A few weeks ago, I wrote about a report by The Zebra, the nation’s leading insurance comparison site, on the growing threat posed by extreme speeding on the nation’s roadways. The report spoke of how, during the pandemic, some drivers have become more likely to rage-drive as a form of stress relief, while others seek an adrenaline rush by driving dangerously fast and loose. Both situations put all others on the road at risk. When I read this, I feel anger.
Back in February, I shared the story of Navajo Zoel Zohnnie, who, when the pandemic struck, loaded up his pickup truck with as many barrels of drinking water as he could gather and began delivering daily supplies to the elderly and disabled of his reservation now isolated in remote areas. He soon found himself joined in support by others, ultimately delivering more than 325,000 gallons of water to families in need. I feel encouraged and inspired when I hear this story.
Such reactions, and the questions these stories raise about our response during a crisis, are not new. Speaking to such concerns in a February opinion piece posted on the economic news site Foreign Policy, Ashish Kaushal writes: “If there is one thing that the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us, it is that our survival depends on society putting the good of all above individual needs. It has also shown us, however, that we often fail to reach that ideal.”
There are many expert opinions around explaining such behavior. “It’s simple human nature — you want to follow the rules, but if you see other people breaking them and not getting punished, you stop too,” Robert H. Frank, an economics professor at Cornell University, recently explained to Time magazine’s Alana Semuels.
Stanford University psychologist Jamil Zaki has been exploring the question of why some people act more cooperatively, while others act more selfishly in a pandemic. As explained by a recent Harris Poll report on public opinion, motivations and social sentiment, it is stated that Zani has documented two basic stories people consistently tell about how human beings behave in times of crisis. In the first, individuals panic and decide to look out for their own interests, break social norms and behave selfishly. In the second, people demonstrate remarkable generosity, donate money, volunteer and try to help their neighbors.
As we try to find our way out of the troubling world of this past year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 8 out of 10 COVID-19 deaths reported in the U.S. have been adults 65 years and older. “This was, from the beginning, a threat to older people that they simply could not avoid,” Laura Carstensen, a psychologist at Stanford University’s Center on Longevity, recently explained to The New York Times. Yet, even in the face of this reality, new surveys over the last year are showing people aged 50 and over experience more positive emotions each day and fewer negative ones than other demographic groups during the pandemic.
A research team led by Carstensen studied this development. As reported in the Times, in April, they recruited a representative sample of some 1,000 adults, aged 18 to 76, living across the country. They were interested in determining whether this development was due to people somehow simply acquiring better coping skills as they age or sharpening their avoidance skills, reducing the number of stressful situations and bad risks they face as they get older?
“To test these two scenarios, scientists needed an environment where both older and younger populations were in equally stressful situations,” writes the Times’ Benedict Carey. “If older people indeed manage their emotions by choosing to avoid stressful situations, the scientists reasoned, then their study should show the happiness gap shrinking, if not disappearing.” What they discovered was that older people’s moods remained elevated, on average, compared with those in younger generations, even though both groups reported the same stress levels.
“Younger people were doing far worse emotionally than older people were,” Carstensen tells the Times. “This was April, the most anxiety-producing month, it was novel, cases went from nothing to 60,000, there was lots of attention and fear surrounding all this — and yet we see the same pattern as in other studies, with older people reporting less distress.”
Also noted was a similar study conducted by psychologists at the University of British Columbia. Researchers surveyed some 800 adults of all ages in the first couple of months of the pandemic and came up with a similar result. It validated a theory that psychologists have been debating for years: When people are young, their goals and motives are focused on gaining skills and taking chances in preparation for the future. “Doing grunt work for little money; tolerating awful bosses, bad landlords, needy friends: the mental obstacle course of young adulthood is no less taxing for being so predictable,” writes Carey. Older folks “have come to accept themselves for who they are, rather than who they’re supposed to become.” Even if they are reentering the job market, they at least know “their capabilities, and what work is possible.”
“I think the older generation now, as much as it’s been threatened by Covid, they’re beginning to say, ‘My life is not nearly as disrupted as my children’s or grandchildren’s,'” says Susan Charles, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Irvine. “And that is where our focus on mental well-being should now turn.”
In a March posting on Stanford News, Zaki states that he now thinks of the harrowing experience of the past year as a unique opportunity. An opportunity to reset people’s expectations about many aspects of society. “Instead of simply returning to life before the pandemic, what if we could institute new personal and social norms that are more balanced, just and equitable? … Instead of emerging from the coronavirus pandemic merely resilient to crisis and catastrophe, (he) asks what if we grew stronger because of it?”
Let us hold that thought.