The Good Life Under Lockdown

April 23, 2020
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Psychiatrist Robert Waldinger’s TED talk about what makes a good life has been viewed more than 32 million times. Can those rules be applied to quarantining as well?

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As director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, Robert Waldinger has some good guesses—and 82 years of data—on what makes humans thrive. He has written extensively about the role that family and friendships seem to play: “We found that relationships and the quality of our relationships turn out to be one of the strongest predictors of staying healthy and living longer,” he says.

But what happens to those relationships in a nation under quarantine? Some of our relationships become much harder to maintain—and others get too close for comfort. “We’re not used to being together all the time. Even people who are in intimate partnerships, people who live together—we are just not used to this 24/7 togetherness,” he says. “And so the first thing is to remember it’s normal to find this strange.”

Waldinger explores how people can learn to cope with the challenges of shelter-in-place, both with others and alone. It is a topic he has recently been exploring through a series of Tuesday kitchen table chats—informal video sessions hosted from his home—for a nation under lockdown.

He also outlines fascinating directions for how to research the current moment, and offers thoughts on how a crisis can bring out both the best and the worst in us. “What we see around us are these tremendous acts of kindness and social solidarity. People singing to each other from balconies, the kinds of gestures that really remind us of how united we are and how our divisions really aren’t that important… But along with those are these forces dividing us, because social distancing is increasing isolation. And it can increase tension in our relationships, and it involves less access to mental health care. All of that may pose a danger.”

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