The silver lining of corona pandemic: How India found happiness in these stressful times

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December 6, 2020 5:15 AM

It’s true that the pandemic has created havoc in everybody’s life. But it has also presented us an opportunity to assess the positive effects of negative emotions, and use them for personal improvement.

From going slow and minimal to conscious buying and eating, the health crisis has been instrumental in accelerating many positive changes.From going slow and minimal to conscious buying and eating, the health crisis has been instrumental in accelerating many positive changes.

When the lockdown was announced in March, it came as a blessing in disguise for Delhi-based communications professional Meha Khera. As she began working from home, she realised that she was able to devote more time to her 16-month-old son. Needless to say, she is making the most of this phase. “This scenario has come at an apt time… when I needed it the most. I can take care of my son, as before the lockdown, I would miss his milestones since I was at work most times. Now, I am with him 24×7 and it’s good to see him grow up… I am also less stressed about my daily commute and hectic work schedule,” says the 34-year-old, who feels that the pandemic has not only given her time to be with family, but also taught her life lessons on how to evade worldly pleasures and learn the importance of nature, eating right and staying healthy.

It’s true that the pandemic has created havoc in everybody’s life. A large chunk of the population today is grappling with unemployment, economic instability, depression and anxiety. But there is a silver lining, too, as the pandemic seems to have changed our lifestyles for good. Many people today are going back to the basics and opting for a more unhurried and rooted life in terms of what they eat, watch, listen, read and experience. In short, minimalism has become the new normal.

Experts have, in fact, found in the pandemic an opportunity to assess the positive effects of negative emotions and experiences, and how one can use them for personal improvement. In the journal Psychological Review, evolutionary psychologists Paul W Andrews and J Anderson Thomson suggest that sadness and depression have persisted in the face of evolution because they bring cognitive benefits. “Sadness makes us better at assessing reality in social situations, as we are less likely to flatter ourselves or gloss over negative truths. Sadness can even make us more productive at work by enhancing focus and helping us learn from mistakes. This is how failure, via the resulting negative emotions, can help lead to later success,” the report states.

As per a recent article on Melbourne-based professional news platform The Conversation, London-headquartered YouGov (an international research data and analytics group) surveyed a nationally representative sample of around 2,000 respondents each week across Great Britain from June 2019 to June 2020. It asked them to report on 12 mood states: happiness, contentment, inspiration, optimism, energy levels, sadness, apathy, stress, boredom, frustration, loneliness and fear. Resultant data suggested that the pandemic had a strong negative effect on people’s mood, but this quickly returned to baseline after the introduction of the lockdown. Boredom, loneliness, frustration and apathy increased with the imposing of the lockdown, but so did happiness, optimism, contentment and even inspiration. Meanwhile, sadness, fear and stress all fell. The analysis suggests that life satisfaction fell with the arrival of the pandemic and rebounded after the lockdown began.

Press pause

In a year that confined all of us to our homes, many—voluntarily and involuntarily—adopted the slow life. As radio storyteller, author, scriptwriter and lyricist Neelesh Misra said in a recent interview with Financial Express on Sunday, “This life-changing experience is making a lot of people re-evaluate their life choices. Should they be living in big cities at all? If they can work from home, can’t they work from their hometown? Their village? Can they get healthier food, and not just as a fad? What are they watching and listening to TV, radio? The world is moving too fast, our lives are on a roller coaster and when this giant machine suddenly creaked to a halt, people began asking: is the ride worth it?”

Misra is right. Thanks to the pandemic, businesses have shrunk to laptop screens today and smart buying has become the new norm for the working class. The digital life is asset-light, feels Mumbai-based Roshan Abbas, managing director, Geometry Encompass, an experiential marketing company. Abbas is also the president of the industry body Event & Entertainment Management Association and co-founder of Kommune, a performing arts collective for storytellers. “I can engage a larger audience on screen with 130-odd webinars, workshops. I can be anywhere in the world, teach, earn and learn. I’ve done workshops on podcasting, virtual screen engagement and a lot more, besides collaborating with people for online plays, dramatic readings, hosting a poet from London or a podcaster from the US,” he says.

Before the lockdown, socialising with friends and family, holidaying and other leisure activities were all taken for granted, says Coimbatore-based Megha Asher, co-founder and COO of Juicy Chemistry, a natural beauty product line. “The lockdown changed that. We should introspect our habits… like indulging in a wasteful lifestyle by buying things we don’t need… and spend money on sustainable/smart products for better conservation,” says Asher.

When it comes to work from home, many are finding it increasingly beneficial, as it saves a lot of time, among other benefits. An August survey by Indian flexible workspace provider Awfis, in fact, proves this. The survey was conducted in June and July across seven metros of India and analysed 1,000 employees across diverse industries. The survey found that 74% respondents are willing to work remotely, while 80% said their job roles can be performed from a remote environment. Around 29% reported saving Rs 3,000-Rs 5,000 monthly as a result of work from home, money which was earlier spent on commuting, clothing, food, etc.

It was noted that around 60% employees usually spent more than an hour commuting to and from office. With work from home, an employee on average saves 1.47 hours of travel time every day. This translates to time worth 44 additional working days in a year. Therefore, the positive sentiment to work from remote locations can be attributed to factors like significant cost savings, considerable time savings, better time management and self-discipline. Clearly, a hybrid model—combination of virtual and physical office environments—will define the future of the Indian workspace.

“Fear and anxiety about the disease remain, but there has been a shift of thought patterns of late and a sense of acceptance has started to creep in. With less social outings and less impulsive buying, minimalism will certainly become the new normal. People have realised what is essential for them and this would help lower the financial burden to a certain extent. Family ties have become stronger and physical distancing has actually brought in social togetherness. With the work-from-home culture stepping in, work-life balance has become better,” says Mumbai-based neurospinal surgeon Shradha Maheshwari who met people with increased irritation, anger outbursts and signs of depression related to their jobs, layoffs, etc. “Insecurity over jobs and businesses had mounted, but it has also given everyone enough time to figure out options.” she says.

Mind matters

During the period of the lockdown, from April to June, around 4,500 labourers—who took refuge in makeshift shelters with their families in the national capital—were detected with mental health issues and required professional counselling. Loss of livelihood amidst an uncertain future was the major cause of their anxiety.

Delhi-based Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences (IHBAS) measured the prevalence rate of mental health concerns among the migrants at 10-15% after its teams visited the shelters housing over 53,548 migrants from April 2 to June 18. The study, likely to be a first in India in terms of the significant sample size during the lockdown, revealed that at least 849 migrants were given medication for problems ranging from anxiety and depression to more severe underlying conditions like psychosis and schizophrenia that manifested or got aggravated due to the stress caused by the pandemic. Despite facing extremely difficult circumstances, the migrants were, however, found to have a very high level of resilience, as per IHBAS director Nimesh G Desai. “The estimated rate shows that while many required help, a majority did not appear distressed to the levels as to require counselling. It is important to ensure regular access to mental health camps for migrants across states to help them cope with the challenges. Mental health issues increased soon after the lockdown and peaked through May, but with access to food, ration and welfare measures, the distress started declining gradually,” says Desai.

There are five stages of emotions, namely disbelief, anger, sadness, acceptance and finally optimism, offers Arun John, executive vice-president, Vandrevala Foundation, a non-profit organisation in Mumbai that deals with mental health counselling, and which has been receiving updates from callers. The lockdown, for instance, gave a research student an extra three months to complete secondary research and read about his subject, thus boosting confidence to face the examiners. A writer could complete two books ready to be published as the world opens up. A young girl complained that she was pressured to study by her parents while she wanted to learn playing tabla. Seeing her sitting in front of the TV, her father ordered a tabla online, she downloaded lessons and is doing well, shares John.

There has been a seismic shift in the behaviour of corporates as well, says Mumbai-based Marcus Ranney, general manager, India, Thrive Global, a software service platform. “From migration stage of employees to adoption in policies, companies were forced to move and take action at unprecedented speed. Google established a Covid-19 fund that enabled all temporary staff and vendors globally to take paid sick leave if they have potential symptoms or can’t come to work as they’re quarantined. American entrepreneur, professional sports team owner and investor Mark Cuban announced that his employees will be reimbursed for lunch and coffee purchases from local, independent small businesses. Companies like ICICI, Naspers-owned PayU, Amway and Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages conducted virtual engagement programmes, external webinars for self-paced learning and upskilling on various topics like AI and machine learning, as these will be of ever-increasing importance in the near future,” says Ranney, adding that the aftermath of the pandemic will see priorities shifting, making digital transformation a case of ‘when and how’ and not ‘if’. “Winning cultures encompass trust in people, transparency of work, caring for others, as well as continuous learning. Nurturing these important values during difficult times will ensure that firms retain their digital talent, get things done and continue to thrive,” he says.

Changing patterns

One of the things that the pandemic has altered permanently is consumer behaviour, as shopping has turned local, mindful—and digital. In many cases, consumers have used this life pause to reflect on their consumption patterns. According to an August report by Accenture, Covid-19: Consumer Pulse Research, which surveyed 2,500 consumers in India between March and June (among 45,000 globally), 50% rank financial security as a priority, while 67% agree that companies will ‘build back better’ by investing in longer-term, sustainable and fair solutions. Around 72% said they were focused more on limiting food waste, while 61% said they will make more environmentally-friendly, sustainable or ethical purchases.

“There is a massive reduction in impulse and unnecessary buying, as most are buying essential goods and services. Consequently, they are spending very little on socialising or apparel, for that matter. Additionally, as the world is moving towards digitisation, people are spending judiciously on good mobile phones, laptops and Wi-Fi. Health checks are a priority, too, as the fear of falling ill is predominant. So taking preventive measures to build resilience for future calamities will be a prime focus,” feels Gurugram-based clinical psychologist Simmy Rohilla, who is also the programme director at Serefe, an organisation that supports holistic well-being.

People are increasingly opting to buy from small- and medium-sized sellers and this was evident from online retailers’ sales. Amazon saw that personal computing, large appliances, kitchenware and smartphones were the top-selling categories in terms of value, while apparel and pantry sold the most in terms of number of units during a sale.

Some interesting findings by Flipkart highlight the impact across geography and demography. “A growing preference towards e-commerce is not limited to metros. We have seen tier II and III cities feature among the top-selling ones. We have seen a massive shift towards work- and education-oriented products such as mobiles, laptops, desktops, IT accessories, power banks and storage. India wants to focus on uninterrupted productivity and invest in devices for both education and work. After work, India bought fitness and product upgrades with smart wearable and tripods, highlighting the focus on health and fitness,” says the company spokesperson.

An August study by Ernst & Young—called Life in a pandemic and conducted from May 14 to 25—took an in-depth look at the impact of the pandemic on the consumer, revealing that Indian consumers have experienced a fundamental change in behaviour driven by health, privacy and hyper-localisation. The survey covered 2,033 respondents from across India—30% women, up to 70% IT professionals and up to 80% in the age group of 24-40 years. In the survey, 80% of the respondents said that they are eating healthier and strictly eating only home-cooked meals, while 94.5% said they have accepted work from home as the new normal, with 55% stating that they are likely to advocate for work from home post the pandemic. About 80% students have shifted to online education and 46% are open to continuing with online learning post the pandemic.

Luxury retail, too, is seeing customers shift from offline to online. Those who earlier travelled abroad to make luxury purchases are now buying online. The customer response has been overwhelming, says Nakul Bajaj, founder, Darveys.com, a luxury shopping platform that houses over 500 multi-brand international retailers. “We saw 400% growth in overall sales during the pandemic till June, with a further increase in sales in the activewear and clothing sections… the overall order flow has increased, which was unexpected,” says Bajaj.

A case for hope

72%

People who said they are focused more on limiting food waste now, as per an August report by Accenture, which surveyed 2,500 consumers in India between March and June (among 45,000 globally)

80%

People who said they are eating healthier and only home-cooked meals, as per an August study by Ernst & Young, which covered 2,033 respondents from across India

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