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Isolation during pandemic caused people to think less about future, other people

Researchers found that, at the outset of the pandemic, as a result of being cooped up at home, people thought less about the future and other people. Photo by Pixabay/CC
Researchers found that, at the outset of the pandemic, as a result of being cooped up at home, people thought less about the future and other people. Photo by Pixabay/CC

Sept. 27 (UPI) -- "Live in the present," has become a fashionable mantra for the self-help generation, but research has shown thinking about the future has mental health benefits.

Unfortunately, a new survey -- published Monday in the journal PNAS -- suggests people thought a lot less about the future and other people during the lockdown.

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At the outset of the pandemic, in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, people in Europe and North America were locked down, kids were made to stay home from school and many adults worked from home.

Researchers in Britain took the opportunity to see how the lockdown was affecting people's thoughts.

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For a week, psychology researchers texted study participants at random times throughout the day and asked them about what they were thinking about.

When the research compared people's responses to the findings from similar datasets collected before the pandemic, they found people were less often thinking about the future and other people.

"Normally, people spend a lot of time thinking about other people and planning for the future in their daily lives," lead author Brontë McKeown, a doctoral student in psychology at the University of York, said in a press release.

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"We found that both of these thought patterns were disrupted during lockdown. We found that future thinking was reduced overall during lockdown, and only seemed to occur at pre-lockdown levels when people were actively engaged in work," McKeown said.

Several previous studies have documented the pandemic's negative mental health impacts. Some of those impacts, the latest research suggests, may be explained by shifts in thinking patterns brought on by isolation.

"People were also alone a lot more during lockdown," McKeown said. "And when they were alone, they tended to think about other people less than before lockdown."

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"But on the rare occasions when people were able to interact with others, they thought more about other people than before lockdown," McKeown said.

Though it is said that "distance makes the heart grow fonder," the new research shows how much people think about other people depends on how often they interact with others -- social interaction begets more social thoughts.

"Our findings are exciting because they show how important our external environment and social interactions are for shaping what is going on internally and suggest that changing our external world could be one way of changing the (mal)adaptive thought patterns that make up so much of our waking lives," said Giulia Poerio, co-author and a lecturer in psychology at the University of Essex.

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According to the study's authors, the findings are a reminder of the importance people's social and working lives play in their thinking patterns and mental health.

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