As we move into the pandemic recovery process, how do you make way for happiness? Let me ask: do you find yourself less happy than you anticipated?
An answer of “yes” to the latter question is not uncommon. What we think will make us happy is often off-base. It might sound like:
- I’ll be so happy when businesses re-open to full capacity.
- I’ll be so happy when we get a vaccine.
- I’ll be so happy when we can return to “normal.”
While these things are wonderful, and for many, a great relief, we commonly overestimate the impact they have on our happiness.
If you were somehow spared a personal loss or trauma during the pandemic, you are still part of the collective trauma. A perpetual fight or flight mode has an impact on our emotional, mental, and physical being. As a result, happiness can elude us.
Stressors, Stress, and Happiness
Consider how we respond to stressors. Our brains function to protect and serve: our primitive brain reacts to protect us from real or perceived threats and our modern brain serves in conscious thought and logic.
For example, the danger of contracting a potentially deadly virus triggers our fear. When we sense a threat (real or perceived), our brain reacts in hyper-drive, bypassing information processing sequences. Typically, the modern brain engages a moment later to gather more information, analyze the threat, and modulate our behavior. However, when our primitive brain remains engaged too frequently, or strongly, survival-based emotions become the norm. This lives little room for happiness.
The factors that influence our happiness are easily misunderstood. Eliminating or changing stressors is not enough. Managing our stress is not enough. To actually increase our happiness, we need to take more action. And it’s worth it: happy people are less likely to have psychological or social problems, are less likely to get ill, and are more likely to do well in their career.
What Makes You Happy?
The past year has been a roller coaster of feelings and emotions, adaptation and change. The ups and downs have taken a toll. Let’s take a quick look at a bit of neuroscience.
Bio-evolutionary theory reveals why we react as we do to stressors. These include family issues, work issues, financial issues, health issues, etc. And, it includes our thoughts around these issues: the future, certain events, particular people. Our stress is the physiological response to the stressors.
The process has three parts:
- Beginning: perception of threat
- Middle: response to threat (dealing with stressor)
- End: response to stress (managing physiological response)
While being mindful of each step of the process is important, the action we take in response to stress is critical to manage our emotional well-being. You see, we are finding that self-care alone is not enough. Nor is grit. Happiness requires compassion, empathy, and connection. And it requires ease.
Ease Into Happiness
What brought us joy prior to the pandemic may not have the same affect. Consider this: how you have adapted over the past year? What was the impact to your social contacts?
Our social interactions dramatically decreased and our personal time increased. As a result, our threshold for stimulation decreased. Returning to the same level of social interaction prior to the pandemic may be overwhelming.
Fortunately, research has found that roughly 40% of how we experience satisfaction—our happiness level—depends on our motivations, goals, and behaviors. This is encouraging: it suggests that what an individual thinks, believes, and does—things within their control—can improve their happiness.
Communities of Care
The Harvard Study of Adult Development tracked 724 men over 75 years, asking about their work, home lives and health. Two groups of men—sophomores at Harvard and boys from the Southside of Boston—were interviewed and tested. Three big lessons were learned:
- The impact of isolation and loneliness is toxic to our happiness and well-being. Social connections are critical. Our bonds are strongest between individuals, rather than small groups (families or teams) or villages (tribes or companies).
- It’s not the quantity, rather, it’s the quality of relationships. The study found that the people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the most satisfied in their 80s.
- Good relationships protect our bodies, as well as our brains. People in strong, trusting relationships are the healthiest in their 80s.
What does this mean today? Waiting for happiness to happen isn’t the answer. We can take action.
Practice leaning in to relationships and sharing laughter. Here’s a simple exercise from The Greater Good Science Center to get you started.
- At the end of the day, list the three funniest things you saw, heard, or did that day.
- Describe your feelings about the events: How did it make you feel?
- Explore the circumstances of events: Why was this event funny? Why did this funny event occur?
- Repeat this every day for a week, and allow 10 minutes every day to write out as much detail as possible.
Now, ask someone to share your laughter and confidentially exchange your three funny things. You can share via email, read it out over the phone or video call, and work your way toward an in person exchange.
You see, when we practice laughing at the absurdities of our daily life, we create an opportunity to practice gratitude. By sharing gratitude and laughter with others, we create stronger relationships. We make way for happiness.