Learning from Bear Hunts, Workouts and Generosity: Noticing Five Ways to Wellbeing in a Pandemic
The Mental Health Foundation’s Five Ways to Wellbeing (connect, give, take notice, keep learning, and be active) are well recognised as contributing positively to mental health. The Five Ways have been adopted internationally, widely promoted, and adapted for disaster contexts such as the Canterbury earthquakes and the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the Five Ways are often understood individualistically, the emphasis of each can readily, even best, be understood as relating to connection beyond the individual. There are two elements to such self-transcendence: interpersonal connection, and spiritual, or beyond-immanent, transcendence. In this article, I focus on the former.
At the time of writing, Aotearoa New Zealand is at Level 4 of the COVID-19 response, which means strict self-isolation rules are in places. This raises the question: How does one “do” interpersonal connection in a time of physical distancing?
This paper explores how each of the Five Ways to Wellbeing were demonstrated in the first few weeks of the physical isolation required as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. When viewed in terms of interpersonal connections, the Five Ways provide a framework for wellbeing that can resource the gatherings and pastoral care of churches.
Five Ways to Wellbeing
The Five Ways to Wellbeing (developed in 2008 by the UK-based Trust, the New Economics Foundation) have been embraced by mental health advocates around the world, including New Zealand’s Mental Health Foundation and Canterbury’s All Right? campaign “as a framework for wellbeing promotion.”
The Five Ways invite people to “connect with the people around you” and to view such relationships “as the cornerstones of your life” worth developing. This priority placement and emphasis points to the centrality of interpersonal connections in terms of personal wellbeing. The Five Ways encourage us to be active: to find a form of physical activity that we enjoy, and to do it. We are invited to take notice: to “catch sight of the beautiful,” to “savour,” to “be aware” of surroundings and feelings, and to reflect on those things. We are also encouraged to keep learning: to try something new, or re-explore something old, with an emphasis on enjoyment. Finally, we are encouraged to give: to “do something nice” for someone. Again, the emphasis is on connection to a wider community, as each of the examples of giving relate to interpersonal connections. We are encouraged to “look out, as well as in.”
Individualistic or Beyond the Self?
This emphasis on interpersonal connection is interesting in a report that defined wellbeing in terms of the two key characteristics: “Feeling good and functioning well.” At first glance, these goals might seem highly individualistic, achievable without regard to another. As such, they are goals that resonate with our post-Enlightenment individualistic western context. At the same time, however, the exact meaning of these goals is open to further clarification, which the report supplies. The authors continue to be clear about the importance of connections beyond the self, saying:
Feelings of happiness, contentment, enjoyment, curiosity and engagement are characteristic of someone who has a positive experience of their life. Equally important for well-being is our functioning in the world. Experiencing positive relationships, having some control over one’s life and having a sense of purpose are all important attributes of wellbeing.
Considering each of these in turn, reveals that the majority relate to engagement beyond the self (as I demonstrate in Table 1)
Even the most inwardly oriented—“having some control over one’s life”—can be related to personal autonomy or individuation, rather than (necessarily) to self-centeredness. One’s “sense of purpose” and “happiness, contentment, and enjoyment” could each be either internally or externally focused, although the resources of the Christian faith make clear that purpose and contentment are best found beyond the self. For example, in loving God and loving neighbour (Matt 22:37–40). The remaining aspects of this definition of wellbeing are all oriented externally, towards self-transcendence, which can be experienced in relationship with others.
The Five Ways in Physical Isolation
What might each of these five ways mean in our unique time of physical distancing? What happens to interpersonal connection in a time of physical isolation? What can the church learn about pastoral care and gathering and worship practices from the examples that follow?
Writing in 2005, Heidi Campbell described “the internet as a social network … where connecting with people becomes the primary goal.” The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly demonstrated how the internet, particularly social media, provides a ready platform for people—friends, family and strangers—to connect with one another. Over the past three weeks I have celebrated Zoom birthday parties, enjoyed wine tasting, attended the ballet and a stage show, checked in with my neighbours, appreciated a lounge-concert, sweated through workouts, and participated in various churches services—all online. My inability to travel beyond my neighbourhood did not prevent me from connecting with friends, family, and strangers, both locally and at a distance. I have also enjoyed spotting teddy bears when on my daily walk.
The Facebook group, “We are going on a bear hunt – NZ” was created on 23 March, inspired by a similar initiative being undertaken overseas. Annalee Scott, from Hamilton, established the group hoping “to help entertain our little ones (& not so little ones too) while we are all dealing with being in self-isolation.” At the time of writing, the group has over 20,000 members and has inspired and recorded numerous teddy bear related adventures. As well as providing children and the young at heart with the entertainment of searching for and discovering bears when they are out walking, this initiative has also provided a significant platform for connecting.
At its most basic level, some measure of connection occurs as people place their bears in windows, and the neighbours, friends, and strangers who walk past their homes notice them. However, the connection does not stop there. Some bears (or perhaps their owners) share pictures of their adventures on the Facebook page. While this might encourage locals to visit to see what antics the bears are enjoying today, others, regardless of where they are in the world, can also enjoy the images and the imagination behind them. Further, Facebook provides a platform for likes, comments, and shares. Posts attracts messages of affirmation and appreciation, as well as GIFs sending love and hugs.
Significantly, rather than merely being about consumption, this initiative requires participation. The Great New Zealand Bear Hunt is not something that Annalee could have done alone. It requires people like Mary, Susan, and Deb who stage and post adventures. It is enhanced by spouses and grandparents who build, paint, and video. It is strengthened by people like Lissie who “was really gutted that [she] had nowhere to put a bear for the bear hunt because [her] house is on the back property.” So, she painted “a bear painting to put on [her] letterbox!”
Each of these examplesserves as a helpful reminder to the church that, often, people do not simply want to consume the services that we offer them. Rather, many people want to participate by being involved in creating their own “content” as well as by sharing and affirming others’ initiatives. How can churches invite and encourage active participation in their online worship?
Participation at the time of broadcast can occur by inviting participants to share greetings, questions, comments, or prayer requests via chat, text, or social media. One pre-recorded online service I attended featured different people reading the Scriptures and sharing a children’s talk. Other services invite people to report back on activities that they engaged in with their bubble-mates. Obviously, there are technological and congregation-size constraints at play here, but whatever the congregation size, there are ways that those taking part in the service can be encouraged to do more than passively consume.
One of the apparent joys for people engaging in the Bear Hunt is interacting with one another, by liking, commenting on, and sharing posts. Similarly, research in relation to worship in the online space suggests that worshippers want to “build relationships with people” that they would not otherwise be able to connect with. Such a building of relationships requires opportunities for interaction, whether that occurs as the service unfolds, beforehand or afterwards, and/or at another time; for example, in online small groups. While the opportunity for such interaction is always important, it has become even more crucial today in order to ensure that physical distancing does not become social isolation.
Last year I volunteered for a research project that required me to participate in workout training three times a week. I began the programme rather unfit and stuck at it, more for the sake of the research than for my own wellbeing. My fitness improved, and when the project ended, I missed participating. Once we entered lockdown, the researcher offered to run online sessions, and twice a week, seven to twelve of us Zoom in to participate. Of course, this is one of numerous examples of health and fitness options available online. It is significant here for three main reasons: first, the sound quality was initially appalling. We literally could not hear the music for much of the time. Secondly, it did not matter, because the training was led by someone whom we like and trust, and the names on the screen—those participating with us—were familiar. They had shared our struggle to get fit. This was a community that we were glad to belong to, that we valued, and as a result, we chose to participate in the training, despite the technological challenges. Thirdly, the woman leading the classes is not superhumanly fit, and as a result I accept that her encouragement to persevere is based on honest, real-world expectations.
There are encouragements for the church in this. Those responsible for online church services can be encouraged that the technology is not all that matters. For me, the authenticity of the instructor and the accountability of gathering synchronously were crucial, and preferable to the more professional options that I could have participated in. I was prepared to tolerate technological challenges, because of the strong relational connectedness that I experienced. I enjoyed working out with the other participants. I was confident that the instructor cared about my wellbeing. This suggests that online “services” need to be accompanied by clear, ideally personal, invitations to participate, as well as with genuine, generous interest, and caregiving.
On the Friday before lockdown, a friend and I started a Facebook group that sought to provide a space for people to connect, in order to enhance their personal wellbeing. We were already becoming overwhelmed by the COVID-19 news clogging our Facebook feeds, and longed to see signs of goodness and hope. We suspected that we were not alone in that desire. (I was also curious to know where God was at work, and wondered if a way of discerning that was by looking for good things: fruits of the Spirit.) Inspired by the experience with my friend in New York, we encouraged those who joined the group to “share thoughts, photos, videos that point to goodness! Use the tags inspired by MHF 5 ways: #connect #give #notice #move #learn.”
It quickly became apparent that #notice was my most common theme, as I began to share pictures and stories of good things that I had observed. There was also honesty as struggles and challenges were acknowledged: I noticed and named my feelings, both good and bad. In this entirely online space, we encouraged one another, reconnected with old friends, and shared experiences with strangers. Five hundred people joined the group in the first week. Currently there are more than 800 members.
The group has required moderation. As administrators, we model honesty and openness. We comment on posts, seeking to draw out the significance that may not have been immediately obvious to readers. We encourage people to name the links between their experiences and observations and the goodness they see around them, as well as the Five Ways.
Overall, the Facebook group has been a platform where friends and strangers can share kindness and goodness. In that goodness and kindness, God is at work. Some participants point to the activity of God in the posts that they share. Others do not. As Christians, however, we can celebrate the goodness of God in the world, regardless of whether that is named overtly, or even noticed by others. Simple questions, for example, about what brings joy, can open a space for wonder and appreciation. Such questions can readily be employed in the context of a church community, whether during an online church service, or via an online repository.
We have all learned much over the past few weeks—from how to access Zoom, to new recipes, and to insights about epidemiology and public health. Some have relished opportunities to learn new skills or hobbies. Others have been thrust into learning essential for their work. Some learning has been directly related to wellbeing because the lessons learnt are essential for navigating our current circumstances. Some learning may increase fear and anxiety, and here churches can help ensure that people have the necessary skills and guidance to read discerningly, as well as to moderate their consumption of news.
This is a time when hyper-productivity is often unrealistically valued, and learning opportunities and requirements abound. I wonder if the church can most helpfully contribute by modelling and managing reasonable personal expectations around learning and output.
COVID-19 has resulted in an outpouring of generosity as people share their gifts, talents, and resources with friends and strangers. One example is the way that authors have recorded readings of their books, and illustrators have offered free art classes. One such artist, Trisha Zemp, stated: “I am hoping that by offering this resource, it can distill [sic] some of the worry that many of us are feeling. (And keep kiddos busy with creative play!).” Significant here is the way that Trisha’s generosity resulted in an increase in her own wellbeing: “I feel like my heart is exploding today because of all your kindness. Thank you for making this world an amazing place.”
Once again, this groundswell of giving has pointed to the priority of interpersonal connections, as well as to kindness and goodness. People responded, thanked, acknowledged, and participated. This example also reminds Christians that we do not have a monopoly on giving, and that people want to be contributors in offering good things to others, and not just recipients. Giving helps provide purpose, connection, and a sense that they are “part of something larger than themselves.”
Such generosity is not unusual in times of difficulty. In her 2009 book, Rebecca Solnit tells stories of kindness and generosity following earthquakes, hurricanes and terror attacks. She argues that “extraordinary communities … arise in disaster.” From this, churches can be reminded that we can hope and contribute towards the building of such communities, participating with others who are also giving their time, skills and resources.
A Note on Joy, and Pain
There is evidence of joy in many of the stories recounted above. The teddy bear hunt, for example, is fun. Stories of laughter are shared in Solnit’s book. Joy, including in adversity, is a central tenet of the Christian faith. In fact, Christianity has been called “the religion of joy.” This joy transcends our human experiences and even our interpersonal connections (good as those are) and points us towards God.
At the same time, this joy is not “an escape from sorrow or a turning away from pain.” Rather, joy and pain are interrelated. When they are seen as such, fear is lessened. Seeing joy and pain as intertwined helps makes sense of our current context and provides pastoral caregivers with a means to navigate the complexity of grief, loss and uncertainty that we are all facing on a daily basis.
This article has explored how the Five Ways to Wellbeing have been expressed during the COVID-19 pandemic, pointing particularly to the importance of interpersonal connections in each of the examples. For each, I have noted implications for Christian worship and/or pastoral care. I have pointed to evidence of joy in some of the stories told and invited us to see joy and pain as intertwined in our human experience.
These are unprecedented times, and, at all levels of society, we are adapting to the changing situation as quickly as we are able. It is certainly a time to be kind to ourselves and others. It is also an opportunity to participate with God in the Missio Dei, to recognise the goodness that is around us, and to get involved. The Five Ways, particularly when viewed in terms of interpersonal connections, provide a framework for wellbeing that churches can be attentive to in their gatherings and pastoral care.
Lynne Taylor is originally from Christchurch and now lives in Dunedin with her husband, Steve, and one of their two young-adult daughters (who hadn’t factored in a lockdown when she moved home!). As the Jack Somerville Lecturer in Pastoral Theology (University of Otago), Lynne researches and teaches in the areas of chaplaincy studies, pastoral care, and contemporary faith formation. Prior to (and in conjunction with) her academic role, she has worked and volunteered in pastoral ministry, and engaged in congregational and denominational research. Her PhD explored why previously unchurched Australians are becoming Christians today. She longs to see people flourish.
 Edwin Heathcote, "Rem Koolhaas’s Countryside at the Guggenheim Remakes Rural Life," Financial Times 21 February 2020. https://www.ft.com/content/fc136dba-530b-11ea-90ad-25e377c0ee1f
 Lisa Mackay, Victoria Egli, Laura-Jane Booker and Kate Prendergast, "New Zealand’s Engagement with the Five Ways to Wellbeing: Evidence from a Large Cross-Sectional Survey," Kōtuitui: New Zealand Journal of Social Sciences Online (2019): 2. https://doi.org/10.1080/1177083X.2019.1603165
 Jody Aked, Nic Marks, Corrina Cordon and Sam Thompson, "Five Ways to Well-Being: A Report Presented to the Foresight Project on Communicating the Evidence Base for Improving People’s Well-Being."NEF (2008).
 Ibid., 1.
 Ibid., 2.
 In = inward to the self; Out = outward beyond self to others, world or God.
 Heidi Campbell, Exploring Religious Community Online: We Are One in the Network (New York: Peter Lang, 2005), 25.
 https://www.facebook.com/groups/Wearegoingonabearhuntnz/ (From Announcement, updated 18/4/2020)
 Lynne Taylor and Naomi Nash, "Learning from Innovation: Sharing Learning from Innovative Projects within the Uniting Church."Uniting Mission and Education (2018): 10–12.
 Heidi Campbell, "How to Build Community While Worshipping Online," The Conversation, 16 April 2020 https://theconversation.com/how-to-build-community-while-worshipping-online-134977
 Ibid. It is worth noting that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Campbell’s extensive research has been on religious communities that chose to operate online. Further research is required on the extent to which the characteristics she identified apply when churches find themselves forced online. This has begun to be offered in her edited volume: Heidi Campbell (Ed.), The Distanced Church: Reflections on Doing Church Online (Digital Religion Publications: Network for New Media, Religion & Digital Culture Studies. Available at http://hdl.handle.net/1969.1/187891
 Kirsteen Kim, Joining in with the Spirit: Connecting World Church and Local Mission (London: Epworth Press, 2010), 36.
 From “About this group” description. Accessed 18/4/2020.
 Deborah Stone, The Samaritan's Dilemma: Should Government Help Your Neighbor? (Bold Type Books, 2008), 180. Cited in Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster (New York: Penguin, 2009), 197.
 Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell.
 Jürgen Moltmann, "Christianity: A Religion of Joy," in Joy and Human Flourishing: Essays on Theology, Culture, and the Good Life, ed. Miroslav Volf and Justin E Crisp (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015).
 Charles Mathewes, "Toward a Theology of Joy," ibid., 65; Mary Clark Moschella, "Calling and Compassion: Elements of Joy in Lived Practices of Care," ibid., 99.
 Moschella, "Calling and Compassion," 102.
 Ibid. Also, see Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell, 16.