How to Use Self-Discovery to Navigate These Pandemical Times

Nothing right now feels “normal.” Speaking for myself, six seven months into Covid-19 it remains disorienting that my typical hobbies, routines, and routes remain inaccessible to me. This is the longest I’ve gone in my working life without boarding an airplane (and related to that, probably also eating a delicious Biscoff cookie. Yes, I know you can get them at home but they taste best at 30,000 feet). Very early in the pandemic I realized I was going to have to be thoughtful about shaping my experiences if I wanted to make it through in good mental and emotional condition.

Fortunately I do this kind of thing for a living so I had a place to start. I saw the problem as zooming out to the right level of abstraction about what makes me tick so I could zoom back in again on how to experience a life that fits that. The things I love to do–traveling (and planning travel), running in new places, eating out and seeing friends–make me happy because they fit some essential needs I have. If I could capture the 10,000 foot view of those needs, then I’d be able to look at the activities available to me in the pandemic and cobble together a new pattern of being that helped me feel like myself again.

A screenshot of the Values in Action Survey site describing what a character strength isI turned to a tool called the Values in Action (VIA) Character Strengths survey, which was developed by Marty Seligman and Chris Peterson and is now administered by the VIA Institute on Character (it’s also incorporated into the Happify app). I first learned about the Character Strengths Survey in grad school, when Chris Peterson was one of my mentors. The survey takes about 10 minutes to complete and yields a set of your top character strengths–the things that are uniquely positive about you.

As I was reminded in taking the survey this year, three of my top character strengths are love of learning, bravery, and curiosity. For each character strength, the VIA Institute provides a horoscope-esque description of how it might show up in your behavior and disposition. This is what they say about love of learning:

Love of learning means a passion for learning, a desire to learn just for learning’s sake. In fact, curiosity and love of learning are among the most closely related strengths in the VIA Classification. They can still be distinguished though. While curiosity is the motivating force that leads you to seek out new information, love of learning refers to the desire to hold on to and deepen that information. The curious person is motivated by the pursuit of knowledge; the person who loves learning is motivated by the expansion of their fund of knowledge. Where curiosity is often associated with a great deal of energy and a drive to gather information, the lover of learning is often more contemplative. Love of learning describes the way in which a person engages new information and skills.

It makes total sense to me that this would be one of my strengths. I mean, look at those hobbies I mentioned: Traveling, exploring by running, eating different foods, seeing friends. They all have a common element of encountering newness. With that in mind, I looked for ways to seek newness in a Covid-constrained world. Three specific things I’ve incorporated to satisfy my love of learning are:

    • Making my own craft cocktails. Previously I would drink very simple things if I had alcohol at home, and splurge on the more complicated concoctions when I was out. Now that the only bar where I drink is Chez Bucher, I’ve taught myself to make some still simple, but increasingly complicated cocktails. My mai tai is pretty good (this is the simple recipe I use, and this is a more complicated one). I’ve got a mezcal margarita that’s incredible. There’s also still lots of room to upskill.
    • Finding new running routes. My favorite places to run are everyone’s favorite places to run because they are beautiful. I’ve made it my mission to uncover the hidden gems nearby instead. Some of my route-finding attempts have been grim but I’ve also uncovered several lovely runs really close to home that I had no idea existed!
    • Cooking things I don’t normally make. Certain meals were restaurant meals for me. Take nachos. They are not hard to make, but they’re fussy enough that I’d rather have them at a restaurant. Turns out takeout nachos are not worth it, so I finally caved and made my own. With the mindset of learning and growth, it was actually kind of fun, and I really enjoyed eating them.
Image shows a river at low tide with grass and rocks on the shore and ducks and seagulls grazing
This tidal area is about a mile from my home. I had no idea!

I can’t pretend that I don’t miss my old life or that these new endeavors are a perfect substitute for what’s gone. But I can say that mindfully reorienting myself and seeking out experiences that reinforce my core sense of self has been helpful. My VIA survey results have been a touchstone I’ve gone back to several times when I feel myself faltering or really needing direction. It’s easy enough to complete. I encourage you to give it a try and see how it can help you think differently about navigating tough times!