Subjective Well Being and Coronavirus

How good is your life?  Psychologists look at factors like “subjective well-being”, “overall life satisfaction” and “positive affect” (good feelings) to measure the effects of particular events and situations on how well or badly people feel like they are functioning in the world.

The coronavirus pandemic has had a notable and obvious effect on people’s sense of well-being, bringing about some level of negative feelings and appraisals for almost all of us.  How we cope with a negative event such as a pandemic, or other natural disaster, impacts how well we can recover and move on with our lives in the midst of problems and challenges.

Coping with Coronavirus Well

A new study from Germany looked very specifically at subjective well-being during the early months of the pandemic.  Serendipically, a study had begun in December of 2019 looking at how people’s coping strategies affected their own evaluations of well-being.  This study was able to be adapted in March – May of 2020 to looking at how different people used or didn’t use coping strategies to increase their sense of well-being during the uncertainty and limits of the first few months of the pandemic.

Coronavirus, Threat or Challenge?

The study found that people evaluate major events in their lives according to whether the event poses a threat or a challenge, with “threat” suggesting negative outcomes as more likely, while “challenge” suggests that steps may be taken by the individual to make the outcomes more positive. 

Coronavirus Changed My Life

Another dimension to this evaluation is “centrality” a measure of how important to one’s life the event is likely to be. 

People who viewed coronavirus as central would tend to agree to the following statements taken from the Centrality of Events Scale

Coronavirus has changed how I see the world. Coronavirus has changed how I feel about myself. This event has changed how I expect my life to be. Coronavirus permanently changed my life. The event was a turning point in my life. I often think about how coronavirus will change my life.

Those who gave the pandemic a greater centrality value had more loss of subjective well-being, while those who considered the pandemic to be less central to their own future felt greater well-being throughout the study period.

Coronavirus Perceptions Affect Coping

These ways of perceiving coronavirus obviously could be affected by how much of an impact the illness had an a person’s life directly (did they get ill? did they completely recover? did a family member get ill?). But the study found that these objective factors did not explain most of the different perspectives seen in the study participants, suggesting that how similar experienced affected coping.

Coping Strategies

Coping strategies, such as taking specific steps towards improvement of conditions, seeking emotional support from friends and family, and emotional reframing (“this could lead to positive changes in the world” versus “this is a really bad thing”) showed evidence of positive effects on the study participants’ measure of subjective well-being.  That is, those who felt that there were steps they could take to overcome specific barriers felt better about themselves and their lives than those who felt that their own situation was beyond their control. The study’s authors suggest that therapists should, first of all, be cognizant of the tremendous “hit” that has been taken in everyone’s subjective well-being as a result of the pandemic and public safety measures such as stay-at-home orders that have become necessary.  Secondly, there are specific approaches and frameworks that can be learned, such as considering a barrier as a challenge rather than a threat, and emotional reframing towards more positive affect.  These strategies and attitudes can directly affect a person’s sense of well-being and of positive agency in their world as they navigate the “new normal” presented by the trials of 2020.