Searching For Silver Linings In The Covid-19 Pandemic

Stanford University's Juan Antonio Lossio-Ventura discusses his new research that searches for glimmers of hope in the Covid-19 crisis.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | August 20, 2021

A new study forthcoming in Frontiers in Psychology shines light on some of the pandemic's unforeseen silver linings — such as a newfound appreciation for working from home, finding solace in a slower pace of life, and working closely with community members to achieve a common goal.

I recently spoke with Juan Antonio Lossio-Ventura, the lead author of the research, to discuss his findings. Here is a summary of our conversation.  

What inspired you to investigate the topic of Covid-19's "silver linings" and what did you find?

We have witnessed the unprecedented challenges the coronavirus crisis has presented for the human well-being. Indeed, according to the American Psychological Association (APA) people have experienced a rise of depression and acute stress disorder. Public health organizations such as World Health Organization highlighted the need to provide psychosocial support to individuals struggling with their mental health during and after the pandemic.

Therefore, our inter-institutional research collaboration team from Stanford University (Juan Antonio Lossio-Ventura, Angela Lee, Jeffrey Hancock, and Eleni Linos) and Harvard University (Natalia Linos) was interested in providing relevant information about silver linings associated with the Covid-19 crisis to consider positive societal changes caused by the pandemic. Thus, the main goal of our study was to identify existing sources of strength and hope (silver linings) that have helped people persevere during the pandemic.

We found that although people's emotions were impacted by Covid-19 and distressing events from the year, people were able to find sources of positive emotion in their lives. People found strength and hope in having quality time with loved ones, seeing local and global communities coming together, feeling the pace of life "slow down," enjoying the benefits of working from home, appreciating the benefits of technology use, and viewing the pandemic as an impetus for positive societal changes, particularly improved health literacy and improvements to the environment.

Can you talk a little bit about your methodological approach?

The Linos Lab from Stanford University launched an online survey on three social media platforms (Twitter, Facebook, and Nextdoor) to identify the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on participants' lives. The survey included several questions including demographics. In this study, we focused on the evaluation of free-text responses to the question "Although this is a challenging time, can you tell us about any positive effects or 'silver linings' you have experienced during this crisis?".

We then used a mixed-method approach that included natural language processing (sentiment analysis and topic modeling), along with a manual content analysis of a subset of the qualitative data to identify these protective factors. Sentiment analysis enabled us to measure the intensity of responses related to silver lining topics in the early stages of the pandemic. Topic modeling allowed us to identify the types of silver linings participants experienced. In-depth manual content analysis is often used to identify more granular patterns in text responses.

Natural language processing seems to be becoming a hot research area. Could you mention a few other key discoveries that have come from this methodology?

Indeed, NLP for health and biomedicine has been increasingly recognized over recent years and has led to transformative advances. NLP can learn features from a large volume of data, and then use the obtained insights to assist clinical practice. NLP can also assist physicians by providing up-to-date medical information from scientific publications, textbooks, and clinical practices to inform proper patient care.

Similar NLP approaches have also been used to explore people's thoughts and feelings during crises by processing patterns in language use at scale — an affordance that may be particularly valuable during rapidly evolving situations such as the Covid-19 pandemic.

Our NLP methodology also allowed to discover entities such as persons, events, or places, and a sentiment attributed to each one. For instance, most of the responses talking about the "US 2020 elections" or the "murder of George Floyd" were associated with a low sentiment score. On the other side, emotions in responses were more positive following hopeful events such as the announcement of the creation and "testing phases of Covid-19 vaccines." Moreover, in general, our study suggested that women tend to slightly be more positive than men and they usually reacted to topics related to kids, followed by parents and partners.

What might individuals learn from your research to better prepare themselves to manage the stress of the pandemic?

Our study suggests that reflecting on silver linings might help people better recognize the external protective factors in their lives, such as having strong relationships with family or friends, or their own internal protective factors, such as having dispositional mindfulness or practicing gratitude. As a result, each individual would be better positioned to take advantage of these resources.

What are the policy implications of your research? Should governments be doing more to protect citizens' mental health during this uncertain time?

It became very clear that addressing the full impact of the pandemic requires the implementation of public health policy to protect people's mental health. Our work might help governments understand how people find solace in times of crisis, and to consider how they can carry forward positive societal changes caused by the pandemic into a post-Covid world.

Moreover, our study highlighted the sources of hope that have helped people weather the psychological toll of Covid-19 and this may inform public health policy to improve society's resilience to the distress of this pandemic and future health crises.

Are you planning any follow-up research on this topic?

As future work, we planned to evaluate additional datasets of large volume coming from social networking sites such as Twitter and Reddit to identify additional silver linings to those identified in this study. In addition, we would like to study to investigate different healthcare questions raised during this pandemic, such as:

  • What other Covid-19 topics are most often discussed in tweets and Reddit posts?
  • What kinds of conversations are occurring between healthcare providers and general users during Covid-19.