Keeping your sense of meaning during lockdown

Rhi Wilmott with some evidence-based life lessons.

02 April 2020

At a time when many common sources of meaning have been stripped away, we may feel somewhat lacking in purpose. Isolated and confined in our own homes, the mood prompted by the initial whispers of ‘lockdown’ has shifted. What at first felt akin to that vague period between Christmas and New Year – except without the festive telly or endless Quality Street to keep us entertained – is now infinitely more serious. How we respond as individuals and as a society, is critical. 

Boris Johnson’s lockdown address was followed by the doubling of depression and anxiety rates overnight. These figures are alarming, but also represent an understandable response to threat and not a mental health crisis. In fact, tackling the challenge of Covid-19 as a global community may well bring us greater meaning in life; both a resource and an antidote in stressful and uncertain times. Meaning is associated with good mental health, a lower risk of depression, thriving personal relationships and greater engagement in healthy lifestyle behaviours, such as eating well and exercising.  It also helps us cope – or in the words of researcher Laura King, provides “a coherence that transcends chaos”. 

At present, our collective sense of meaning is threatened by the removal of many activities which typically provide structure. Constants we have previously taken for granted, such as travelling to work, enjoying cultural and sporting activities or even a trip to the supermarket. Indeed, whilst grand gestures or spiritual connection might seem the natural foundation of meaning, it is actually small events such as these which give our lives purpose, especially when they are linked to a more widely significant goal. 

Indeed, psychologists consider meaning to comprise three components: (1) purpose; having goals and direction in life, (2) significance; having a life which is important beyond the immediate future, and (3) coherence; an understanding of one’s identity and connections across life events. Collectively, these factors elevate the importance of everyday activities and provide a bridge between what we do, who we are, and the legacy we leave behind.  

Whilst is difficult to pin ‘significant goals’ onto a fuzzy horizon, identifying and reflecting on potential sources of meaning can help us remain purposeful, even in the throes of lockdown. This will not only buffer us from stress in the coming weeks, but will also help us to thrive once the pandemic is over. 

Evidence indicates we experience meaning by engaging in any activity that fulfils a set of three psychological needs. These are autonomy; the desire to be in control of one’s life and act according to one’s core values, competence; the ability to control outcomes or experience mastery, and relatedness; the capacity to interact with others.  

Meeting our psychological needs is a fundamental element of feeling mentally satisfied. However, the aspect which transforms merely satisfying activities into those which are truly meaningful is beneficence. This is defined as a sense of prosocial impact, and arises from connecting with other people and important causes. 

Meaning is therefore about having the opportunity to develop our strengths, and using them in a way which connects and helps other people. Accepting there are many uncontrollable elements of our current situation, but recognising we still have the capacity to do things which develop our skills, connect us socially, and have a beneficial impact on other people is at the core of meaning in lockdown. For example, going out for a bike ride may seem a relatively trivial activity. But its wider implications include developing physical fitness, setting a good example for others and adhering to regulations which will save lives.  

Explicitly making such connections between our daily activities and how they contribute to our long-term goals, or help other people, is important. This promotes ‘meaning salience’ – the extent to which we are aware of exactly what it is that makes our life meaningful. Levels of meaning salience can vary from day-to-day, but higher amounts boost our psychological wellbeing, and serve as a link between an abstract conception of the future, and what we do today.  

In our current climate, identifying activities that offer autonomy, competence, relatedness and beneficence may take a little more creativity than usual. However, there are also opportunities here. Lockdown offers us time and space for introspection, and a chance to build greater self-awareness than ever before. The term ‘post-traumatic growth’ describes how distressing or confusing events can revolutionise how we perceive the world and our place in it. This process helps us become more resilient in future.  

So whilst we do not know when the pandemic will end, or what life will look like once it does, perhaps the present uncertainty will give rise to new forms of meaning. When we emerge from the chrysalis of lockdown, this resource will help us greet the world with purpose.    

You can access an evidence-based tool to support meaningful reflection here – just use your email address to sign in and make as many entries as you like. 

- Rhi Wilmott is a psychology researcher at Bangor University.