters, and pandemics are part of our new normal. The phrase ‘we are in this together’ rings true for us and has left us to ask: What can each of us do to contribute to the solution and solvency of our society and the planet Earth?”

We Have a Greater Appreciation for Our Planet

While people have sheltered in place, smog has lifted, waterways have cleared, and wildlife has thrived.

We are walking more and flying less, which has also had a positive impact on greenhouse gas emissions. A new report by the International Energy Agency shows year-over-year demand for coal fell by 8% in the first quarter of 2020, part of the largest decline in overall energy demand since World War II. It is important to note this is not only the result of the coronavirus but is also due to a warmer-than-average winter. However, seeing immediate, positive environmental results after changes in human behavior gives us the opportunity to better envision what’s possible—and inspiration to bring about more lasting change.

“If we choose to mend, we choose to heal—whatever the object is,” author and artist Anna Brones writes on Instagram. “A pair of jeans, a t-shirt, a wheelbarrow, a rundown garden bed. We can mend clothes, we can mend tools, we can mend objects, and we can mend ourselves.”

View this post on Instagram

"We have the power to repair and destroy. Mending reminds us of our own power to heal.” – Sonya Montenegro @thefarwoods It's #earthweek and #FashionRevolutionWeek, and not to mention that we're in the midst of a pandemic. So anything that reminds us to heal seems of the utmost importance right now. I love this quote from Sonya, pulled from my profile on her and her sister Nina in the recent issue of @taprootmag. If we choose to mend, we choose to heal, whatever the object is—a pair of jeans, a t-shirt, a wheelbarrow, a run down garden bed. We can mend clothes, we can mend tools, we can mend objects, and we can mend ourselves. That to me seems to be of essential value right now. To create, rather than consume. To change how we see the world, and our role in it. Because to begin to make that shift is to begin to heal. #visiblemending

A post shared by Anna Brones (@annabrones) on

What we have learned during COVID-19 is that we are resourceful and empathetic, capable of turning dramatic change into emboldened action. We are resilient—and we can use this resiliency to better our lives and our planet.

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