COVID Mindset Survey: The stay-at-home experience provided a new way of being and many people are grateful

We are all in this together. The Corona virus has brought the idea of mutual interdependence to the center stage, as it can affect anyone regardless of culture, religion, nationality, and status. Since mid-March, the world has been in the state of lock-down, with social distancing rules put in place to reduce the spread of the virus. For a period of two months, only essential services were being provided, and public spaces such as parks, schools, and restaurants were closed. Currently, most of the population is still inside their homes, contemplating a new reality and the potential consequences of the gradual opening of the economy.

Since the new reality is unprecedented, it would be difficult to guess what people are thinking and feeling at this time. The COVID Mindset Survey was launched to find out, aiming to take a snapshot of the collective mindset during the lockdown. Designed as a self-reflective exercise, it allowed for open answers so that participants could freely express their experiences. 140 responses were collected from people between 15 and 77 years of age, mostly from Canada, as well as from the United States, Europe, including Italy, Germany, Denmark, and from the Middle East. The survey asked the following questions:

  1. ‘What do you consider to be essential to you at this time?’

2. ‘What do you feel you spent too much time or energy doing before the crisis? In what ways you may have wasted your time previously?’

3. ‘What are the things you are not able to do now that you miss the most?’

4. ‘Knowing what you know now, how would you do things differently in the future?’, and

5. ‘How do you envision your mindset after the crisis?’

The survey also asked participants to identify their feelings and mental states based on a wide range of emotions. It included options to express negative emotions such as feeling sad, frustrated, bored, anxious, overwhelmed, lonely, angry, depressed, apathetic, shocked, and worried. It also included positive emotions such as feeling connected, caring, hopeful, energized, grateful, inspired, empowered, motivated, confident, engaged, creative, relaxed, and content. Participants were able to choose as many emotions as they were experiencing.

The responses provided insight into the complexity of the collective mindset during the COVID crisis and revealed some common themes at this unprecedented time.

What is essential?

Things that were identified as essential included relationships, family, and social connection (26%), as well as positive outlook, peace of mind and time for introspection and self-care (20%). Also, fresh and nutritious food was considered essential (9%), as well as being outdoors (8%). Health and protective equipment (6%), together with government support, transparency, and truth (6%) were considered vital. Other essentials included exercise (5%), hobbies and activities (5%), working and being productive (5%), and having a safe home and space to reside in (4%). Technology was also considered essential at this time (3%), as well as sleep (2%), and having a modest lifestyle (1%).

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Fig. 1: Things that were identified as essential during the crisis.

What are the biggest time wasters?

Commuting to work, spending too much time at work, rushing, achieving, and being too busy were reported to be the most prominent ways individuals felt they wasted their time prior to the crisis (38%). Worrying too much and trying to please others were identified as the second biggest time waster (29%). Going out and over-socializing (10%), as well as not doing anything, procrastinating, or waiting for things to happen (8%), were also identified as taking too much time prior to the crisis. Entertainment and social media (6%), shopping (5%), and the news (1%) were also reported to have contributed to wasted time.

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Fig. 2: Things that took too much time and energy prior to the crisis.

What is missed the most?

During the lockdown, social interaction and in-person contact were missed the most (24%), followed by family and friends (20%) and being outdoors (10%). Going out for dinner and drinks with friends was also missed (9%), and so were organized sports, gym, and physical activities (7%). Other activities that were deeply missed included travel (7%), arts, social events and concerts (5%), free movement and walking around (5%), work (4%) and not having the fear of the virus (4%). Some participants also pointed out that they missed coffee (1%), sex (1%), and routine (1%).

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Fig. 3: Things that were missed the most during the crisis.

How could things be done differently in the future?

Many people stated that they would like to have more time for themselves in the future (16%), including more time to focus on physical and mental health, engage in hobbies, relax, meditate, become more aware and present, slow down, and attain balance. Participants also indicated that spending more time with family and friends (16%), being less busy and tied to work obligations (11%), and enjoying life more and practicing gratitude (9%) would be preferred in the future. Responses revealed that some participants were experiencing loneliness prior to the crisis and would like to increase their social connections in the future (8%). Spending more time outdoors (7%), less time procrastinating (7%), and engaging in more creativity, art, and hobbies (7%) were also identified as things that could be done differently. Participants indicated they would like to worry and complain less (7%), stock up more and prepare to be self-sufficient (4%), as well as travel more (4%), live modestly (3%), and use less media and technology (1%).

Many participants stated that nothing was standing in their way of doing things differently (26%). Some stated that a busy lifestyle and social pressures could be obstacles (21%), while others said that procrastination and self-doubt may prevent them from doing things differently in the future (13%). The virus (12%), work and commuting (11%), and lack of financial resources (6%) were also identified as potential obstacles. Participants felt that the government could get in the way (5%), and so could lack of time (4%), travel restrictions (1%), and consumerism (1%).

What was the mental and emotional state during the crisis?

The most prevalent emotion to describe the current mindset was grateful, chosen by 70% of participants. 49% expressed feeling hopeful, 40% felt connected, and 39% were worried. Many expressed feeling caring (39%), relaxed (35%), motivated (34%), creative (34%), inspired (30%), and content (29%). Participants also reported feeling anxious (30%), frustrated (28%), and sad (25%), as well as engaged (25%), confident (24%), energized (22%), and empowered (18%). Some reported feeling overwhelmed (20%), lonely (17%), bored (16%), angry (8%), depressed (8%), apathetic (8%), and shocked (3%).

Overall, 68% of expressed emotions were positive, and 32% were negative. Perhaps most interestingly, participants reported feeling a complex mix of emotions at this time. 19% reported feeling both worried and hopeful, while 12% felt both overwhelmed and grateful. Also, 11% expressed being anxious as well as motivated or engaged, and 11% reported feeling relaxed as well as overwhelmed, anxious or depressed. The range of emotions experienced at this time truly reflects an unprecedented situation and the complexity of human experience in times of uncertainty.

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Fig. 4: Percentage of respondents who chose a specific emotional or mental state.

What is the vision of the collective mindset after the crisis?

Majority of participants envisioned having a positive, growth-oriented mindset after the crisis, with 57% describing their future mindset in terms of being motivated, optimistic, curious, reflective, eager, enlightened, grateful, purposeful, responsible, compassionate, creative, joyful, and balanced. 18% indicated that they had mixed feelings, were not sure, or anticipated being more anxious due to the potential second wave of the virus. 14% envisioned being more connected and engaged in the community after the crisis. 13% stated that they would be relieved, relaxed and content, 10% that they will feel the same as before, while 4% anticipated feeling very different. 6% envisioned being ready, adaptive, and open to new experiences, and 4% would feel free, independent, and able to live in the moment. 3% expressed they would feel tired, annoyed or angry, and 1% said they would have a more minimalistic mindset.

Common Themes

The need for connection

It is not surprising that relationships were identified as most essential during the crisis, since the need for connection and close relationships is the most fundamental human need. To fill this need, one does not simply require a higher number of connections, but good quality relationships that are meaningful. In Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, Cacciopo and Patrick (2008) indicated that the subjective experience of loneliness comes from chronic feelings of isolation, which can occur even when one is surrounded by people if these connections are not supportive and meaningful. Loneliness can have devastating impacts on health, comparable to the effects of high blood pressure, lack of exercise, obesity, or smoking (House, Landis, and Umberson, 1988).

The human need for connection extends into the need for contact with the natural world. Often, people lose their connection with nature as they grow into their adult roles and take on the belief that they are separate from nature. Unfortunately, this belief, according to the Dalai Lama (2005), has “profound psychological and ethical implications” (p. 51). In Ecopsychology: Science, Totems, and the Technological Species, Kahn and Hasbach (2012) explained that beliefs can have a significant effect on one’s relationship with nature: “Contemplative religions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism, allow for the coexistence of many truths and assume connections between people and the environment within a temporal cyclic framework. Western religions, by contrast, are anthropocentric and authoritarian. They elevate humans above nature.” (p. 225). Contemplative philosophies allow for the complexity of experience of being human. In his essay What is Ecopsychology?, Andy Fisher explained that “All things are not simply connected; they imply or contain one another in their very being. My lungs have no meaning without air, which has no meaning without plants, which have no meaning without the sun, and so on ad infinitum” (Kahn and Hasbach, 2012, p. 92).

By showing deep inter-connectedness and by limiting in-person contact, the virus has increased the collective awareness of the fundamental need for connection. It has encouraged a more unitive perspective, where one can experience being a part of the world and not separate from it. Practicing awareness of interconnectedness with nature and tuning into the natural processes can help create a more healthy and integrated relationship with the world as a whole.

The need for positive outlook and introspection

The virus has also revealed the essential need for a positive outlook and time for introspection, self-care, meditation, and relaxation. While time in isolation can at first feel uncomfortable since it is so different from the state of busyness that most are accustomed to, a re-direction towards an inner life can foster a more solid sense of self in relation to the outside world. In Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future, Senge et al. (2004) explained that shifting perception from looking at the outer world as a detached observer to looking from ‘inside’ can be transformative: “Learning begins when we stop projecting our habitual assumptions and start to see reality freshly. It continues when we can see our connection to that reality more clearly” (p. 41). Re-directing attention towards the ‘source’ dissolves boundaries and allows for change. Then, things that appeared to be fixed or rigid can be perceived as more dynamic, and one can experience being a part of the creative process.

While the uncertainty of the current crisis can make it difficult to remain optimistic, creating a positive outlook is a skill that can be developed over time. In the book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, Seligman (2006) explained that “A negative concept of the future, the self, and the world stems from seeing the causes of events as permanent, pervasive, and personal, and seeing the causes of good events in the opposite way” (p. 58). In nature however, nothing is permanent and everything is going through a continuous process of change and development — a process of becoming (Nichol, 2003). A person can acquire a sense of ‘learned helplessness’ if they are accustomed to feeling that their actions did not matter, which can lead to the expectation that their actions will be futile in the future (Seligman, 2006). The virus has shown however, that individual action is of critical importance, since what one does to protect others can have a real impact on the health of the community. The virus has effectively provided a cure for learned helplessness, as it teaches one to think differently about power. Understanding that everything is in a constant state of change and that everyone plays a significant role can allow for new insight and a renewed sense of agency.

The need to slow down

The survey indicated that participants were spending too much time working, being busy and achievement-oriented, and rushing prior to the crisis. While the modern way of life encourages striving for success and having a busy lifestyle, the focus on efficiency and progress is often on the account of resilience. Not having enough time for rest, rejuvenation, socialization, and creative work can leave a person depleted and unable to handle stress. The constant state of doing can lead to a loss of balance, and the inability to be present in life. Focusing on being instead of doing shifts the attention to the present moment, and away from imagination of the past and future.

Developing a process orientation, a mindset that explores how things unfold rather than focusing on specific outcomes, can be helpful in shifting the focus from doing towards being. In the book Mindfulness, Langer (1989) described the process-orientated mindset as that which promotes curiosity about how things unfold, as well as open-mindedness, inspiration, and creativity. Increasing mindfulness of what is occurring at the level of both internal experience and the external environment can contribute to the ability to take things day by day and learn new ways of being.

Worry and social pressures

Worrying too much and trying to please others were identified as common causes of lost time and energy prior to the crisis. This included worrying about work, complaining about circumstances, having self-limiting beliefs, and caring too much about what other people think. The human tendency to worry relates to a preoccupation with thoughts, mental concepts, and identifications. If one is lost in thoughts, or over-identifying with concepts such as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, or as being ‘successful’ or ‘unsuccessful’, this can lead to a fragmentation of experience and a separation from reality. While thoughts can be useful as tools for reasoning and problem-solving, over-identification with thoughts can have serious psychological costs. In Open Mind, Discriminating Mind, Tart (2000) outlined some of the psychological costs of over-identification:

· Identification has a ‘fixed’ quality, but life is not static,

· Identification is a conditioned response, and not a choice,

· Identification leads to a life lived automatically, on ‘auto-pilot’, and

· The things one identifies with are only a fragment of what a person truly is.

Instead of engaging in thoughts and identifications that can lead to worry and rumination, one can use intelligence to increase openness to experience and become more interested in the process of becoming. In The Effortless Mind, Jason Gregory (2018) described the downside of preoccupation with thought:

Our conditioned tendency toward hyper-intellectualism veils and obscures the truth discovered beneath its parameters. This is not to say that intellect is a problem that we need to eradicate. On the contrary, it is an important part of our existence, but the problem is that we have overemphasized the intellect. This keeps us in memories of the past and in the imagination of the future, while never being in the reality of the present moment… It does not mean that you lose your intellectual faculties. Instead, your intellectual life begins to be redefined into an openness toward life. (Gregory, 2018, p. 15–16)

Cognitive psychology also offers insight into the mechanisms of worry. The Default Mode Network (DMN) is a network in the brain that contributes to the creation of mental concepts and projections, and gets activated during worry and rumination. DMN develops later in life and consumes a disproportionate amount of the brain’s energy, acting as “the brain’s ‘orchestra conductor’, ‘corporate executive’, or ‘capital city’, charged with managing and holding the whole system together” (Pollan, 2018, p. 303). The ability to recognize the patterns of the DMN and calm the over-thinking mind is the key to reducing worry and can free up the energy for more creative pursuits. If the mind is still, a calm and authentic sense of self can be accessed more easily.

A person’s sense of self (or Ego) is an important factor in the experience of reality, and can have varying degrees of integration with the environment (Cook-Greuter, 1985). Focusing on self-interest creates a win-lose mentality and feeds the ego-centric perspective that power is determined by the ability to control things. The problem with this perspective is that it also creates the need to maintain control, which causes more stress and anxiety in the long run. Since the virus has shown that full control is not possible, dealing with a higher level of uncertainty calls for a more integrated and balanced view of power. Adopting the idea of unity and interconnectedness can contribute to a more healthy sense of self, and a shift towards collaboration. Then, one can experience trust in the process of change, and feel supported by the world instead of being overwhelmed by it.

The need to enjoy life

Participants indicated that they would like to enjoy life more in the future, which included not taking things for granted, being more loving and accepting towards themselves, enjoying small things in life, and practicing gratitude. Carl Rogers (1961) described a fully functioning person as one who chooses to follow the most appropriate course of action in relation to all internal and external stimuli, because this behaviour will be “most deeply satisfying” (p. 193). According to the Taoist teachings, every person has their inner nature (Li), which is to be expressed in harmony with the Way of nature (Tao). If one can tune into the external world by seeing things clearly and accepting the way things are, then the inner nature can be expressed in the outer world. Being in denial of the way things are, or wishing that things were different, does not allow for expression of one’s inner self in the world, and can cause chronic stress. The Taoist philosophy of Wu-Wei describes tuning into the way of nature as ‘effortless action’, a “psychological experience of not forcing or allowing, a state of intelligent spontaneity” (Gregory, 2018, p. 10). Expressing inner nature is ultimately about becoming aware of one’s thoughts, emotions, and actions, as well as easing resistance to the way things are.

The balance between inner and outer worlds includes balancing action with non-action, and cultivating action in harmony with nature. The state of over-action creates an excess of yang or masculine (active) energies, and the deficiency of yin or feminine (receptive) energies. In Effortless Living, Gregory (2018) explained that “If our life is out of balance, then we need to change the habitual patterns of our mind and begin to slow down… The prevalence of stress in modern life is rooted in the unsettled mind, which can manifest as panic attacks, anxiety and depression” (p. 6–13). The practice of stilling the mind is important for balance, and can increase the ability to enjoy life to the fullest.

Gratefulness and openness to change

Feeling grateful was identified as the most prominent emotion during the crisis. The word “grateful” means appreciative of benefits received (Merriam-Webster, 2020). Feeling grateful indicates both the ability to receive and to be appreciative of what is being received, which implies openness and humility. Often, a crisis is experienced as a blow to a person’s sense of self (or Ego), as it brings uncertainty and change. In Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, Pema Chodron (2012) explained that “Often the first blow to the fixed identity is precipitated by a crisis. When things start to fall apart in your life, you feel as if your whole world is crumbling. But actually it’s your fixed identity that’s crumbling. And that’s cause for celebration…” (p. 8).

The word “crisis” means the turning point for better or worse (Merriam-Webster, 2020). Due to high uncertainty, being at a turning point can cause fear and doubt. The experience of fear in a time of crisis leads to a state of humility, which makes one open to learning and new insights. In The Science and Practice of Humility, Gregory (2014) described the role of fear in consciousness:

As our friend, fear constantly humbles us, which leads ultimately to more expansive states of consciousness. Fear guides us to our natural state of humility… The science of humility can only be comprehended by those who have been humbled so completely by fear that they let go of life to the utmost degree, thus allowing a trust of the universe to be born.

The state of humility can motivate a person to tap into the creative process and use the resources and skills that are available to come up with new solutions to problems. In Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention, Csikszentmihalyi (1997) explained that creative individuals do not necessarily possess a specific set of skills that make them creative, but are able to use whatever skills they have in many different ways. Creativity involves “a good dose of curiosity, wonder, and interest in what things are like and how they work” (p. 53). Creative people typically work long hours, but they also practice quiet time and rest, and have a healthy sense of control of their time and energy: “The important thing is that the energy is under their own control — it is not controlled by the calendar, the clock, and external schedule” (p. 58). A state of humility and openness, along with a sense of internal control, can become useful in times of uncertainty.

Conclusion

The COVID crisis has brought a new way of being, and the need for a more genuine relationship with change and uncertainty. It has revealed a sense of inter-connectedness, the need for self-care and a positive outlook, and has made people aware of the tendency to worry and be thrown out of balance by modern lifestyle. The crisis has also allowed the time and space for deep introspection into what matters most, inspiring people to overcome fear and open the heart. It disturbed the conventional way of being, and made personal and collective resilience more important than ever.

In the Dark Night of the Soul, St. John of the Cross (1959), called the experience of a personal crisis the “dark night”. In this night, the soul suffers immensely in darkness, until it is humbled and open to finding the true source of light within: “God leads into the dark those whom He desires to purify… so that He may bring them farther onward” (p. 31).

Now is the time to go farther onward together.

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