The COVID-19 pandemic increased negative emotions across the world. People reported poor mental health and behavior problems including sleeping less, consuming more drugs and alcohol, struggling to concentrate, and fighting more with loved ones.
Over the past year, researchers from scores of countries joined together to study whether interventions to mitigate negative emotions and increase positive emotions could improve psychological resilience and help people respond better to adversity.
Their findings, released Monday in a paper in Nature Human Behaviour, show that using a simple method to help people think differently about their situations improved their emotional response. That emotion regulation strategy, known as reappraisal, “consistently reduced negative emotions and increased positive emotions” among the study’s participants. “Importantly, the effects of the intervention were not meager,” helping ease the emotional toll caused by lockdown and self-isolation.
“The findings demonstrate the viability of creating scalable, low-cost interventions for use around the world to build resilience during the pandemic and beyond,” the authors report.
The study was led by Ke Wang, a Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences doctoral candidate at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS). Additional authors include Amit Goldenberg, assistant professor at Harvard Business School and Jennifer Lerner, the Thornton F. Bradshaw Professor of Public Policy, Management & Decision Science at HKS, who is also Ke’s primary advisor. Charles Dorison of Northwestern University, who earned his Ph.D. at HKS; Jeremy Miller at Willamette University; Andero Uusberg at University of Tartu; and James Gross of Stanford University served as crucial co-authors in the lead team.
The study also included co-authors from the Psychology Science Accelerator, a global network of more than 500 psychological science laboratories in dozens of countries. The accelerator coordinates data collection for selected studies and pools expertise and capacity to gather and process huge volumes of data. Nearly 400 researchers from around the world contributed to the work.
For the reappraisal study, the authors collected nearly 28,000 responses from May to October 2020 from participants in 87 countries. That breadth allowed the researchers to test emotional responses in varying circumstances of lockdown among people from different cultures and across a wide spectrum of income and education levels.
It was the largest cross-national study to date of the well-researched topic of reappraisal. The authors write that “the findings reveal the generalizability of reappraisal effects across many countries/regions even in the contact of substantial, protracted stressors.”