Could Communication Make Us Happy?
written by Stefano Serafinelli*
What is the real state of people’s mental health during this pandemic? A healthy, low-stress, and intact state of mind can be considered a good basis for building the condition of happiness, something which we yearn for. Elements such as good health, and favorable economic conditions, are actually elements that foster and facilitate this condition, but they do not necessarily establish it. How many of us know people who are healthy and prosperous, but also tremendously unhappy?
During this time of the pandemic, we have learned to limit our exposure to the virus, as the only way not to catch or transmit it.
Unfortunately, we have not been able to do the same with the consequences that the virus has brought, which are impacting all areas of our lives and most importantly, are accentuating the critical issues that each of us had in our pre-covid lives. In this case, our exposure is still very heavy. And what are the repercussions of this exposure?
The amount of time we are exposed to a stressful event determines whether the condition triggered by it will be acute or chronic. In the acute condition, our body mobilizes to cope with the stressful event, producing endogenous substances (adrenaline, cortisol) suitable for sustaining the alarm condition that is generated. During this time, we cope to the best of our ability.
The first wave of the pandemic (and the subsequent seclusion) is part of this framework of emergency and extraordinary mobilization of resources (personal and community of belonging) that we have drawn on. The resources and effort produced inevitably come at a cost: energetic ( at the expense of our nervous system..) economic ( the burden on our pockets..) social ( impacting the social structures we refer to, such as family and institutions).
The end of the state of threat decreases the state of alertness and consequently (over time..) restores the conditions that the individual had before the state of alertness. This is the recovery phase.
However, if the threat continues to reoccur over a short period of time, or almost without interruption, we enter a chronic condition. In such a condition, our body can no longer sustain the exceptive effort, which as such is limited. This is what happens in the following waves, in which people and the systems they belong to, continue to be subjected to extraordinary stress. Chronic conditions are those that lead to the depletion of the systems’ resources in terms of health, economic and social.
The Role of Communication
The chronic condition that we are sustaining is and will be the challenge of the coming period. It will affect both the social structure of the countries involved and the people individually. It is about establishing a new way of relating to events.
The mode of communication impacts this dynamic. Communication that relies on a state of distress and concern, as is frequently the case in major newspapers, has a limited hold over time.
It is a resource that must be used sparingly because it risks becoming ineffective if protracted too long. It is as if the system (people and institutions) no longer responds to the conditions, simply because it has been exhausting the resources that cope with the circumstances
The Covid pandemic has created an enormous state of uncertainty and distrust.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic, there has been a significant and immediate decline in mental health in many countries around the world. For instance, since May 2020, the number of reported mental health problems in The United Kingdom increased by 47 percent since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the World Happiness Report. Even though the need for mental health care has increased, mental health services have been disrupted in many countries. This is especially concerning when considering the lasting impact the pandemic will leave on younger generations. One solution adopted in many countries to limit the spread of COVID-19 has been physical distancing or self-isolation. However, this has posed a significant challenge to people’s sociability, vital to their happiness. According to the World Happiness Report, the happiness of people decreased when their feeling of connectedness did, as did people whose feelings of loneliness increased when their social support was reduced.
In contrast: gratitude, drive, pre-existing relationships, volunteering, exercise, and confidence in their own situations have helped to protect the sense of connectedness.
It is no coincidence that the happiest countries listed in the WHR are those that have preserved the condition of trust, security, a primary need of the individual, even before the need for food.
Those familiar with Harlow’s experiments with baby monkeys in the 1960s will remember that the baby’s bonds with its mother are primarily vital to satisfy the need for protection, for safety. As an adult, he will seek a “safe haven” (a relationship, a place, a community of people) where he can take refuge, relax and recuperate in the most difficult and stressful moments of his existence.
And when trust is broken anxiety rises, fear rises, and we feel in danger. In this case, it does not matter if the threat is real or merely a potential one.
This does not imply pretending that the critical condition is resolved, or different from what it actually is. In contrast to the newspapers where this is often used in advertising. For instance, during the first lockdown when stereotypes were illustrated in relation to the pandemic (e.g. the mythicized home as a warm and protected place, where happiness and harmony reign as impersonated by “traditional” families). Now, there is a common desire to return to normality (what normality, is the question…), shifting the focus to trending topics such as sustainability and “old” topics such as Italian-ness, beauty, and well-being.
It is complex to provide reassurance and comfort in a time and future, especially considering the variety of emergency conditions that exist today due to sudden changes: climatic, health, economic…
Companies, and their agencies, should refine the communication strategy, articulate it in a broader discourse, and approach the individual by taking into account the phase we are “chronically” in (explained above). They should develop an approach that perceives the individual as autonomous and self-sufficient but still considers them within the context of a community. This could be done much more in communication strategies today. Elements that decrease a state of distress and insecurity are: feeling part of a community, rather than individualistic; helping to “broaden” the vision, rather than focusing it on a single point. This decreases anxiety.
It reminds me of Mother Teresa of Calcutta when she came to the West and said, “The poor here are much poorer than there (in India) because, in addition, they are alone.”
*Clinical psychologist, anxiety disorders, stress, and life cycle discomforts (separations, losses, new projects). Mindfulness and yoga trainer and instructor.
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