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08 August 2022

VR Can Improve Mental Health at Home and at Work

By Bobby Carlton

There is no question about it. The COVID-19 pandemic changed everything for us. This includes our personal and professional life. Though we have started to see some normalcy in our day-to-day lives, we are seeing new concerns such as an evolving COVID virus and monkeypox, which is making people and businesses rethink how we socialize with our family, friends and the people we work with.

However a published research paper shows that people who use VR to hang out with friends through socialVR platforms, attended a virtual concert, played games, work in a VR environment, or “visited” other parts of the world, were actually really happy!

They socialized with friends and family, and they connected with work colleagues. There is a sense of normalcy inside of VR that isn’t restricted with things such as travel limitations or having to worry about things such as COVID or monkeypox.

As the COVID pandemic completely disrupted and changed our lives, we found ourselves unable to participate in things that made sense to our identity. You no longer had that foundation of autobiographical memory, which is your memories of your own history. It sounds a little sciency and complex, but your memories actually play a role in your current happiness, and without them your days kind of blend into each other leaving you with this feeling of emptiness. 

This also includes your work memories. Collaborating with co-workers, approached training, and even having “water cooler” talk.

Image from Meta

So yes, the quarantine has created a long lasting impact and it’s definitely making you feel pretty burned out, even in today’s world.

Italian researchers worked with 400 participants over a three month period. Users were encouraged to view 360 photos and videos of other countries, visit virtual gardens, beaches, encouraged them to spend time with other VR users in platforms such as VRChat or Mozilla Hubs, work together, and even had users jump into VR to create a safe and comfortable personal bubble to reflect and be alone, a place referred to as the “Secret Garden.” 

Participants were then interviewed and researchers found them to be happier. They were much more engaging and felt better and more confident about their work.

During an interview with CNBC Make It, Professor Giuseppe Riva Ph.D., the author of the report and a professor of general psychology at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, said “We define who we are through the memory of people and events that occurred within the different places we frequent (home, events, work).

Riva and his team told participants to use VR anytime during the day. Morning, afternoon, before bed or anytime they felt anxious due to the lack of social activities. There were no restrictions. Use VR in the same way you’d text a friend or a co-worker.

Image from HTC Vive

The end results showed that people felt calm and connected during the height of the pandemic. They were happy. They had that sense of autobiographical memory that helped connect them with what makes them happy, and that this approach still works today, even without a global pandemic.

With more and more businesses moving to remote work or a blended work environment, using a digital twin or a metaverse portal to connect workers helps create happy employees. It creates an autobiographical work memory, which is really important for team collaboration and team moral. VR helps get people out of video calls and into something more meaningful.

As we start to see more and more positive benefits of VR, we’re starting to see VR adoption take hold on consumers and businesses in many industries.

But others are experiencing that true happiness from VR and not because they are gaining from it monetarily. They’re happy because it’s giving them a way to spend time with friends and escape the confinement of their homes. The metaverse is opening new opportunities for people to connect throughout the day and this includes workhours.

One VR user talked about why being in VR makes them happy, saying, “I work from home and being at home alone all day sucks. I wake up, work in my living room for 8 hours and then that’s it. I’ve never left my home. I live in a rural place so I don’t have a downtown I can visit. Going to work is my social time!” the individual goes on to say, “But once I put on my headset, I’m able to leave my house and hang out with the people I work with or people that I’ve made in virtual reality. I know I’m not actually leaving my house, but it feels like I do. I get to talk with people and socialize, and it makes me really happy to have that connection. It’s honestly saved me from going crazy. There have definitely been times when I’m really bummed out, but once I get into VR, I’m happy to see people I know.”

Image from USC Institute for Creative Technologies

During an interview with CNBC, Skip Rizzo, Ph.D., Director of Medical VR at the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California talked about how an immersive VR simulation could be “emotionally evocative,” and explains that VR gives you the tools to develop your own relaxation strategies to cope with the stress of COVID-19 anxiety or any stressful situation. It gives you a portal to escapism. 

Through Riva’s research, he and his team have suggested the following VR user guide that you can use to help you stay happy. 

  • Use VR two or more times a day every week for work meeting or to socialize. Jump into VR whenever you feel a little anxiety. Play a game or meet up with a friend. Riva also suggests having a “Secret Garden” as a safe haven to help reduce emotional or work stress.
  • Be creative with your VR space. Whether it’s to socialize or for work. Doing things together in VR can help reconstruct that sense of community that makes us happy and helps reduce stress.
Image by FS Studio

Use VR to reflect on your identity and future goals. Jump into your “Secret Garden” to think of your family, friends, or maybe you just want to clear your mind. Or use the space as a way to work out a work problem. Of course, be social!

Point is, VR can make you happy. It connects you with the people you love, people that make you laugh, people you work with, and allows you to escape reality and even join reality. 

That’s a good feeling.