The COVID-19 Pandemic: A New “Era” in your Personal Well-being?
Do you remember when you realized that the COVID-19 pandemic was finally “getting real” in your country or state? In my case (I live in Switzerland), I was following the news about the pandemic making its way from Asia to Europe with increasing worry, but the realization that my own daily life would drastically change only hit me during a ski weekend in the beginning of March 2020. What normally would have been a crowded winter hotspot buzzing with mainly Italian tourists was a quiet—too quiet—village with stressed shop and restaurant owners fearing for their income.
Two weeks later Switzerland went into lockdown like many other countries around the globe, creating new challenges for many—grappling with job and financial insecurity, worrying about the health of family members, or struggling with physical isolation, to name just a few.
Whatever your own personal circumstances were during the first few weeks of public life restrictions, you would probably agree that this was not the happiest of times. Maybe, like many others (and me), you too felt more burdened, anxious, or lonely, and less happy and cheerful than usual, and maybe you recall more tension when interacting with your family, friends, or partner.
Luckily, past research has identified psychological skills that can help us better deal with emotionally challenging situations.
One such skill is the ability to accurately read what another person is feeling from their facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language—an important component of emotional intelligence. People with high “emotion recognition ability” (ERA) tend to navigate their personal and professional lives more successfully. For example, children with higher ERA are more popular with their classmates and doctors with high ERA have more satisfied patients. But do people with high ERA also feel happier and less burdened than people with low ERA during an exceptional situation like lockdown?
On the one hand, people with high ERA might experience less conflict, be more emotionally supportive of their close others, get more social support in return, and thus feel better during lockdown. On the other hand, those who are very perceptive of others’ emotions might also feel worse—because they might be overwhelmed by all the fear, suffering, sadness, or despair they encounter in conversations with family, friends, or in media reports broadcasting one devastating COVID-19 news story after another.
To find out how people’s well-being during lockdown was affected by their ability to accurately read others, my colleagues and I asked 469 people from Germany, Switzerland, and Australia to fill in an online survey in March and April of 2020, during the first two weeks of lockdown in their country. Participants reported how they had felt over the last seven days and completed an ERA test in which they watched short video clips of actors and had to guess which emotion was expressed in each clip (see www.tinyurl.com/gertdemo for a few examples). They also stated how often they had been arguing with close others and how much time they were spending following COVID-19-related media coverage each day. Finally, they read a (quite upsetting) news report on the very high death toll of COVID-19 in Northern Italy and reported how reading this text made them feel.
Our results showed that participants who judged the actors’ emotions more accurately reported feeling less burdened than those who were less accurate. People who scored high also felt less bad after reading the text on COVID-19 in Northern Italy and were spending less time following COVID-19 news reports every day, both of which were linked to feeling less burdened overall. At the same time, they stated having argued with close others more often—and not less often—over the past week, but frequency of arguing was unrelated to how burdened people felt.
Being good at reading others’ emotions seems to be a skill that may help you feel better during a challenging situation like lockdown. However, the beneficial effect of high emotion-reading skill was not caused by less conflict and tension in one’s relationships with family and friends as we had expected based on past research—in fact, more perceptive people had reported more arguments. What apparently had helped these people in keeping up their well-being was distancing themselves emotionally from distressing news reports and limiting their daily exposure to COVID-19 media coverage.
The bad news is that almost one year after our study, the pandemic is still ongoing, and many countries are now in their second or third lockdown. The good news is that we can practice the skills and behaviors that impact our personal well-being during this time, such as minimizing COVID-19 newsfeeds, keeping in regular contact with our family and friends, and intentionally focusing on how they feel. For more tips, check out the #HealthyAtHome campaign of the World Health Organization (https://www.who.int/campaigns/connecting-the-world-to-combat-coronavirus/healthyathome/healthyathome---mental-health ).
For Further Reading
Schlegel, K., Gugelberg, H. M. von, Makowski, L. M., Gubler, D. A., & Troche, S. J. (2021). Emotion recognition ability as a predictor of well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic: Social Psychological and Personality Science. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550620982851
Schmid Mast, M., & Hall, J. A. (2018). The impact of interpersonal accuracy on behavioral outcomes. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27(5), 309–314. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721418758437
Wang, Y., Hawk, S. T., Tang, Y., Schlegel, K., & Zou, H. (2019). Characteristics of emotion recognition ability among primary school children: Relationships with peer status and friendship quality. Child Indicators Research, 12(4), 1369–1388. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12187-018-9590-z
Katja Schlegel is a senior lecturer at the University of Bern and studies how emotional abilities shape people’s social interactions.