The question that keeps me awake at night: What can I do to help?
Lately, I’ve had some trouble concentrating on my work. As it has slowly dawned on me that the Coronavirus pandemic might very well be the biggest global crisis of my lifetime – both in terms of the death toll and in economic terms – somehow many work tasks I was excited about a few weeks ago now feel meaningless.
What point is there in writing a scientific article when people around me are in a lock-down, fighting for their income – and some fighting for their lives?
It can be devastating to just watch from the sidelines how the pandemic spreads. I want to somehow, in however small way, contribute. Do what is in my own hands to alleviate the situation. Accordingly, I have tried to think where would my efforts have the biggest impact on helping the current situation.
What could I do?
Now, I don’t have any specific skills to directly fight the virus. I don’t have medical expertise; I am not an epidemiologist; I am not a trained nurse. Generally, my special skills are found on the conceptual level: Having practiced philosophy and empirical psychological research for the last ten or so years, I have acquired expertise in certain areas of knowledge. If I could utilize that expertise in a meaningful way, I could perhaps offer something unique to the situation. Therein lies most likely the biggest positive impact I could deliver.
With this question in mind, I quickly identified three potential pathways where my expertise could be channeled to answer some presently urgent questions:
- This crisis has an impact on people’s sense of meaningfulness – the reflection I do here about my own work being a case in point. Accordingly, being an expert on research on meaningfulness, I’ve been thinking how do people find meaning in times of crisis. While crises cause anxiety, depression and suffering, we know from research that some people also experience post-traumatic growth. In the long run, they gain something from what they have gone through. And here meaningfulness, being able to make sense of the situation and find some positive purpose for it, is one key mechanism leading to such post-traumatic growth. Accordingly, I’ve been doing some reading on post-traumatic growth and acceptance and commitment therapy, trying to figure out are there some guidelines to be derived from that literature that could help people to cope.
- Research has made clear that economic growth does not equal citizen well-being. Case in point is the US where the last decade looked very good from the economic perspective – increasing stock prizes and GDP, decreased unemployment – but where citizen well-being and even average life expectancy were decreasing. Economy was improving, people’s health and well-being was regressing. Accordingly, when we are soon starting to discuss how to restart the economy and how to get out of the cycle of unemployment, bankruptcies, and lower demand for products, this conversation should not only focus on economic growth. Some measures to improve economic growth will help the citizens. But not all. In order to participate in that discourse and to remind the policy makers of the importance of thinking about the well-being impact of various policy measures – a topic I have been writing about – I have now read about national levels of trust and social capital and how they impact the nation’s ability to be resilient in times of crisis.
- How governments and policy experts communicate their guidelines to citizens can have a big impact on whether the citizens will follow these guidelines. Demonstrating that one trusts the citizens, being honest and transparent, delivering clear guidelines, appealing to people’s willingness to help each other, and emphasizing that we are in this together are a few effective ways of ensuring positive response from the citizens. Here my expertise on research on self-determination theory and how to be autonomy supportive can offer insights on effective and empowering communication.
So if you ask me what I’ve been doing this weekend, this is what I’ve been doing: Reading a pile of scientific articles in the hope that reading them will bring some insight that I could capitalize on next week at work to do something meaningful.
Instead of focusing on the trivial, I want to ensure that whatever I do at work is linked to the current situation, with the potential of somehow helping in what we are going through.
That is my way of coping and finding meaning in all this: Trying to make some kind of small positive contribution to the humankind.