We have been given the news that many of the pandemic restrictions we have been learning to live with in the UK over the last nine months will be lifted for five days over Christmas. We will be allowed to travel to see relatives and friends, and for up to three households to mix indoors staying overnight and eating together. But this may not be good news for everyone, explains Professor Sarah Stewart Brown, expert in public health and wellbeing from Warwick Medical School.
For many the temporary lifting of some restrictions for Christmas will be a source of great joy and happiness. For others it is a frightening prospect and voices can be heard saying that the virus will spread uncontrollably and there will be a dreadful payback in January and beyond.
So what to do? How do individuals and families negotiate this tricky situation?
The answer may be as simple as: the right thing to do is what feels right to you. But this approach needs to take into account that something that feels right to you but wrong to all those around you will not ultimately bring you joy and happiness. If you take your pleasure at the expense of others there is very likely to be a payback time. If you run roughshod over other’s fears, you will not help them feel less fearful and they won’t be able to fully join in the fun.
The idea of payback time links to a surprisingly common, implicit belief that too much enjoyment will inevitably lead to problems. But this belief is both untrue, and unhelpful in the cultivation of wellbeing. Joy and happiness are infectious and regenerative. They are good for human beings. Whilst the science is incomplete, because there is reluctance amongst the medical profession to study this, that which exists strongly suggests that wellbeing and happiness enhance the working of the body and our immune response.
It seems very likely that the best guide to how your immune system is functioning, and thus how your own body can protect you from infection, is how you feel. Without more investment in research we cannot say how this ranks in importance against the small but useful reductions in the risk of contracting COVID from mask wearing, hand washing, and social distancing, but there is reason to believe the effect could be as important or even more so.
How to decide on the right thing to do
Sometimes balancing the needs of others with our own needs can be tricky and it can take a while to work out what feels like the right thing to do. So the first piece of advice may be not to rush into decision making. Open discussion among family members about what they would like, and what feels safe and appropriate, will help. Trying to let everyone, including the elderly and children, have a say will make for better decisions.
As one of the older people myself, I have views on how much of my remaining life I would be prepared to risk sacrificing to have a joyful Christmas now. If I have weighed the pros and cons carefully and decided that spending Christmas with my family is what I truly want, it would be both disrespectful and unkind of my children and grandchildren to stay away from me because they can’t bear the thought of passing on this virus.
Sticking to the rules and happiness
Some people are saying that the restrictions are being eased because, although the scientists would have preferred us to stay in lockdown, politicians believe that the restrictions would be widely flouted and that it was better to have some restrictions that might be adhered to rather than a free for all. It is also true that many people fear breaking the rules, but might have felt pressured into meeting family when they didn’t want to. The What Works for Wellbeing Centre has just published research showing that people who have been complying with the restrictions are on average happier than those who have not. There are lots of reasons why that might be so. Happier people have more internal resources and can be more adaptable, so the restrictions may have had less of an impact.
But some people feel anxious when rules are broken or unclear, and safer when they are told what to do. This can give some people a sense of certainty and security. But certainty is an illusion in the context of this pandemic. We have never been in a situation like this before and it is impossible to know with certainty what will happen next. There have been epidemics in the UK throughout history, but this is the first major pandemic to come to the UK in the context of globalisation. New vaccines have never been produced with the speed the new potential vaccines have appeared recently and mass testing for a virus has not been used as a way of containing a global pandemic. We just don’t know whether these things will work and how well, but the best available evidence suggests that they will be helpful so it is sensible to implement them.
Giving, kindness and volunteering all improve wellbeing and may enhance immunity
The research community has been very busy during the pandemic working on projects other than vaccines and mass testing. Researchers are providing evidence about what we can do to promote wellbeing in the context of the pandemic. Appropriately for the time of year, acts of kindness and giving and volunteering all enhance the happiness of the giver. Further research highlights the vital importance of something that most of us recognise intuitively, that our close relationships have a profound effect on our wellbeing – for better or worse. That is why the social isolation caused by the pandemic restrictions has been so taxing to the mental health of some individuals and families and social isolation and exclusion are also known to have a negative impact on immune functioning.
We need to be aware that people celebrating the festivals of faiths other than Christianity might well be experiencing social exclusion at the moment because restrictions have been lifted for Christmas but were not lifted for Diwali or Eid. These groups were required to cancel their festivities for the good of others, but the majority population is allowed to celebrate Christmas which some might feel puts minority groups, already at higher risk of the virus, at even greater risk.
Investing in interpersonal relationships both in the family and community is a potent way of increasing wellbeing. Being fair, generous, making amends, seeking reconciliation and forgiving are all very much in keeping with the Christmas spirit. And as the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University points out ‘seeking the good’ both in one’s own life and in other people’s, is another potent wellbeing enhancing activity.
Hopefully with some of these thoughts in mind we can all find a way through these confusing and tricky times to make Christmas 2020 one to remember for ever. Not for the negative reasons but for all the remarkable and joyous things that can happen when we don’t know what to do and give up trying to control the future.
Sarah Stewart-Brown is Professor of Public Health at Warwick Medical School.
She is an expert in measuring and monitoring mental health and wellbeing with a special interest in determinants of mental wellbeing, interventions to promote mental health and wellbeing, parenting and parenting programmes, complementary and alternative therapies and child public health.
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