At times like these, feeling happy can be wrong. There is so much suffering in the world that appreciating the kindness that still exists may seem immoral, if not futile. A seminal study of happiness that was often mentioned at dinner parties and social gatherings (when we were having these things) looked at how people respond to intense, sudden changes in their circumstances. The researchers found that people who recently won the lottery weren’t happier after a while than people who had suffered severe trauma that paralyzed their lower body. It is proof of stubbornness as our common lot in life – and of the resilience that we also share.
Lottery winners seemed to be losing their ability to find joy in everyday aspects of their lives, while trauma survivors had a completely different experience: they were more focused on idealized memories of their past, perhaps at the expense of generating energy to appreciate that what could they want about their new life.
This year of the pandemic there are very few literal or proverbial lottery winners. Many of us have participated in various forms of emotional, behavioral, and physical trauma. How did we deal with it as individuals?
What happens if the trauma continues to unfold?
In many, many cases, we haven’t made it – or rather, we’ve reached our limits, but the trauma continues. Many people, especially the privileged among us, have never experienced the intensity and duration of the emotional toll this pandemic has brought. We are in uncharted territory and the early dates are worrying.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, mental symptoms related to depression, anxiety, suicide, and substance use have risen dramatically. Up to 40% of adults in the United States reported experiencing mental health or substance abuse during this time. That number represents a serious and deadly corner of the pandemic that has not received enough attention.
Resilience, comfort and moments of joy
However, I have also seen notable signs of resilience in those with and without a formal diagnosis of mental illness. In my own life, I found solace in the rituals and routines of everyday chores. I’ve done my job. I wrote. I spent time with my family and time outside. The simple act of maintaining my routine helped me gain momentum and kept me away from doom scrolling.
I thought back to the happiness study and wondered if others were experiencing a similar phenomenon. When I asked my friends the question online, the answers I got back were incredible. As I have described, some have described the privilege of finding solace and purpose in basic, ritualized tasks. Others seemed to thrive in searching for new adventures and skills. My friends wrote about becoming on-site caretakers for chickens, learning to garden, growing their own food, picking up or revisiting an instrument that had long been gathering dust. They devoted themselves to baking and cooking in new and interesting ways. A former colleague said she particularly enjoyed going to work rollerblading rather than using public transit. What started as a necessity at the beginning of the pandemic had become a passion and perhaps the only time every day that she felt at peace in the world. Still others turned their pandemic fears into good by making masks for those in need.
Finally, a large group of my informal respondents said they had simply found ways to appreciate the world around them. They went for daily walks in the neighborhood and noticed details that hadn’t been seen until this year. They became kinder to their neighbors. They needed moments not only to breathe but also to appreciate the air around them. They found their happiness in the midst of a challenge – not every day, and certainly not always – and sometimes found ways to share it.
The problems we face today are uniquely challenging, but our resilience has never taken so many different forms. We are connected by our common desire to move forward. One day, when our lives resemble the old days, I hope that we will carry with us the lessons we have learned.