Coronavirus: Maintaining your mental well-being

26 March 2020

By Nick Powdthavee

With countries around the world going into lockdown to combat the coronavirus pandemic, the need to maintain good psychological well-being becomes vital for the millions now working from home and practising social distancing.

I have been working with other behavioural scientists over the last few decades on measuring and assessing what makes us happy, what keeps us mentally healthy and content with our lives. Everybody wants to be happy, but what does it mean to be truly happy? Our research has offered plenty of insights into that question.

Research has found that there are three broad dimensions to measuring our psychological well-being. We have been researching to see what factors predict each of these three dimensions of well-being so that we can understand better what might be the keys to a happy life.

With many people now working from home, this will present new challenges for each of us to be happy and satisfied with how things are going for us. Hence, it seems as significant as ever to bear in mind what well-being resources we might be lacking during this very challenging time for us to achieve a balance across these three dimensions of well-being.

The three dimensions are:


1 Evaluative

This is where people judge the extent to which their life so far measures up to their expectations and resembles their ‘ideal’ life. This dimension of well-being tends to be correlated with our socio-economic statuses such as income, marital status, and health, and whether the reality matches up with our own expectations.

We measure this dimension by asking people: ‘How satisfied or dissatisfied are you with your life overall?’ and asking them to give a score,

Things that correlate positively with this dimension of happiness include the extent of social relationships, being married, having good health, and being richer than other people.

What correlate negatively with this dimension are unemployment, being divorced or separated, if you are in poor health and being poorer than most other people.

One of the largest impacts of the lockdown has been economics. Many people have either lost their jobs, are having to take a pay cut, or taking a huge loss in their business. This is a very worrying time for them that requires immediate help from the Government.

To reduce the toll that the negative impact the lockdown has had on our evaluative well-being, people may need to look at the positive side-effects that have come out from this less-than-ideal situation.

We know from our research that having a good social network is one of the most important predictors of evaluative well-being. Reach out to friends and family. We might be physically distant, but we can still be socially close.

Thankfully, even though we are staying at home as much as possible, technology still allows us to do that. So do stay in touch with friends and family. Daily exercising is also a great way of maintaining your mental health in the face of depressing news in your life.


2 Affective

This relates to our daily, emotional experiences, in terms of the frequency and intensity of positive and negative emotions and moods that we have each day.

It can fluctuate from minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour, depending on what activities we are engaging in and who we are engaging with, so we measure this dimension by asking ‘how often did you smile today?’, ‘how often did you feel anxious today?’ and ‘how often did you feel angry today?’

What contributes positively to our affective well-being is time spent socialising with friends, walking in the picturesque countryside or along the beach, and simply enjoying nature.

On the other hand, time spent commuting, looking after children, especially young children and housework, are some of the activities that contribute negatively to our affective well-being.

At the moment, we might not be allowed out of the house much, but for many of us the drudgery of commuting has been taken away, so there is some good news. Having said that being at home does mean more housework and for those with children more time looking after them.

Thus, people need to focus on the aspects that will improve the affective dimension positively; chatting with friends and family on social media and making sure you do get out of the house to exercise once a day. 

Of course, many people are quite rightly anxious about catching COVID-19, but you must tell yourself that statistically the risk is still relatively small.

People might also feel helpless because what is happening is outside of our control, so we need to try to refocus our attention to being more thankful about what we have and only control what we can. Set yourself small goals each day, whether it is work or socially and keep focused on these small goals each day and completing them.


3 Eudaimonic

Living a virtuous life is what this dimension of well-being is all about, ie doing what is meaningful and finding purpose and fulfilment in life. It tends to be correlated with pro-social behaviours and helping others.

We measure this dimension by asking people: ‘Overall, to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?’ So, volunteering, spending money on other people or good causes will positively impact on this dimension.

Meanwhile, spending time doing only things for ourselves and working in what we perceive are meaningless jobs will have a negative effect.

One aspect of the pandemic and lockdown that we are seeing is people being good neighbours, checking on the elderly, or volunteering to help the NHS deliver food and supplies.

In this crisis, there are opportunities to help and join in the fight to contain the pandemic. That will give you purpose and stop any feelings of isolation and detachment.


Nick Powdthavee is Professor of Behavioural Science and teaches The Economics of Well-being on the Distance Learning MBA  and on the Undergraduate programme.

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