What has the Covid crisis taught us about happiness?

For many, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we define our happiness. In this blog, David Tross, Associate Lecturer in the Department of Geography, discusses how the crisis has changed society and definitions of happiness. 

Cup of coffee with smiley face

Given what we experienced in 2020 (and on into 2021), it might seem inappropriate to consider a pandemic and happiness as having much to do with one another. And in many ways, levels of happiness in the UK followed the bad news. The Office of National Statistics (ONS) has been measuring the nation’s happiness for almost a decade now and it has barely shifted over that time. Austerity, Brexit turmoil —none of these made a dent, until March when the first national lockdown was announced. Then, life satisfaction and everyday mood plummeted while anxiety rocketed. But by summer, with the easing of restrictions, these happiness indicators had pretty much returned to pre-Covid levels.

This resilience may also be testament to a key phenomenon identified by happiness researchers — the extraordinary ability of people to adapt to changes in circumstances and, after the initial shock, to shift their expectations to whatever the ‘new normal’ might be. This ‘adaptation’ principle explains why chasing riches produce what economists call ‘low marginal gains’ in happiness terms: you get used to your new-found wealth quite quickly and need to keep accumulating to maintain the same level of wellbeing (yes, just like addiction). New stimuli, both positive and negative, will make quite short-term, dramatic differences to wellbeing; before long, most people revert back to their normal happiness levels. So it was with lockdown. People adapted, found alternative ways to pass the time and got on with things.

But lockdown wasn’t merely tolerated. There were aspects of it people really rather liked. A clue is in the fourth indictor the ONS uses to gauge happiness, often termed the ‘eudemonic’ measure– reflecting a tradition associated with Aristotle that happiness is more than simply feeling good but is connected to the meaningful pursuits and good relationships of our lives – that asks people whether they feel their life is worthwhile. Unlike levels of anxiety, mood and life satisfaction, this measure remained relatively stable throughout 2020. Sure, some of what we find worthwhile (an active social and cultural life for example), took a hit, But the enforced hiatus from normal life that we never expected to inhabit –many dreamt of escaping the rat race; few thought the race itself would stop –has, for some at least, led to realisations and re-evaluations about the way they live.

Because by June, the ONS was reporting that almost half of us had identified some positive benefits of lockdown. One was work-related: not having to commute and spend long hours in the office (one UK wellbeing at work issue is that we put in more hours than most equivalent European nations but get less done!). Other benefits were spending more time with family (particularly quality time with children), appreciating a slower pace of life and connecting with the natural environment. People cooked more and did more exercise. During a guest lecture for UCEN Manchester students, one participant provided a neat formula for staying sane during lockdown: ‘run, plant, bake. Repeat’.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Most of the activities research studies have shown to be associated with happiness –loving relationships, achieving things, the arts, nature, doing things for others – were still possible during lockdown. Volunteering is another activity associated with happiness. ‘For me’, says Karl Wilding, CEO of the National Council of Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), ‘Covid demonstrated that people want to be part of something bigger’. Not only did the one million plus people volunteering (only the tip of the philanthropic iceberg) constitute what the NCVO called ‘the largest peacetime mobilisation in British history’, there was a demonstrable uplift in what might be termed ‘community spirit’: more people felt that others were helping one another, they were more confident that others would help them if needed, and they were checking on neighbours far more than normal. In common adversity, solidarity. Maybe Nietzsche was right when he suggested that human societies ‘build their cities on the slopes of Vesuvius!’.

Of course, even precarious living is subject to the adaptation principle. When danger becomes the new normal, it is hard to maintain this collective spirit. In addition, social solidarity depends not just on feeling connected to a larger entity but also on the idea of shared experience across social groups. This has already faded. Recent reports from the Institute of Fiscal Studies lays out in painstaking detail the ways in which the crisis has both highlighted and deepened the profound social inequalities of UK life. Going forward, unemployment – a key predictor of unhappiness– looks set to rise steeply; a really alarming bit of data picked up from a recent ONS survey was that a third of the population, and half of all renters and parents, say they would not be able to afford an unexpected emergency payment of £850.

Happiness is inseparable from its social context. Every year the UN commissions a ‘World Happiness Report’ and one theme is persistent: the happiest countries spend a higher percentage of GDP on social support systems. Therefore, during the first lockdown, the policy environment became more happiness-friendly. Witness not just furlough but also getting ‘everyone in’ off the streets, suspending housing evictions and benefit sanctions. One Department for Work and Pensions worker told me that advisors ‘no longer felt like cops’ and could offer a more efficient service when clients felt they could speak openly about their problems without a punitive threat. Pre-Covid, a softening of social attitudes towards welfare recipients were being observed in reports like the British Social Attitudes Survey, and it is hard to imagine this reversing any time soon.

In 2020 the state was back, and it felt friendlier. But will this turn out to be just a glimpse of something more hopeful and not a decisive shift? This year has given some actual substance to some of the vague nostrums rolled out by politicians: the big society, the good society, all sectors working together towards a common goal. As vaccines are rolled out, we may not be living on the slopes of Vesuvius for much longer, but we should be mindful of what Covid has taught us about happiness, on a macro level about a more generous politics and on a personal level that the mantra of happiness- Carpe Diem! has two meanings. One, invoked by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society and by T-shirts, mugs and online dating profiles, refers to the hot pursuit of happiness. But the aphorism has been re-purposed for our frenetic age. its original meaning pays tribute to the moderate happiness philosophy of Epicurus whose idea of seizing the day was not grabbing it by the scruff of its neck. Rather, cultivate simple joys and appreciate what we have instead of always seeking more. For, he wrote, ‘nothing is sufficient for he who finds sufficiency too little’.

Other ancient philosophies had good lockdowns. The Stoic creed of equanimity seems a bit dreary when there’s fun to be had. But in times of adversity, to face one’s fears, accept what we can’t control and still retain a sense of dignity never seemed so apposite. In a timely piece, writer Brigid Delaney recalled the Roman Philosopher Seneca, who, exiled by the state, cut off from his friends, wealth and influence, began to reconcile himself with the enforced simplicity and seclusion of his reduced circumstances, noting that ‘until we have begun to go without them, we fail to recognise how unnecessary things are’. Or, as one UCEN Manchester student put it: ‘the things we thought mattered, didn’t matter’.

 

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Denials and ignorance in the time of a pandemic

Professor Renata Salecl, Professor of Psychology, Psychoanalysis and Law, explores how and why people react to COVID-19 with denial and ignorance.

Ignorance is often understood in a negative way, which is why we can easily accuse others of it while we rarely admit our ignorance. Most often, ignorance is understood not only as a lack of knowledge but primarily as a lack of the desire to know. However, psychoanalysts have observed that people might very well have a desire to know, but then do everything not to come close to the core of their suffering.

In politics, ignorance is often intentional or even strategic. At the start of the pandemic, many world leaders employed such deliberate strategies of ignorance. It was not so much that they did not know about the dangers of the novel coronavirus; they downplayed the pandemic for political and economic reasons.

In their private lives, people adopt their own types of denial. These denials are not so different from the types of denials that were studied in the 1980s by the Israeli psychologist Shlomo Breznitz, who questioned how people deal with potentially life-threatening health situations. Breznitz observed that many people who survived a heart attack did not think that they could suffer its repeat, even if they learned that others with a similar condition did. Denials helped people to feel confident in their wellbeing, and people often went from one form of denial to another. Altogether, Breznitz observed seven different kinds of denials among the patients he studied. One form of denial was that people felt that what happened to others cannot happen to them. Another involved a lack of urgency – when people experienced worsening of their health, they delayed seeking help. Still, another form of denial was a denial of vulnerability, when people felt that they were somehow protected from the illness because of their presumably healthy lifestyle. One of the forms of denial was the perception that illness is just luck, fate, or destiny. Moreover, while some people denied effects related to their condition or have invented an appeasing explanation for their anxiety provoked by their near-death experiences, others denied the information regarding their health. However, the most severe cases of denial included delusions, which meant that people created an explanation for their condition that was far away from reality.

With people who deny COVID-19, one can also observe how they often go through similar types of denials. Some people behave as if the novel coronavirus is of no personal relevance and that infections affect only other people. Even when already infected, some deny the urgency of the situation and do not seek medical treatment when their symptoms worsen. Many people who deny that the novel coronavirus can affect them, similarly to Breznitz’s patients, harbor illusions that they are somehow protected from getting infected because of their healthy lifestyle or even good genes. Some people take infection as merely a matter of luck or destiny. Overwhelmingly present are denials linked to people blocking unpleasant information or pushing aside their emotions related to the pandemic. Furthermore, with the continuation of the pandemic, psychiatrists are also observing delusional thinking. Some people are even developing particular COVID-19 related delusions.

Medicine often does not pay enough attention to people’s denial of illness as epidemiology says little about how ignorance and denial are played out in times of a pandemic. Now that so many countries are going through the second wave of the pandemic, many people are fatigued by it and are not willing to follow often erratic measures governments are proposing to limit the spread of the virus. While on the one hand, people need to deal with the conflicting messages about how to protect themselves and others from the infection, on the other hand, they have to deal with the emotions the pandemic is provoking. When dealing with something traumatic, anxiety-provoking or hard to grasp, people often embrace ignorance and denial, instead of knowledge and facts.

The pandemic has taught us the importance of acknowledging the unknown. As Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States said, “He who knows, knows how little he knows.” One cannot imagine that today’s world leaders would utter something like this. Although, as German politician and epidemiologist Karl Lauterbach recently reminded us in The Guardian: “Uncertainty and doubt are not a disgrace for scientists or politicians at this time. What is disgraceful is excessive self-confidence, self-righteousness or dishonesty towards fellow human beings.”

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Working in the arts is a real job – don’t you dare ask us to retrain!

Arts workers are among the worst hit by the COVID-19 employment crisis. Professor Almuth McDowall asks why the government is so reluctant to offer support.

As a former classically trained dancer, I have been deeply moved by the plight of my colleagues working in the performing arts across theatre, music and dance.

Our pioneering research with PiPA in 2018 highlighted that over 54% of people working in this sector are self-employed, almost four times as many as in the UK general population. One in three don’t have a steady contract. Unlike in any other industry, it is common and expected that people finance the work which they love through other income. Teaching, cleaning, waitressing – you name it, they’ve done it. Taken together, this has always made for a toxic cocktail of precarious work. But never more toxic than now, as theatres are closed, orchestras can practice socially distanced at best (witness the recent ‘come back’ streaming of the Royal Opera House), and dancers now rather famously, thanks to social media posts aplenty, train in kitchens, bedrooms, on balconies or in the park.

Yet, the notion remains that work in the arts is somehow not real work, but a privilege that only the few can indulge. Recent controversy about the ‘Cyber Add’  illustrates the point. BA Acting student Ruby Hoggarth shares an alternative view about life in the arts during the pandemic:

“Graduating during a pandemic into an industry that is in complete crisis has been hard enough, but being nationally downgraded and humiliated by the very people who allegedly have our best interests at heart has been an embarrassment like no other. Not only has this media strategy grossly disregarded the importance of our industry, especially at a time of national crisis when people turn to the arts for healing, it has shown us that this government have little humanity and no ability to believe in the beauty of art.”

It’s a feeling BA Musical Theatre student Alex Conder can relate to:

“I chose to move away from home to study in the UK as a Musical Theatre student as I knew the spirit and quality of the art made in Great Britain is second to none. To then graduate and be told my career in the arts is viewed as a hobby or “not viable”—after the world has done nothing but devour art in the pandemic—is not only a slap in the face to our current artists, but also tarnishing an incredible historic legacy of fine art and creativity in this country.”

Along with hospitality, retail and manufacturing , the arts are the one of hardest hit sectors in the UK. Companies had to make judicious use of the furlough scheme which is now coming to an end. What next? Theatres will find it hard to put on productions at a profit with social distancing measures in place, as even the sell-out run of an adapted Jesus Christ Superstar in Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre demonstrated. We can’t very well take the roofs of all our theatres to aid ventilation, either!

So who’s responsibility is it? Chancellor Rishi Sunak has said that all workers need to adapt to the changing world of work and life in the wake of COVID-19. Well, those working in the performing arts have shown formidable resilience and adaption skills to date, our data shows that many juggled two if not three jobs to make ends meet and have a reasonable income. Tom Rogers, a soloist with Birmingham Royal Ballet has long branched out, initiating his own podcast series, Tom & Ty Talk, and as a guest editor for his company.

Tom says “For me it is vital that people working in the arts respond to the times we are in through creativity and self expression. Despite the political and social upheaval brought about by COVID-19 and our current government, the desire for art and culture remains. By continuing to be creative and bringing art to our communities, we will remind society and this naïve government of the true value arts and culture plays in all our lives.”

Chancellor Sunak seems to have forgotten that the arts and culture industry contributes £10.8 billion a year to the UK economy and gives jobs to 363,700 people.

The enjoyment and quality of life the arts bring to our lives is, however, much harder to measure. I know that I am privileged as I earn a reasonable income which I spend first and foremost on the arts. Life has lost its technicolour, since frequent carefree visits to the Royal Ballet, Sadlers Wells, Birmingham Royal Nutcracker seasons at the Royal Albert Hall, and London musicals are no more. I miss the bonding experience of going to see live music with my three teenage girls or treating my mum to a classical concert visit together.

These are small worries in comparison to existential crisis. The stress and worry caused by the uncertainty and lack of support is taking a toll on those working in the arts. Is Universal credit really an option? Of course it isn’t, as this quote from Geddy Stringer illustrates vividly:

“I timed my move to London terribly, having just finished a somewhat interrupted year on the MA in Musical Theatre at the Royal Academy of Music. There’s been no clear support from the government and no industry to work in. I’ve been trying desperately to get a part-time job elsewhere, but the job market is a minefield to say the least. My only option has been Universal Credit. I know that this can’t last forever, nor do I want to take it for much longer. But until the government sees the arts as a viable and lasting career option – instead of a hobby – and gives it the support it has long justified, then there isn’t really anywhere else to go.”

So what is the answer? A government funded rescue package doesn’t come soon enough. But a rescue package is exactly that – a sticking plaster. What we need is a long-term strategic solution, as COVID-19 is not going to go away in a hurry. More than ever, we need to continue to celebrate the past, present and future of the arts as  part of our legacy and identity.

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Student life in the time of COVID-19

As the new academic year commences soon on 5 October, this blog summarises the current public health advice and information to remind students what they need to know before the university term starts.  

Birkbeck's main building, Torrington Square

Birkbeck’s main building, Torrington Square

Protect yourself, your university and the wider community remember ‘Hands. Face. Space’.

  • Wash your hands regularly 
  • The College has adopted a 1M+ approach to social distancing in circulation areas across the estate. This means that people should maintain a two-metre distance, as far as is reasonably possible whilst in buildings but, with the mitigation of face coverings, it is possible for people to be in closer proximity, for example when passing each other in corridors. However, when people are in rooms for prolonged periods, such as in a classroom, the Library or shared office space, then a 2M social distance should be maintained. This will be supported by laying out furniture, such as classroom desks or library study spaces with two metre spacing
  • We require that everyone wears a face covering whilst inside Birkbeck buildings
  • Get a test and self-isolate if you develop symptoms 
  • Use the NHS Test and Trace app

Whether you’re a new or returning student you’ll no doubt have lots of questions or concerns about how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact your student life. Whether you are already based in London or moving to the city, you’ll need to know what actions you should take to keep yourself safe but also fellow students, university staff and the local community. This blog summarises the important public health advice and information to remind you of what you need to know before the university term starts.   

Public health basics  

You’ve probably been looking forward to starting or returning to university, your friends but it’s essential to keep the public health basics front of mind and always remember ‘Hands. Face. Space’. 

Your ‘household’ will consist of your family or flatmates that you share your home with or if you are living in university halls your halls of residence will let you know what makes up your household. 

Follow the student guidance and booking process for visiting the Birkbeck libraryWe will have very limited on-campus classes and events in the autumn term, but this is under constant review and we will update you as plans change.

The College has adopted a 1M+ approach to social distancing in circulation areas across the estate. This means that people should maintain a two-metre distance, as far as is reasonably possible whilst in buildings but, with the mitigation of face coverings, it is possible for people to be in closer proximity, for example when passing each other in corridors. However, when people are in rooms for prolonged periods, such as in a classroom, the Library or shared office space, then a 2M social distance should be maintained. This will be supported by laying out furniture, such as classroom desks or library study spaces with two metre spacing. We require that everyone wears a face covering whilst inside Birkbeck buildings.

To stay safe while travelling try to avoid car sharing and using public transport at peak times. Walk or cycle when it’s possible and safe to do so. These basics will help protect you, university life and local residents, especially those that are more vulnerable. 

If you’re a student in the clinically extremely vulnerable group, having previously been shielding, and you have a particular health concern you should seek medical advice.

Moving to your university home 

Be sure to follow the government’s latest advice on coronavirus. London is not currently listed as an area with additional restrictions, but if you’re coming from Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland, remember that the rules and restrictions are different to those in England. It’s also a good idea to get up to speed on the overall advice on staying safe outside your home and find out your new local council so you can keep uptodate on local guidance.  

If you’re an international student coming to the UK from abroad, make sure you provide your journey and contact details before you travel to the UK and you know whether you need to self-isolate for 14 days when you arrive, and read the guidance on entering the UK safely.  

International travel restrictions and local restrictions can change quickly and without much warning so be sure to keep an eye on the latest guidance while making your travel plans.

What to do if you need to self-isolate 

If you test positive for coronavirus while at university, the rules on self-isolation remain the same. You must self-isolate for 10 days and follow NHS guidance. Your other close contacts that will be informed by NHS Test and Trace if they should self-isolate. 

If you’re living in university accommodation where someone in your ‘household’ (as set out by the accommodation management team) has symptoms of coronavirus or tests positive you must let the management team know. 

Wherever you live, you should self-report on My Birkbeck so the university can offer any extra support you might need for your course 

NHS Test and Trace 

Make sure the university has your latest personal details to ensure the NHS Test and Trace can get in touch if they need to – you can update your personal details on you’re MyBirkbeck profile. 

If you or anyone you’ve had close contact with test positive for coronavirus, you’ll be contacted by NHS Test and Trace and asked to self-isolate. If you are contacted, you will be asked to provide them with information they’ll need to help stop the spread of the virus. 

The NHS Test and Trace app is part of the national effort to get us back doing the things we love and every person who downloads the app will be helping in the fight against coronavirus. The app will help you to report symptoms, order a coronavirus test, check in to venues by scanning a QR code and help the NHS trace those who may have coronavirus. The app will do all this while protecting your identity and data security. The app will be available shortly so do the right thing and download it and encourage your student household and friends to do likewise.

Got symptoms – get a test 

Make sure you are clear about the symptoms of coronavirus and when you should get a test. If you have any of the following symptoms you should get a test: 

  • a high temperature 
  • a new, continuous cough 
  • a loss of, or change to, your sense of smell or taste

You can book a test on line at GOV.UK at https://www.gov.uk/get-coronavirus-test or by phoning NHS 119.

If you have a confirmed case of COVID-19, you can self-report on your MyBirkbeck profile.

Be mindful of your mental health 

Recent months haven’t been fun or easy for anyone not least of all students. The new online resource at Student Space has a variety of useful mental health and wellbeing materials that can support you. Public Health England has also published general guidance on mental health and wellbeing during COVID-19.

Your role is crucial 

By following the guidance on washing your hands; keeping your distance; not socialising with more than 6 people; wearing a face covering; using the NHS Test and Trace app, self-isolating and getting a test if you have symptoms you are helping to save lives. Respecting the rules will keep you, your friends and family healthy, and your university town a safe and enjoyable place to live. 

We will continue to post updated on Birkbeck’s coronavirus information page, and in the weekly email to students.  

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COVID-19 in prisons – a major public health risk

Catherine Heard, Director of the World Prison Research Programme at the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research (ICPR) at Birkbeck, discusses the impact of COVID-19 on prison populations.

Prison

The coronavirus pandemic presents formidable challenges for prisons worldwide – challenges they will struggle to meet, with potentially grave consequences for the health of prisoners, prison staff, their families, and all of us.

This is a fast-moving situation: since the outbreak was declared a pandemic on 12 March, prisoners and prison staff have tested positive in several European countries, and prisoners have died in England and France. These cases will only be the tip of the iceberg globally. With prison health systems in so many parts of the world struggling to provide even basic healthcare, many sick prisoners and prison staff will not have been tested. Overcrowded and under-resourced prisons offer the perfect conditions for the rapid spread of any contagious disease, including COVID-19, within and beyond their confines.

Last year, we published a report examining the effects of failed penal policies through the lens of health. We showed that well over 60% of countries have overcrowded prison systems (based on information held on our World Prison Brief database). Our research included evidence from ten diverse jurisdictions across five continents. Prisoners spoke of extreme overcrowding (for example, 60 men sharing cells built for 20 in Brazil); inadequate medical treatment, with too few doctors to deal even with routine health issues let alone serious disease outbreaks; constant hunger; lack of fresh air and exercise; shared buckets instead of toilets; not enough fresh water or soap; having to eat while seated on the toilet due to lack of space in a shared cell.

These are the realities of prisons across the world. They provide important context for the World Health Organisation’s warning that global efforts to tackle the spread of the disease may fail without proper attention to infection control inside prisons.

How have prison systems around the world responded to the pandemic? Many prison authorities – including in England & Wales – have suspended visits to prisoners, and cancelled temporary release schemes. In Columbia, Brazil, India, Italy, Romania and Lebanon, prisoners have rioted at these measures and in protest at the life-threatening conditions in which they are being held. Prisoner deaths, escapes and widespread violence have been reported.

More recently, some governments have responded by releasing prisoners: in Turkey, legislation was passed to release 100,000 of the country’s roughly 286,000 prisoners; similar steps have been taken in Iran and are under consideration in the United States, Canada and Ireland. In England and Wales, the government has so far declined to do this, despite the severe challenges already facing our overcrowded prison estate.

Now, detailed guidance from WHO, running to 32 pages, should leave no government in doubt about the serious risks presented by the virus, and how to tackle them. It states: ‘The risk of rapidly increasing transmission of the disease within prisons or other places of detention is likely to have an amplifying effect on the epidemic, swiftly multiplying the number of people affected.’ It calls for ‘strong infection prevention and control measures, adequate testing, treatment and care’ and provides detail on what this means in practice.

The parlous state in which prisons find themselves throughout the world today will make it difficult for them to follow the guidance, as they lack the resources – human, material, and financial – with which to do so. Even before the pandemic they were struggling to provide basic sanitation and healthcare for those in their care, as our research has shown.

COVID-19 provides the clearest illustration yet that prison health is public health. It is more important than ever for our governments and prison administrations to abide by the principle, enshrined in international law, that prisoners have an equal right to health and healthcare. Realistically, the only way that most countries could afford to meet this obligation is by first reducing their use of incarceration. This means ruling out custody for less serious, non-violent offending; and reversing the recent growth in the length of prison sentences.

It also means cutting substantially the use of pre-trial detention.  In America, thousands of the country’s nearly half a million pre-trial detainees are in jail for no better reason than that they cannot afford bail – although senator Kamala Harris has called for this to end.

No one should be remanded in custody unless absolutely necessary. But, of the more than three million people in pre-trial detention across the world, a large proportion are there purely because they cannot afford bail, or their country’s courts are hopelessly backlogged (a situation that will only worsen as courts around the world are forced to stop hearing all but the most urgent matters because of the current health emergency). On 2 April, we will release the latest global data on pre-trial prisoner numbers. It will reveal a significant upward trend, and should provide a wake-up call for governments the world over.

All news items and other sources referred to in this piece can be accessed via a dedicated COVID-19 page on ICPR’s World Prison Brief database: https://www.prisonstudies.org/news/news-covid-19-and-prisons

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