In the very early days of the pandemic, writer and professor George Saunders sent out a beautiful, prescient email to his creative writing students. It begins:
“Dear, [Syracuse University] writers — jeez, what a hard and depressing and scary time, so much suffering and anxiety everywhere. I saw this bee happily buzzing around a flower yesterday and felt like, ‘Moron! If you only knew.’ But it also occurs to me that this is when the world needs our eyes and ears and minds. This has never happened before here — at least not since 1918. We are, and especially you are, the generation that is going to have to help us make sense of this and recover afterwards…Are you keeping records of the emails and texts you’re getting, the thoughts you’re having, the way your hearts and minds are reacting to this strange new way of living? It’s all important.”
And he was right.
I am thankful that, even without prompting by an MFA professor, many others have felt compelled to write, documenting their pandemic experiences. I found that reading and listening to others’ experiences to be an unmatched source of relief and comfort.
While writing his book Transcend, psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman came to see the subject of his book, Abraham Maslow, as a friend. That’s how I came to see George Saunders, Emily and Kumail Nanjiani (whose podcast Staying in with Emily & Kumail was a godsend), and others. Their public commentary on the pandemic, including their shared experiences and insights, comforted me as a friend (or therapist, for that matter) might. Hearing about anxieties, both rational and irrational, along with moments of joy, kept me afloat. Even stories of the mundane were somehow helpful.
For instance, psychologist Adam Grant’s New York Times article and follow-up TED Talk resonated with me and apparently many others. He spoke about “languishing,” the state in between flourishing (aka thriving; optimal mental health) and depression. He found himself, and others around him, simply feeling “blah.” His solution to combat languishing? Something called “flow.”
You may have come across this term recently—the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who identified “flow” as a psychological concept, died in October 2021 at 87 years old. Not only did he leave an impressive legacy in the field of psychology, but he also left us with a way to elevate the quality of our existence. Flow is a state of total absorption marked by a sense of timelessness and loss of self-consciousness. It occurs when we engage in an activity that has a certain level of difficulty just above our skill level, so we feel challenged but not overwhelmed.
According to Grant’s article, “During the early days of the pandemic, the best predictor of well-being wasn’t optimism or mindfulness — it was flow. People who became more immersed in their projects managed to avoid languishing and maintained their prepandemic happiness.”
But where do we find flow?
Play is a great route to flow, and this is where Grant himself found a literal gamechanger to cure his languishing: Mario Kart. He began playing once a week, remotely, with his extended family who lived in various parts of the US. Most of us are not the stereotypical creative writers who sit down with their morning coffee and immediately fall into blissful absorption in their work, and it doesn’t need to be that romantic, or serious, to work. Strangely enough, even before reading Grant’s article, some friends and I had come up with a similar outlet, also based on past childhood gaming.
During the pandemic, we started having weekly Zoom calls, which were always something to look forward to, but with such frequency (and not too much to report going on in our lives while quarantining) we sometimes found ourselves running out of things to say. I’m not sure which of the three of us suggested it, but on one call, someone asked, “What if we played some Nancy Drew?”
Going as far back as grade school, we spent our weekends playing Nancy Drew computer games, full of adventure, puzzles, and of course, mystery (yes, we were wild as teenagers). So, at thirty years old, in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, we shared our computer screens and found a teenage-targeted computer game our entertainment and salvation.
Three years into this pandemic, these little stories continue to come to light, especially as opportunities to reconnect become possible.
For example, I was having a lovely lunch with a friend I hadn’t seen in over two years, and she talked about her husband, a moderate yogi. One day towards the start of the pandemic he mentioned to his yoga instructor that he used to do Tai Chi; in fact, he had practiced for almost seven years. “Do you want to maybe teach a class?” she asked. He responded non-committedly that it could be fun sometime. The next day my friend, checking her email, called to her husband in the other room, “This email says you’re teaching Tai Chi tomorrow at 8:30? Whether you said yes or not, looks like you’re doing this!” Since then, on an almost daily basis, my friend and her husband have done Tai Chi. They found the mirroring aspect of Tai Chi rejuvenating and a way to consistently connect with others.
Though at first glance these stories appear to be light and simple, I notice these anecdotes have a certain weightiness, an importance. They’re all about what it’s like to be a human, living our lives. Even as we begin to emerge from the pandemic, these stories will retain their importance as we go from experiencing to processing.
I am a college professor who teaches creativity in-person during normal times, and online during pandemic times. It’s an endeavor that requires creativity itself. The actions and perspectives of my students have amazed and inspired me. During an already stressful and complicated time in their lives, they showed maturity and resiliency that put my own to shame.
Strangely, though, what I saw firsthand sharply contrasted the story in the media that college students shirked COVID recommendations and were to blame for the rising rates. While there’s undoubtedly some truth there, I knew this was not the whole story. Hoping to make the discussion less one-sided, I wrote a piece along with one of my students about the creative ways students navigated the uncertainty they were unceremoniously and abruptly dealt.
In academia, we often say we get a “Ph.Me,” or engage in “mesearch,” but playwright, author, and activist Eve Ensler captures this compulsion in more general terms: “I feel […] that happiness exists in action; it exists in telling the truth and saying what your truth is; and it exists in giving away what you want the most. And I feel that knowledge and that journey has been an extraordinary privilege, and I feel really blessed to have been here today to communicate that to you.” While this piece is a bit of a meandering reflection, I hope it might offer to others what was so useful to me—a reflection on the pandemic to which we can relate, and that may help to heal and process.
- Regularly experiencing flow can counteract languishing. Flow activities do not have to be lengthy or lofty; play activities, for example, are excellent sources of flow.
- Creating narratives can help us process and make sense of past experiences.
- In some cases, the pandemic has created space and time for deeper human connection, reflection, and creativity.
Dr. Molly Holinger is a Visiting Professor at the John W. Altman Institute for Entrepreneurship in the Farmer School of Business at Miami University of Ohio. She holds a PhD in Educational Psychology: Giftedness, Creativity, and Talent Development from the University of Connecticut and an M.S. in Creative Studies from the International Center for Studies in Creativity, SUNY Buffalo State. Her publications include two chapters, “The Relationship between Creativity and Feedback,” and “Taking a Prospective Look at Creativity Domains” and the article “Creative problem solving in small groups: The effects of creativity training on idea generation, solution creativity, and leadership effectiveness.” Her current research focuses on the positive outcomes of creativity such as positive emotions, engagement, and meaning.