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Finding the best in the worst

Coping during a pandemic is rough, but people are managing to rediscover themselves, their abilities and their passions.

 

Spring/Summer 2021 issue

Words by RUTH MYLES and MELISSA ROLFE

There’s a scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian that brings to life the definition of an eternal optimist: a shaggy-haired convict played by Eric Idle snaps his fingers and sways his toes in time, advising his death-row inmates to “always look on the bright side of life” while singing a jaunty tune, despite being tied to a cross and about to meet his demise.

Look, we’re not saying you can Pollyanna your way out of a bad case of the pandemic blues. Toxic positivity isn’t a healthy coping mechanism. But, looking for the positive in a situation, a.k.a. “the bright side of life,” can alleviate some of the clouds that have hovered over our collective consciousness since we first heard the phrase “novel coronavirus 2019.”

“I personally see that there are silver linings to be found despite all the challenges and all the bad things that have taken place,” says psychologist Dr. Naomi Grant, PhD, an associate professor in the Faculty of Arts. “For example, at the start of the pandemic, we started going on walks with our two small children as a family. Even now, we are in the habit of walking daily. I have discovered how much happier the kids are outside.”

Psychologists say there is some genetic disposition towards different personality traits, including optimism, and the environment people are raised in and the experiences we have also influence our outlook.

“One happiness model says 50 per cent of happiness is thought to be genetic, 10 per cent is the situations you are in — which is much smaller than you would think — and 40 per cent of happiness is determined by the things that you do. That’s a huge percentage,” Grant says.

In the spirit of bolstering that 40 per cent, things that can be done, we asked members of the Mount Royal community to share what has been lifting them up over the past year.

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Prioritizing what’s important

Melanie Peacock, PhD
Associate professor, Bissett School of Business

Dr. Peacock sums up the gifts of COVID-19 as what she has learned about in three key domains: her profession, herself and others.

Professionally, Peacock has attended webinars with experts who used to be available only at conferences, connecting with colleagues around the world and contributing to international virtual events. Her technical skills have improved and she’s learned how other institutions and companies are responding to COVID-19. “It’s going to make me a better teacher,” she says.

Peacock feels the pandemic has underscored the importance of being vulnerable and honest with one another, something she vows to continue post-COVID. She has also reflected on her strengths, what she wants to get better at and what she calls “meaning making” in life. COVID-19 has helped Peacock rethink and reframe what she does, forcing her to further contemplate what she chooses to spend time doing.

“There is a time to pause and be grateful. It doesn’t mean we diminish other people’s pain. I think sharing gratitude or points of light inspires hope.”

Translating the experience into lifelong learning

Murray Holtby, PhD
Associate professor and chair, School of Nursing and Midwifery

By the time the Fall 2020 semester ended, those in the nursing and midwifery programs felt exhausted, admits department chair Dr. Holtby. They responded to ever-changing clinical practicum environments, continued to safely run in-person lab and simulation experiences, and adapted quickly to a fully online lecture environment.

“We’re always on, 24/7 — that’s been one of the negatives. But coming out of that is the positive of learning to connect in new ways.”

Technology has allowed important hospital meetings to occur virtually. Paperless processes have saved time and work, he says. And out-of-province experts can now participate in evaluating new midwives, which helps address a shortage of local assessors.

For nursing students, Holtby says learning in a pandemic elevated basic first-year concepts. “Handwashing, learning how to use personal protective equipment, came to the fore. It was good, good learning. This will be an experience that students will carry with them for the rest of their lives.”

In the bigger picture, Holtby points to the rapid development of multiple vaccines, a huge accomplishment for science that will prevent about 95 per cent of people from developing symptoms of the virus, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Finding flexibility and adaptability

Jonathan Withey, DPhil
Dean, Faculty of Science and Technology

“COVID-19 forced post-secondary institutions to adapt quickly and without an instruction manual,” notes Dr. Withey.

“No element of what we do remained unchanged. And yet each day, our community — students and employees — accepted the challenge and found a way to succeed.”

Withey says this flexibility showed that many of the University’s processes and systems are not as immovable as was previously thought. And he hopes people’s openness continues because of the potential for continuous improvement.

Relationships between people changed too, Withey says, and his goal is to keep focusing on “more connection, more support and more presence” within the institution.

“Our isolation helped us to see one another more clearly and completely, I believe, and to appreciate our community differently. And the resiliency of people, that adaptability, may just continue to bind us in other ways.”

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Reclaiming time and creativity

Jean-Louis Bleau
Interim director, Mount Royal Conservatory

When the pandemic shut down workplaces, Bleau found himself with an “extra” two hours a day. During “normal” times, Bleau’s work as interim director of the Mount Royal Conservatory plus roles with the University of Calgary demands a lot of driving. Rather than fritter away those regained hours each day by doom scrolling or binge watching the latest series du jour, Bleau decided to reconnect with his art — composing.

Bleau was inspired, in part, by people enrolling in online lessons at the Conservatory to learn an instrument with their own “extra” time, he says. Bleau’s compositional “creative sabbatical” has sparked illumination during some of the darker moments of the pandemic.

Any art form has the ability to transport people. You reach a flow state and time becomes irrelevant,” Bleau says. “Sometimes I think, ‘Oh wow, I can’t believe I spent that many hours composing.’ It’s so rewarding to lose yourself and not wonder how you are going to spend that time in your day.”

Leveraging disruption for efficiencies

Ray DePaul
Director, Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship

“If you’re an innovator, anything that disrupts the status quo results in new and fertile ground,” DePaul says. “COVID-19 has let us flex our innovation muscle.”

Pointing to the explosion of online shopping, DePaul says, “Entrepreneurs everywhere are now trying to figure out ways to capitalize on this shift and ensure that small and new businesses benefit, rather than solely filling Amazon’s bank account.”

On the personal side, DePaul says that COVID-19 has given him the “gift of time.” Having no commute has allowed him to get a better night’s sleep, which makes him more able to face the pandemic stressors.

“Also, my workdays are more efficient,” he says, with shorter video meetings and less downtime. “I know I’m missing some of the social stimulation in-person meetings provide, but at least I’m rewarded with time. If I could only figure out what to do with it all.”

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Prepping parks for greater use

Don Carruthers Den Hoed, PhD
Research Associate, Institute for Environmental Sustainability

Dr. Carruthers Den Hoed says that the pandemic has provided an opportunity to talk about the health and quality-of-life benefits the public gets out of parks. Lead of the Canadian Parks Collective for Innovation and Leadership, which fosters collaboration between those representing Canada’s national and provincial natural spaces, Carruthers Den Hoed says that Canadians’ heightened desire to connect with nature during the pandemic has put tremendous pressure on the parks system at times.

Having so many people wanting to get outside is not a bad problem to have, especially if experiences turn into advocacy for parks and conservation. “People have paused and appreciated access to nature,” he says.

The challenges the parks are facing during the pandemic has led to important conversations, such as whether parks should be considered essential services.

And in a future public health crisis, he says, parks will be more prepared. “When people are done making sourdough, they’re going to want to go hiking.”

Opportunity for organizations to reset

Steve Armstrong
Instructor, Emergency Management and Disaster Recovery Extension Certificate

Armstrong knows his disasters. He’s had leadership roles managing and recovering from large-scale incidents such as the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire and the 2003 SARS outbreak. A former provincial director with the Canadian Red Cross and longtime member of the Canadian Armed Forces, Armstong is also an instructor in Mount Royal’s Emergency Management and Disaster Recovery Certificate program.

“For organizations, the pandemic is an opportunity to hit the circuit breaker on themselves and ask ‘Are we viable? What would it look like if we had to do it all over again?’ ” he says.

When the first shutdown hit, Armstrong saw his major revenue streams evaporate, so he decided to offer his emergency management services for free to those in need. “A lot of people were open for help. They knew they were in trouble,” he says. An unexpected benefit was the ability to extend his reach to a wider audience, with webinars registering larger audiences than he has ever had before.

Illustration of a woman holding a woman running outside. Simple, clean computer illustration of a woman running on a trail in front of trees and bushes and other lush foliage. The colours are bright with many pinks, oranges and yellows.

Pump up your mental health (but give yourself a break, too)

Finding the positive in a challenging situation is harder on some days than others. Recognizing that, psychologist Dr. Naomi Grant, PhD, offers three ways to bolster mental health while reminding us that it’s OK to have bad days, too:

Get outside

It’s been said before, but it bears repeating: being outdoors provides an instant mental-health boost. “One really interesting experiment shows that we are not very good at knowing what makes us happy,” Grant says, citing a Carleton University study. One group was asked to walk to the other side of campus through a network of underground tunnels and the other completed the 20-minute journey outside. When asked to rate their mood at the end of the walk, those who walked outside were happier. “But the most interesting part of the study is those who were going to walk outside predicted they would be less happy than those who were going to walk inside.”

Practise gratitude

Keeping a formal gratitude journal works for some people, while others practise the rule of three: each day just after waking up or just before drifting off, reflect on three things that you are grateful for. It could be a meeting that went well, completing a task on your to-do list or the smell of a favourite soap. Some people write gratitude letters detailing how someone has changed their life for the better and read it to the recipient. Benefits of practising gratitude range from better sleep to improving self-esteem. “You can feel happy and sad at the same time,” Grant says. “Silver linings don’t negate the negative, but are certainly buffers to dealing with those negative emotions we are all facing.”

Be a (virtual) social butterfly

Social connections make up a large part of our happiness, Grant says, and it’s vital to find alternatives to how we used to foster those ties. But it can be hard to make the effort when you’re not feeling 100 per cent … or even 50 per cent. Creating a schedule to connect with others on a regular basis — virtually, by phone or even by writing letters — provides a foundation for mental health. Grant and her five siblings connected via online board games. “We had never done that before and it was so much fun. It was almost like we were together in person,” she says. “Now, with extended family like cousins, we have monthly drop-in Zooms. We never would have done that before.”

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