Human connections and experiences vital to post-pandemic life
The race to end the coronavirus pandemic is now in full force, as more than 2.4 billion vaccinations have been administered in 178 countries. The EU has approved a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) passport that will be issued to vaccinated citizens, residents and foreign travelers, allowing them to move between member states in the upcoming weeks. On the other side of the Atlantic, the US last week welcomed its highest number of travelers — 2 million — in a single day since the pandemic first emerged.
The past year and a half have been especially painful due to the deprivation of people’s social connections and the lack of positive experiences that can offset stress levels and isolation. As the world gradually opens up its borders, cancels curfews and eases movement restrictions, it is imperative that urban planners design cities to promote human connections and positive experiences — both of which can expedite recovery from pandemic-related stress.
Harvard University’s popular 75-year Grant Study unravels the secrets behind what makes people happiest in the long term, concluding that positive human connections with family, friends and the community make us happier, increase our lifespan and safeguard our physical and mental health. On the other hand, loneliness has been described as an epidemic in recent years, costing the US economy a whopping $550 billion in lost productivity annually. The pandemic has aggravated social isolation and, according to a recently published survey of 28 countries by Ipsos, 41 percent of people reported feeling lonelier since its onset. Research shows a correlation between loneliness and increased risks of heart disease, obesity, hypertension, depression, cognitive decline, anxiety, a weaker immune system, and even death. As such, it is more important than ever to reverse these devastating trends.
It is equally important to focus on enabling people to enjoy positive experiences. Research by Cornell University and the University of California asserts the power of experiential purchases in generating elevated levels of happiness for a number of reasons, such as shaping our identities, fostering our social connections, and imbuing us with happy memories. Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, has published an illuminating book on the power of positive memories. It analyzes findings from a study on happy memories from 75 countries, with about a quarter of such memories derived from new experiences, such as starting a hobby or traveling to a new destination.
During the long, isolated months of the pandemic, many of us have been struck by feelings of nostalgia. We reminisce about summertime, picnics in the park, shopping districts and cafes. Memories of music festivals, open-air theaters and art exhibitions have provided respite from the reality of the pandemic. We pore over features on travel websites, wondering when we will be able to embark on our next adventure.
Such scenes are completed by the presence of our loved ones. Technological advances have certainly been advantageous, as they have enabled us to organize virtual meetups with family, friends and colleagues. However, we miss the heartwarming gestures we can only witness in person.
As the world slowly opens up, we can counteract our period of isolation by making it a priority to foster stronger family connections, deeper friendships and community cohesion. Many countries have begun easing lockdown restrictions on retail outlets, cultural institutions, green spaces, festivals, airports, hotels, restaurants, sporting venues, and other locations where people may congregate. Communities have become well accustomed, and perhaps welcoming, to measures that mitigate infections, as long as lockdowns are eventually lifted and mobility is restored. Detailed guidelines for various sectors have been published, such as testing requirements, stringent cleaning procedures, personal protective equipment, space and density limits, and contact-tracing apps.
For example, Art Dubai’s March 2021 program unfolded at the Dubai International Financial Center while adhering to COVID-19 safety measures. This summer, the UK government’s lifting of lockdown measures now allows for outdoor events to be organized, spurring a calendar full of exciting options, such as beach-side activities, performing arts shows, live cooking demonstrations, and family festivals.
Countries should encourage people to enjoy therapeutic experiences amid their natural assets, where social distancing is easily attained.
Countries should also encourage people to enjoy therapeutic experiences amid their natural assets, where social distancing is easily attained, such as beaches, nature reserves, forests, gardens, mountain resorts, hiking trails, and lakeside towns. Much evidence points to the health benefits of spending time amid nature, such as reduced stress, improved immunity, reduced feelings of isolation, reduced anxiety, and improved mood levels.
Additionally, many health professionals in the UK are embracing the concept of social prescribing, which entails putting together tailored plans for lonely people to try out new social activities that improve their well-being and enable them to connect with people. Activities include arts therapy, sports, volunteering, gardening, cooking, group learning, and interest groups. Research has demonstrated that social prescribing has reduced GP consultations by 28 percent and emergency hospital visits by 24 percent.
If there is anything we have learned over the past year and a half, it is our ability to discern what matters most in our lives. Let us hope that our post-pandemic world offers us many opportunities to revel in human connections and positive experiences. After all, they are what makes life worth living.
- Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature. www.amorelicious.com.