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The COVID-19 pandemic has created new challenges for nearly everyone around the world. Even for those whose homes are untouched by the coronavirus itself, daily life, work, and family rhythms have been disrupted. One of the John Templeton Foundation’s core interests is the ways that understanding and cultivating character and virtue can measurably improve human flourishing. Over the past several years, we have commissioned research reviews collecting insights and future questions around the topics — many of which seem especially relevant for the challenges that COVID-19 has brought to the foreground.

  • Generosity. From sewing handmade masks to help protect medical workers to spontaneous fundraisers to help struggling local businesses, many have responded to the COVID-19 crisis with creative generosity. Such responses seem to be innately human — and may have benefits for the giver as well as the recipient. Research shows that giving social support — whether time, effort, or goods — is associated with better overall health in older adults, and volunteering is associated with delayed mortality. One survey of 632 Americans found that spending money on other people was associated with significantly greater happiness, regardless of income; conversely, there was no association between spending on oneself and happiness. 
  • Gratitude. The upheaval caused by the pandemic has many of us acutely feeling losses both large and small. It’s natural to grieve the things we no longer have during the crisis, but finding things to be grateful for can provide a powerful counterweight to that grief. From journaling to giving thanks verbally in person, a growing number of studies have tested the efficacy of various interventions designed to boost gratitude. A handful of studies suggest that more grateful people may be healthier, and others suggest that scientifically designed practices to increase gratitude can also improve health and encourage the adoption of healthier habits. Several studies have found that more grateful people experience less depression and are more resilient following traumatic events.
  • Cooperation. The pandemic has made visible new forms of cooperation. Many scientists are setting aside the regular publishing process in order to share data and possible insights as quickly as possible with colleagues around the world. The widespread adoption of social distancing (however imperfectly) highlights society’s willingness to put community health and resources above individual convenience. One of the most fascinating long-term studies of real-life cooperation was carried out by Lee Cronk and his colleagues, who examined the implicit rules governing the osotua system of mutual self-help practiced by the Maasai in East Africa. In osotua, the requests for help — typically for cattle — are only made according to need, without reference to the kind account-keeping used in other forms of debts. Gifts are given as long as the benefactors can do so without harming their own herd’s survival. In osotua return gifts need not match the original gift — in fact, how much the giver provides to the partner is negatively correlated to how much they expect to get back. Nevertheless, studies have shown that osotua significantly increases cattle herd survival outcomes as a result of pooling and minimizing risk.
  • Positive Neuroscience. During periods of prolonged social isolation, it’s important to understand ways we can maintain our own well-being. Positive neuroscience uses tools like fMRI scans to study the nervous system mechanisms that underlie well-being — and gauge what we can do to cultivate it. The field has documented the success of interventions including mindfulness, compassion meditation, cognitive reappraisal, working memory training, and even positive boosts in well-being from increased participation in childcare.
  • Purpose. For many, disruption to work routines and social connection can create a sense of a loss of purpose. But for some, those disruptions give them space to find purpose in the ways they are responding by reaching out to those in need. The pioneer of understanding the importance of purpose in health was Victor Frankl, a psychologist and Holocaust survivor. While a prisoner at Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and two satellite camps of Dachau, Frankl noticed that fellow prisoners who had a sense of purpose showed greater resilience to the torture, slave labor, and starvation rations to which they were subjected. Writing of his experience later, he found a partial explanation in a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear almost any ‘how.’” Frankl’s 1959 book Man’s Search for Meaning, proved to be seminal in the field. Recent studies have shown that having a sense of purpose in life is associated with a tremendous number of benefits, ranging from a subjective sense of happiness to lower levels of stress hormones.
  • Future-mindedness. Keeping a grounded sense of how we will eventually emerge from this crisis can help to restore a sense of control and hope. Prospection, or thinking about what will happen in the future, is a core trait that humans excel at. Multiple studies have found that considering aspects of one’s current reality that impede progress can help people achieve their goals, whether losing weight, developing better exercise habits, or getting better grades. Adopting a more future-oriented view may also help with relationship conflict. In one study, participants asked to reflect on what they would think of the conflict a year later were able to show more “adaptive reasoning” about the conflict: They blamed their partner less, showed greater insight about how the conflict impacted their relationship in a constructive and positive way, and demonstrated greater forgiveness.
  • Awe. In 1764 Immanuel Kant published the book Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, in which he defined the sublime as having aspects of beauty mixed with fear or even horror. The COVID-19 crisis certainly reminds us that we are the subjects of complex and uncontrollable processes much larger than ourselves. But for many of us, seeking out experiences of awe may offer us sources of perspective and resilience. Awe can be tricky to define, but psychologists suggest the experience of awe is marked by two features shared by Kant’s concept of the sublime: “perceived vastness” and a “need for accommodation.” Perceived vastness can come from observing something literally physically large — the Grand Canyon, or even a grove of towering trees — or through an encounter with something or someone that is vast or profound. An experience evokes a “need for accommodation” when it violates our normal understanding of the world. Even looking at images of sublime scenes — like views of the earth from space — has been shown to have positive effects. Studies have found that feelings of awe can be accompanied by heart rate changes, goosebumps, and the sensation of chills, and there is some evidence that awe may even decrease markers of chronic inflammation. Awe seems to boost feelings of connectedness, increase critical thinking and skepticism, increase positive mood, and decrease materialism. Awe also seems to change our perception of time, with research showing that those who experience awe agreed more strongly with statements suggesting that time is plentiful than did people induced to feel happiness.

STILL CURIOUS?

Explore the full white papers cited above: The Science of Gratitude, The Science of Generosity, The Evolution of Cooperation, Positive Neuroscience, The Psychology of Purpose, Future-Mindedness, and The Science of Awe.

Learn more about how grantees are helping with the COVID-19 crisis

Read other Discovery case studies highlighting the John Templeton Foundation’s interest in other topics including epigenetics, free will, and foundational questions in cosmology.