Lessons learned from lockdown

When we entered the Covid-19 lockdown on March 25, many New Zealanders threw themselves into new hobbies. New research from the University of Auckland reveals why, and raises the question of whether we’re likely to maintain these pursuits in post-lockdown life, writes Leanne Comer.

Sourdough bread. Spanish lessons. Online yoga classes. Within days of entering the Covid-19 lockdown, Facebook and Instagram were bombarded with images of crusty loaves and posts about everything from cycling to sewing. Everyone, it seemed, had a fabulous new hobby, skill or pastime that they were keen to share with the world.

But why did New Zealanders react to lockdown in this way?

Professor Joe Bulbulia from the University of Auckland is fascinated by this question. Bulbulia is one of four academics on the Central Management Team of the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study, a 20-year longitudinal study involving over 60,000 New Zealanders. He has just finished a study of the dynamics of mental health during lockdown and was surprised at what it revealed.

“We didn’t see a rise in depression,” he says. “We found slight increases in nervousness. There was an uptick in hopelessness but then feelings of worthlessness went up by an enormous factor.”

According to Bulbulia, similar feelings of worthlessness are evident in studies of unemployment, suggesting that for many their sense of value is strongly related to the work that they do. He believes that this might explain why, when temporarily freed from their usual work routines and responsibilities, some people were inspired to learn a new skill or take up a hobby.

“I do think it’s related to that sense of worth,” he says. “The great thing about this particular natural experiment is that people weren’t being monitored in the way that they ordinarily are. They could have just napped all day long if they wanted. But to the extent that we are given that scope, after a little while we settle into routines that are self-enhancing.”

Many of those who started a new hobby during lockdown opted to learn a traditional, domestic craft or skill such as baking bread, knitting or sewing. Jennifer Hobbs was one of those who responded in this way.

Hobbs, 49, spent lockdown alone in her home in Onehunga, Auckland. She admits that as the weeks went by, she began to struggle with feelings of isolation and boredom.

“I started to run out of things to do and I ended up really not liking it for the last couple of weeks. It became very tedious and very lonely,” she says.

Hobbs decided to try her hand at quilting. She started what she hopes will be her first patchwork quilt, using her now adult son’s baby clothes.

As her mother and a friend are both experienced quilters, Hobbs turned to them for advice about the project, as well as using online resources to help her design the quilt. She worked on the project for a couple of hours, three or four times a week throughout lockdown, and was surprised by how time-consuming the process was.

“It took ages! By the time I’d cut it out and then worked out the pattern and colours and moved it all around, it took a surprisingly long time to sew it all together.”

Pru Spencer, 37, also got creative during lockdown. Spencer, a hard materials technology teacher, spent lockdown with three flat mates in Blockhouse Bay, Auckland. She admits that she loved the experience, and took the opportunity to teach herself a new skill that has developed into an exciting project.

Like other teachers around the country, Spencer was faced with the challenge of online teaching when the country went into lockdown and schools were closed. At the same time, she felt an urge to exercise her creativity.

With these twin goals in mind, Spencer decided to teach herself how to use iMovie, and then used the app to create three short films for her students that could also be shared to a wider audience on YouTube. Each film is of 30-40 minutes duration and is based on an interview with one individual who discusses his or her creative process.

Learning how to use iMovie and edit the interviews was painstaking and challenging, says Spencer. She relied heavily on YouTube and learned as she went along. Lockdown provided her with the time she needed to master the technology, complete the interviews and edit the films.

“It took forever! I would never have had the time to do that if it weren’t for the lockdown.”

Spencer says that she learned a lot from the project, including some unexpected things about herself.

“I found out that I really quite enjoy interviewing people. And I love seeing what people can do.”

For Donna Cobban, 51, the lockdown provided an opportunity to establish a regular exercise routine. Cobban admits that she faced the prospect of lockdown with some trepidation. As sole parent to a 12-year-old son, she was anxious about feeling isolated and stressed in her bubble of two.

To her surprise, she enjoyed the lockdown experience.

“There was no sense of rush in the morning, no school lunches to make, an extra hour to sleep, more quality time with my son and just a general slowing down of everything.”

She decided to work on her physical strength and flexibility, which had deteriorated in recent years.

“I used to have a lot of upper body strength because I worked in the rock and roll industry, in lighting, so I used to lift very heavy pieces of equipment and I just wanted to get that strength back.”

Cobban started an online exercise programme using resistance bands to build strength and stretching exercises to enhance flexibility. She exercised for an hour every morning throughout lockdown and was able to maintain the routine without much difficulty.

But how likely is it that the hobbies and projects started in lockdown will be maintained now that we’ve returned to work and play?

Bulbulia acknowledges that this will be a challenge for many people. For those who are lucky enough to have returned to full-time employment, he says, the nature and expectations of work in 21st century New Zealand will make it difficult.

“Work now is very hard. There are very substantial demands on people. We’ve seen that happen over the course of the last 20 years.”

He says that the lockdown highlighted the importance of enabling people to feel valuable and worthwhile.

“It’s an important lesson for society that we want to allow people to have the scope to have a sense of worth. It’s really quite a fundamental benefit to have a sense of life that is one of investing in progress and self-worth.”

If the experiences of Hobbs, Spencer and Cobban are any indication, Bulbulia may well be right. Each of them has now returned to their usual workplace and re-established their pre-lockdown routines. So, have their newfound hobbies and practices survived the transition?

Hobbs has not worked on her quilt since lockdown ended. However, she hopes to finish the quilt and wants to make more of them in the future.

“I’ll pull it out again in the holidays,” she says.  “I’ll potter away at this one for a while and then I’ll decide on my next one. They’re fun to do.”

Spencer is keen to continue with her film project, but says that it is on hold. Now back in the classroom, she doesn’t have any time to dedicate to filming and editing at the moment. She intends to work on it when she is less busy, likely during school holidays.

“I’ve started contacting people on Instagram and asking them if I could interview them. I want to keep going. I’d like to make a series of 20,” she says.

Since returning to her usual busy schedule, Cobban has struggled to maintain her exercise programme.

“I managed to maintain it for the first three weeks of returning to normal life. Then as things got busier and busier, I let more and more of it go until it was reduced to ten minutes of stretching exercises and more recently there has been very little done at all,” she says.

Cobban feels frustrated that she hasn’t been able to stick to her exercise regimen. 

“I’m disappointed that I live a life that is so draining, that I have so little time for myself. The demands of life are such that I end up putting myself at the back of the queue.”

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