How Are We Really Doing? Findings from a TWU Survey on Resilience and Struggle

By Bill Strom, Professor of Media + Communication, TWU

When WHO director-general Dr. Ghebreyesus declared COVID-19 a pandemic, some of us likely thought this will pass, and quickly so.

At TWU, our leaders acted swiftly and wisely to send students, staff, and faculty home where we finished out spring semester, and began planning for summer and fall. In the meantime, we have learned about quarantine, self-isolation, and physical distancing – uncommon terms (initially) at our community-minded school.

Soon we began greeting people on email and Zoom with, “How are you keeping?” or “Are you well?” and closing off with “Take care, and stay well,” or with Dr. Bonnie Henry’s, “Be calm, be kind, be safe.”

Months later, we are still limited in where we might gather, with whom, and for how long.

So a good question is, “How are we, really?” Are we honest when people ask? Is being part of a supportive community, such as TWU, making a difference in how resilient we are?

These types of questions prompted me to fast track a study I had planned to launch later this summer. I’m a social scientist who studies communication in close relationships, and I wondered if the assumptions we hold about personal relationships make a difference weathering pandemic isolation.

Fortunately, a few years ago, Dr. Harold Faw (Department of Psychology) and I developed a scale that helps us figure out why some marriages, friendships, and work partnerships struggle or thrive. The onslaught of the pandemic presented the perfect opportunity to put this scale through its paces. In brief, one ‘end’ of the scale, the contract one, depicts life as individuals trying to manage rewards and costs with friends/partners/family members in order to find satisfaction. If one isn’t satisfied, the tendency is to argue, retaliate, or leave the relationship. The other ‘end’ is the covenantal view; it pictures life as communities of people who make and keep promises that will benefit themselves and their loved ones, and if one messes up, they look to faith-filled wisdom and their peeps to rebound and repair. (If you would like to read more, check out 2013, 2017, 2018.)

So I took ideas that had been percolating for a few years and developed a survey that would test my hunches. I sent out the survey to the wider TWU community and to a distinctly non-TWU crowd. Over 800 responded. (Thanks so much.)

The question I was hoping to answer was, “Does holding a ‘covenant’ approach to relationships increase resilience and decrease struggle in stay-at-home isolation?” The survey went out Weeks 7 and 8 after we began working from home. I figured that if we were going crazy, it would be by then. (Not long after, our province began to open up.)

In addition to completing the contract-covenant scale, participants answered questions about general resilience (how you were coping overall), social support (did you feel supported by people with whom you lived), trust (could you believe and rely on the people around you), and life satisfaction (how well was life overall). I called these “thriving” indicators. The survey also included “struggling” scales, namely aggression (such as verbal attacks, physical incidents, anger, and hostility), being anxious around others, being fearful of being watched by others, and feeling lonely.

I also included lifestyle questions about exercise, eating, drinking, church attendance, and media use. Finally, the survey also included pandemic-related issues, such as number of weeks in isolation, number of people in your home, perceived risk of contracting the virus, and getting ill. (Thankfully, only a tiny fraction of respondents got sick or had close friends fall ill.)

So what did the study show?

The Big Picture

My hunch was right. The study found that holding a more “covenantal” view of close relationships related positively with signs of resilience, and negatively with signs of struggle, across the board. That is, covenantal values appear to have helped people generally cope better, trust more, feel supported more, and rate life as satisfactory. At the same time, these people reported being less aggressive, less anxious, less fearful, and less lonely, than people who rated high on contract and low on covenant. If you would like the statistics on these findings, let me know, and I can send them to you.

How We Tended to Cope

In addition to experiencing quality relationships, “covenanters” were also more likely to exercise outdoors, eat better quality food, worship more, and consume less media. However, the amount they ate and drank was about the same as their pre-pandemic patterns.

Related, people who exercised more tended to worship more and drink more, but use less media; people who worshipped more appeared to eat better and use less media; people who ate better quality food tended to eat less quantity of food, consume less alcohol, and use less media; and subjects who reported eating more food (than before the pandemic) also reported higher rates of alcohol and media consumption. You can likely see yourself in these trends. 

Church Attendance  

I was interested to examine if online church attendance made a difference. It did. The results were especially eye opening for people who said they do not attend church (about 150 individuals), and those who said they attend three times or more per week (about 140 people). While “doing church” so much might seem overkill to some, doing so seemed to give life for people in this study. That is, they were much more likely to score high on the ‘thriving’ resilience questions, and score low on the “struggling” ones. I found a great quotation that captures why this may be true in the book Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges by Southwick & Charney (2012, Cambridge University Press). They write:

Although it seems clear that religion is associated with positive physical and mental health as well as resilience, it is not known exactly why. It appears likely, however, that regular attendance at religious services may foster a number of resilience factors including optimism, altruism, and a search for meaning and purpose. In addition, as a member of a religious congregation, parishioners routinely interact with positive and resilient role models who encourage them to adopt meaningful social roles where they can give to others through acts of generosity. Religious faith my also protect against destructive habits such as drug and alcohol abuse. By parsing spirituality/religion and focusing on discrete components, like prayer and meditation, or attendance at religious services, science is beginning to uncover which elements of faith and spirituality are most closely related to psychological well-being and resilience. For example, the relationship between resilience and religion may partly be explained by the social quality of religious attendance. … The support that practitioners receive may [also] come from God as well as from fellow human beings. (p. 79)

But Still, Are We Being Honest? 

Finally, I also included a scale that measures “social desirability” which is the tendency to put our best foot forward in public settings (and on questionnaires!) through statements or answers we think others want to hear (in order to boost our image). I found that respondents who scored high on this were also likely to say they were thriving more and struggling less than they likely were. I guess we could call that optimism….or denial. If you tend to do this, I hope you are able to talk about how you are really feeling with people close to you. Don’t pretend. Others may being feeling the same, and you can talk it through.

Synopsis

The upshot is that all the talk about community at TWU may deliver more than good branding if we experience a close covenantal relationship at home with spouse, family, and friends. An engaged covenant life delivers benefits to help weather the pandemic storm, and the mundane doldrums that may lay beyond.

Be authentic. Be supportive. Be resilient.


Bill Strom, Ph.D.

Department of Media + Communication