Tyler J VanderWeele is the Loeb Professor of Epidemiology at Harvard University, where he is Director of the Human Flourishing Program and Co-Director of the Initiative on Health, Religion and Spirituality.
Last week Prof VanderWeele sat down with the Catholic Herald for a Zoom interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, to discuss the coronavirus pandemic in light of his work on the science of happiness and the study of religion and health.
The coronavirus pandemic has cast a spotlight on the field of epidemiology. Do you think your scientific colleagues have engaged well with the public during this crisis, and have societies responded appropriately to their advice?
I think the role of epidemiologists, especially infectious disease epidemiologists and those who are doing modelling of the pandemic, has been crucial in informing what the public response should be. I think they have also done an appropriate job of acknowledging the uncertainty as to how severe this will be.
What has not been so good is our disease surveillance systems and really having a sense as to how prevalent coronavirus is and what the infection mortality rate is. And for that, we really need representative testing, which has almost nowhere taken place. I do think one of the big lessons scientifically will be that we need these systems in place beforehand.
I think world leaders have also done a reasonable job, though a number of them have come under criticism for not responding quickly enough. But again, it does need to be acknowledged, the uncertainty that was present throughout this process.
I think what could have been better is preparation. So, even when we didn’t know whether this was going to reach pandemic proportions, we should have been preparing with regard to having adequate supplies of masks or medical staff, trying to ensure that we have adequate numbers of tests and, as I said before, putting systems in place for more representative testing.
So, it seems that we lack much of the knowledge and means needed to control this deadly virus. As a specialist in the science of human flourishing, how do you think people can still grow and find fulfilment amid such uncertainty and vulnerability?
The framework for thinking about human flourishing that we’ve been using at The Human Flourishing Program at Harvard, essentially looks at wellbeing over six different domains, including health and economics, which are under real threat at present by the pandemic. But our framework also includes other dimensions, including a sense of meaning, being satisfied with life, trying to be a good person, and having close social relationships. And I think with some of these other dimensions, even amidst this crisis, it is possible to flourish.
There are new opportunities to help those that are around us: bringing groceries to elderly neighbours or trying to reach out to those who may have mental health difficulties. These acts of kindness can give rise to a sense of meaning and help shape character.
I think the crisis can also provide opportunities for reflection about what is most important and meaningful. Research in psychology, for instance, suggests that the practice of gratitude, maybe writing down three things a week you’re grateful for or telling them to a family member or friend, boosts happiness and alleviates symptoms of depression.
None of these things are going to get us out of the present crisis, but they can help provide a greater resilience and can allow us to flourish in these other ways that are not necessarily prohibited by our present circumstances.
Many have voiced concern about an impending “epidemic of loneliness” brought about by the lockdowns and the social distancing measures. You’ve researched the impact of loneliness on mental health: how serious do you think this problem is and how do you think we can best respond?
One of the interesting things about the research on loneliness is that there is both an objective and a subjective component to social connectedness. So, it’s both: “Are you spending time with people?” and “How connected do you feel to people?” And the research suggests that each of these contributes to mental and physical health.
Obviously, there are some pretty severe restrictions in place with regards to the objective side of social connectedness – the social distancing measures make it difficult to visit friends with regularity. With the subjective side, I think it’ll be interesting to see over time how this crisis plays out. More time at home maybe brings closer connections amongst families or friends or housemates who are living together. It may allow for more time to talk to distant relatives on the phone. So, in some ways, there’s real potential that that subjective side of social connectedness could in fact be enhanced.
I would strongly encourage people to make use of the technological resources that we have and to regularly reach out to family members and friends. Maybe to reflect on relationships that have been damaged, where there is need for reconciliation or for forgiveness. Use this time of greater reflection and availability to reach out and try to repair those relationships. And I think, as a society, if we all follow these steps, it would be possible to counter the adverse effects of the restrictions caused by social distancing and lack of community gatherings.
Regarding gatherings, churches and other places of worship have been forced to close in many places. Another aspect of your work has been on the importance of religious practice for people’s wellbeing. How can we foster our faith at this critical moment?
The empirical evidence suggests that participation in religious communities, especially religious service attendance, will improve longevity, lower rates of depression, dramatically lower suicide rates and give rise to a greater sense of meaning and purpose. And, so, I think the absence of the possibility of these communities getting together is a real loss.
But I think at the present time it is a necessary loss – the Catholic dioceses that have put restrictions on masses have made the difficult but right decision. This isn’t simply a matter of being willing to risk one’s own health but, because it is an infectious disease, it is really about risking the health of the whole public. So, I think love of neighbour in these cases really does entail the difficult decision of forgoing these meetings.
Now, there are things that one can try to do partially. There is nothing that will fully replace meeting as a church, but I think using this time for greater personal devotion and prayer are important ways forward and many churches are now doing live webcasting.
That said, I think that some of the measures are perhaps more extreme than are needed. There’s no reason, for example, to restrict small private immediate family-only baptisms – that would cause no greater risk than showing up to the supermarket to pick up groceries and, certainly, from a Catholic perspective this is a spiritual good of tremendous value. Hopefully, as time goes on, we’ll be able to lift these other restrictions when we have the pandemic under better control.
Finally, do you think that this crisis can become a turning point in how we live our lives and what our priorities are?
I think it does provide an opportunity to re-evaluate our priorities. At the individual level, it allows us to invest more deeply in relationships, allows us to think about what is most important in life, and allows us to reflect on our own mortality and what might lie beyond this present life. But I think also, on the societal level, it should lead to a reflection on what is most important to us as a society. Health and economics are often the focus of government priorities, but perhaps questions of meaning, of relationships, of happiness, of character should come into play in thinking about what our societal priorities are. I think a crisis like this presents a real opportunity to think about these things deeply as individuals and as a society.
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