As we move onwards towards the end of 2022, we are beginning to gauge the full impact of the pandemic on mental health. The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which the individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to his or her community”. The field of positive psychology views mental health as a continuum. At the higher end we have mental health and at the lower end, mental illness. We can shift up and down the continuum depending on our circumstances.
As we move towards the top end of the continuum, we are in a state of thriving or flourishing. We feel satisfied with life, have a sense of fulfilment, feel confident in our ability to bounce back from stress and have an overall feeling that things in life are going as or better than expected. You might be thinking “that doesn’t sound much like me at the moment”. Perhaps you find yourself somewhere lower down the continuum.
At the opposite end of the continuum, we can experience depression, a common mental health problem. Some of the symptoms of depression include a depressed mood, a loss of interest or pleasure in almost all activities, a feeling of hopelessness as well as feelings of worthlessness and fatigue. Treatment is usually comprised of counselling and in some cases medication may also be prescribed. You might be thinking “well I’m not flourishing but I don’t think I have a mental illness either so what’s happening?”. To answer that question we must explore another mental state often referred to as languishing.
Those considered to be languishing, a term first coined by sociologist Corey Keyes and recently made famous by organisational psychologist Adam Grant, do not display the symptoms of mental illness, yet neither are they thriving. Some of the signs of languishing include fatigue, difficulty concentrating as well as struggling to find the motivation to exercise and complete tasks. If you are languishing you might view life as unsatisfactory or like you are “stuck in a rut”. Life feels a bit “meh”. Researchers have discovered tipping points at which they can predict whether people are flourishing, languishing or depressed. These tipping points involve our emotions.
Emotion is a universal human experience. All humans regardless of culture, express and experience the same basic emotions. The six basic emotions are anger, sadness, happiness, surprise, disgust, and fear. Positive emotions such as joy and gratitude can enhance our health and quality of life. People who experience higher frequencies of positive emotions are generally more adaptive to stressful situations, more resilient and more likely to flourish in life. In contrast, those who experience fewer positive emotions and more negative emotions such as sadness and fear tend to feel less satisfied with life, experience more physical and mental illnesses and are less productive at work. To flourish you need to experience at least 3 positive emotions for every 1 negative emotion, about a 3:1 ratio. When your positive emotions drop below 3. you are classed as languishing. It is not difficult to see how many people in Ireland are languishing at the moment.
According to a report produced by the HSE, between March and July 2020 traffic to the HSE mental health content on Yourmentalhealth.ie surged by 490%. This is not surprising given that over the past two years we have encountered a lack of access to loved ones, isolation, cancellation of important events and so on. Those working on the frontline have experienced an excessive workload, emotional distress, physical hardship arising from PPE use among other challenges. The pandemic has also presented us with a host of uncertainties about the virus, school openings and closures, the economy and career and family planning. When we find ourselves struggling to deal with uncertainly, we can experience a higher level of negative emotions. Furthermore social isolation and high levels of stress can lead to increased levels of fatigue. Wave after wave, the pandemic took its toll. No wonder we are exhausted. However there are steps which we can take to help us feel better and start to flourish again.
First we want to acknowledge our negative emotions (they are important). Second we want to take small steps to increase our positive emotions. We need to get smiling (stay with me on this one!). Smiling can positively affect our physical and emotional well-being. Smile-inducing activities differ from person to person however there has been a strong link found between smiling and recreational activities such as exercise, playing games, interactions with animals and health pursuits. Recreational activities stimulate our interests and help us to feel joy. It is also worth pondering the answers to the questions below.
What do you need right now to feel better? Are there any activities or hobbies that you used to enjoy doing but have stopped doing or any that you would like to do but have never tried? Even if these activities are not possible for you at the moment, make a plan. Perhaps the pandemic has given you a new perspective on life. Are there things in your life that you would like to change?
Dr. Aoife Quinn
Dean of Psychology, City Colleges