Permission to Feel, Space to Understand: Building an Emotionally Resilient Society in the COVID Era

The COVID-19 pandemic has cost millions their livelihoods, upended everyone’s daily routines and habits, and brought pain, suffering, and losses to many. The new normal, along with sweeping changes to policies, is exacting a tremendous toll on the emotional wellbeing of individuals and communities alike. According to a Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence study, over the last eight months the number one word that people have been using to describe how they are feeling is the word “anxiety”. As we enter the second year of COVID-19, it is more critical than ever that we strive to build a good society equipped not just with the most advanced medical technologies and public health measures, but also with emotional resilience.

On November 19th, the Good Society Forum invited three experts to share with us their insights on how to build an emotionally resilient society. Professor Marc Brackett, Founding Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, argued that individuals who are compassionate emotion scientists, as opposed to emotion judges, form the basis of a resilient society. Emotion scientists, which anyone could strive to be, are not afraid to be specific about their feelings and be compassionate to other people. According to Brackett, we all need to give ourselves and others around us the permission to be our true, full feeling self, and to learn to label our emotions and use them wisely. Developing resilience is not solely the responsibility of individuals; on the contrary, it is a community’s collective responsibility to be the best possible role model for what it means to be emotionally skilled and resilient. None of us can do this alone.

Jennifer Nadel, Director of Compassion in Politics, introduced the role that compassionate politics play in building a resilient society. She diagnosed that a common affliction that many societies share is the gradual edging out of compassion in political issues. Our economy places emphasis on individual success as opposed to civic mindedness and we are encouraged to shame and blame people for their own failures. This has led to societies that do not meet our most essential human needs of care, recognition, and appreciation. Her U.K. center, Compassion in Politics, strives to put compassion back into the heart of politics. Their methods include transforming how societies’ role models (in her center’s case, U.K. parliamentarians) conduct their political dialogues; facilitating substantive cross-party conversations guided by compassion, not tribalism; and instilling the practice of auditing legislative proposals before they are passed into law for their impact on the most vulnerable population and future generations. Politics set the tone for society, and it is crucial that compassion is part of that tone if our society were to become more resilient to crises and challenges.

Dr. Claire Yorke, author, researcher, and former postdoctoral fellow at Yale, takes a step back and emphasizes the importance that emotions and the recognition of emotions play in building societal resilience. As important as good infrastructure and capabilities are for equipping a society to navigate and weather storms, the emotional well-being of a society is just as critical. Yet we tend to rely on big data and hard numbers to guide the governance of our society, and less on public moods and emotions, which are much harder to define and quantify. When the emotional impact of the pandemic, including shifts of identity, and people’s need for a sense of belonging and security are ignored by our politicians, others could then step in and exploit these unaddressed emotions in society and channel them into negative outlets of grievances and anger. This is what we are witnessing with the recent populist uprisings in the world. Moving forward, Yorke encourages our societies’ leaders to recognize the role that emotions have in a resilient society, and use public emotions as a source of data, along with science and other data, to guide their governance.

As we have seen during the COVID-19 pandemic and other crises our world has experienced in the past, policies and science alone are necessary but not sufficient for building a successful response. Individuals and communities who are emotionally resilient enough to work with these policies and science are just as necessary. Our webinar panelists showed us multiple ways to instill emotional resilience in individuals and communities — from giving ourselves and others the permission to feel, injecting compassion into politics, to using public emotions as a source of data to guide better, more responsive governance. Regardless of the method, one lesson is clear: we cannot build a resilient society that can weather and adapt to our current challenge and many challenges to come without paying attention to individual and community emotions.

The full webinar is available on YouTube.

By Tiffany Chan, Graduate Student at Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs

The Good Society Forum is a community of change-makers around the world with a common quest to building the good society.