COVID-19 had been around only a few weeks when I wrote a blog post about a life-balance model that was created by my wife, Margie. When she was studying research about peak periods of happiness in people and also the effect of extreme stress on long-term health, she learned researchers had identified a set of almost identical elements for both groups. She created a simple model—PACT—that addresses both life balance and stress reduction. Margie and I have taught these concepts for many years and we find it helps people manage the day-to-day demands of a busy life as well as unexpected stress-inducing situations.
If you missed reading the blog post I’m referring to, I hope you’ll learn all about the PACT model here. And if you did read that blog post, I want to follow up with you. It’s been nine months and you may be in a very different place today, in many areas of your life, from where you were last April. I’d love to show you how to prevent—or continue to prevent—stress from affecting your body and life negatively.
The PACT Model
The acronym P.A.C.T. represents four elements that can create both happiness and stress resistance in our lives: Perspective, Autonomy, Connectedness, and Tone.
The first element that can create happiness and stress resistance is perspective—a picture of where you’ve been and where you’re going that sets the context for today. When there’s a major shift in our lives—job loss, death of a loved one, etc., our perspective will drop. And now we know COVID is one of those major shifts. Almost everyone’s life has been affected by COVID in one way or another, and we have all experienced our perspective declining, a little or a lot. Over time, many people have found this low period to be an opportunity for personal growth—but others aren’t there yet.
Viktor Frankl, a World War II concentration camp survivor who wrote the book Man’s Search for Meaning, observed during his imprisonment that the people who were able to keep going were the ones who had a purpose they could hang on to—a great love they wanted to return to, work they wanted to finish, a strong spiritual direction, or even a strong desire to help others through their common experience. We can think in terms of personal or professional goals we want to achieve, important projects we don’t need to put off any longer, values we want our lives to reflect, or living each day to the fullest extent possible, even with COVID restrictions.
How about you? Have you regained your perspective or will it take some help? We all went through a lot together in 2020. Perhaps we can accept this difficult situation for what it is while also believing that better times are ahead. And we can step into that reality together, as well.
The next element that contributes to high life satisfaction and high resistance to stress is autonomy. Autonomy is a feeling of having control over your own life—a clear sense of your identity, the freedom to make your own choices, seeing your daily activities as moving you toward your long- and short-range goals. I know. Right now this is a long shot, to put it mildly.
Although COVID still has most of us feeling that we are anything but in control of our lives, we always have some autonomy. For instance, we can choose how we react to our current situation.
I’m convinced it’s easier to get through hard times if you also focus on good things that are happening around you. We have the ability to develop our skills—for example, taking a course online or learning how to meditate—to help us control where our thoughts go. And we can choose how to spend our extra time—open a good book, try a new recipe, catch up on movies or a series we haven’t seen, or play a game with the kids.
To me, the most important thing is being intentional about which messages we pay the most attention to. Are you obsessed by news reports that claim things are awful and life will never be the same? Or do you look for the articles that suggest the pandemic is the beginning of a new era of neighbors taking care of one another, parents and children spending more time together than ever before, and people around the globe working together to build a positive future?
How are you doing on autonomy? Are you regularly choosing how you respond to things? Don’t forget the story about the two wolves battling inside you—one evil and one good. Which one wins? The one you feed.
The third element is connectedness. People who report high connectedness have positive relationships with friends, family, and coworkers. You can have a highly connected experience taking a walk in nature or watching a sunset because it feels good. You can also feel highly connected having a cup of coffee on a video call with a friend or sitting in bed at night cuddled up to someone you love.
Low connectedness is when you feel like you aren’t an integral part of your environment—whether it be at home, at work, or in your community. Because of COVID, many folks have been physically isolated longer than ever before in their lives. Social get-togethers are rare or nonexistent. Work teams meet virtually. Loved ones living in different locations have to visit each other through Zoom or video calls instead of in person. And I don’t know about you, but I really miss hugging people!
Staying connected doesn’t have to be difficult, though. Maintaining your relationships can enhance the feeling of overall well-being and balance. Keeping in touch with colleagues at work, even through email or text, can improve morale and performance on both sides. Spend the first few minutes of work Zoom meetings taking stock of how everyone is doing—some teams even include regular visits from dogs, cats, kids, or babies! And while spending more time at home with your family at first seemed to be a major work disruption, many have settled into a nice routine and discovered a stronger feeling of family unity than they had before.
How are you doing on Connectedness? If you feel isolated and reaching out to people doesn’t come natural to you, jump out of your comfort zone and just call that friend you haven’t heard from in a while. I do this a lot—and most of the time people are happy to hear from me. You know why? Because they are feeling isolated, too.
The fourth element in the PACT model is tone. This is how you feel about yourself physically. It includes the way you present yourself, your health and energy level, and your sense of fitness—even the way you’re dressed. People with high tone generally have a high energy level, average weight, and good nutrition, and are comfortable with their physical appearance.
For people who have been working from home all these months, it’s pretty easy to stay in pajamas until noon or be careless about how much we eat. Some people who used to go to the gym don’t bother to work out at home. But I also know folks who have made huge improvements in their health because they have been at home.
How about you? How is your tone? Are you the relaxed type who has become a bit of a hermit and rarely wears anything but sweats or ventures outside? Or are you a disciplined kind of person who wakes up at your normal time, showers and combs your hair, and wears stylish work clothes each day because you want to look your best for those Zoom meetings? Maybe you’re in between, like most of us. It’s all okay—but remember, if you clean yourself up a bit, it may help you feel better.
Note: If your perspective, autonomy, and connectedness aren’t as high as you would like these days, focus on your tone. When you take a walk, you can work on perspective. When you make healthy choices, you’ll feel better and realize you are in control of your health. People who feel good about themselves are more likely to reach out to others—and that helps with connectedness. So you see, starting with tone helps the other three stress-reducing elements in the PACT model fall into place.
Following the PACT model during this upside-down season, especially if you personalize the steps to your own preferences, will help you. When you allow perspective, autonomy, connectedness, and tone into your daily life, happiness will show up more often, stress will naturally lose its grip, and you will find yourself enjoying life again. Take care and stay safe! Have an im-PACT-ful day!