Gulf Today

How personalit­y traits help cope with lockdown

- Andreas Kluth,

In March 2020, still early in the pandemic, I opined that for introverts quarantine can be a liberation. I was extrapolat­ing from personal experience and historical examples. And many other pundits had a similar hunch. But we were speculatin­g before we had empirical data. Now that such informatio­n is available, what does it say?

By and large, the research shows that I was wrong. But I couldn’t be happier because what the evidence actually says is that the truth, as usual, is more complex, more subtle and more interestin­g.

The studies published since the outbreak agree that personalit­y plays a huge role in how we do or don’t cope with difficult situations such as lockdowns. Obviously there are other factors as well, from age (the young suffer much more from depression and anxiety) to employment (no job, no cheer) and, well, infection. But personalit­y determines how we greet our lot in life. And it’s the combinatio­n of several traits that shapes resilience.

Scholars break down those traits into five main bundles. One is the aforementi­oned degree of extroversi­on — how stimulatin­g (or draining) we find social interactio­ns. Another is openness — how curious, inquisitiv­e, adventurou­s and creative we are, for example. A third is agreeablen­ess — how helpful, optimistic and kind we are. The fourth is conscienti­ousness — how organized, focused, prepared and discipline­d we are. The fith is neuroticis­m — the extent to which we get moody, nervous, worried or unstable.

As far as introversi­on goes, the evidence certainly surprised me. One study of college students at the University of Vermont did find that introverts in lockdown reported improvemen­ts over time in their mood, whereas the extroverts said their mood got worse. But the extroverts were still in a beter mood overall, thanks to their more cheerful default position.

Another study, of people from various ages and background­s, found that introversi­on was clearly associated with more loneliness, anxiety and depression during lockdown. I wonder whether that’s in part because many introverts can’t actually withdraw into solitude when they’re stuck with suite mates or family members. As one introvert joked on Twiter, “This quarantine is not our dream come true. We have people in our house who NEVER leave.”

But as a study published in January suggests, other traits appear to be more important than extroversi­on. In particular — and rather unsurprisi­ngly — neuroticis­m was strongly correlated with more anxiety and worse depression. People who are worrywarts even in normal times are also at heightened risk of freaking out when a deadly virus is making the rounds.

Openness was also associated with increased anxiety, though not with depression. That surprised me. This trait includes abstract, creative and lateral thinking. That’s why, in last year’s column, I used Isaac Newton, an introvert who also had an unusually open mind, as an example of somebody who had stunning intellectu­al breakthrou­ghs in quarantine. By the same token, perhaps, very open minds are also beter at imagining all the things that could go wrong.

Being agreeable helped against both anxiety and depression, but not as much as you might think. It’s possible — I’m speculatin­g — that agreeabili­ty mainly turbo-boosts the positive effects of that aforementi­oned other trait, extroversi­on. Ater all, it’s no good being a social buterfly, on Zoom or in your dormitory, if you’re not also empathetic and kind. It’s the quality, not the quantity, of human connection­s that comforts us in bad times.

The winner on the positive side of the ledger was clear. The more conscienti­ous people were, the less anxious and depressed when stuck at home. This makes sense. People that score highly on this trait are beter at hewing to routines that provide structure during endless days of working or studying remotely. I have a friend who never wore coat and tie in the office, but started dressing up in fancy, and rather eccentric, suits during lockdown. Looking sharp, he ascends every day to his atic to do productive and satisfying work.

What I find upliting about this research is that there are many individual paths toward resilience. For each trait, we’re all somewhere on a spectrum. With self-awareness, we can compensate for risk factors — neuroticis­m, say — and we’ll be fine. Moreover, we still have recourse to some secret weapons the psychologi­sts forgot to include in their categories. Even (or especially) in a macabre situation like a pandemic, humour is an option.

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