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How to be happy in a pandemic

The number of Americans who report feeling enjoyment on a daily basis has fallen 20 points since the fall of 2019, according to Gallup. Overall satisfaction with life has also fallen 10 points since then.

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Arthur C. Brooks, center, and his wife Ester Munt-Brooks. right, and daughter Marina participate in Palm Sunday Mass via video link on Sunday, April 5, 2020.

Photo courtesy of Arthur C. Brooks

SALT LAKE CITY — Not surprisingly, Americans are reporting less enjoyment in their life, as deaths from the novel coronavirus continue to mount, amid economic hardships and continuing social isolation.

According to research from Gallup, the number of Americans who report feeling enjoyment on a daily basis has fallen 20 percentage points since the fall of 2019. Overall satisfaction with life has also fallen 10 percentage points.

What may be surprising is that research shows it’s possible to be happy even during a pandemic, troubling headlines aside.

While some of our propensity for happiness is genetic, up to 40% of personal well-being is influenced by our intentions and actions, social scientists say. It’s our interactions with others, and the extent to which we believe our lives have meaning, that most determines happiness.

Here’s why you could be happier just by talking to someone 6 feet away at the grocery store — and why it’s not just about feeling good in the moment, but also matters to your health.

Why happiness matters

Dr. Don Berwick, president emeritus and senior fellow of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, said that happiness and well-being are among the “social determinants” of health.

Recent declines in life expectancy in the U.S., for example, have little to do with accessibility of health care, but are more closely related with factors such as despair, loneliness and poverty, all of which are increasing during the pandemic.

The loss of social engagement, especially among seniors who are at higher risk of dying from COVID-19, is especially troubling, given that loneliness and isolation has been shown to be a factor in stroke and cardiovascular disease.

“Loneliness is a very severe cause of poor health,” Berwick said during a May 1 webinar on happiness and well-being sponsored by the National Institute for Health Care Management Foundation, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.

So how can we combat loneliness when we’re supposed to be staying away from other people?

Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director of the Greater Good Science Center, University of California, Berkeley, acknowledged it’s difficult, given that of strategies shown to improve happiness, “Every single one of them has a veneer of social connection.”

The key, she said, is the same as the secret to healthy aging: “relationships, relationships, relationships.” Research has shown that individuals who “lean in” to their relationships are protected from chronic disease, mental illness and even memory decline.

But relationships are tricky right now. Because of social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders, we’re spending an outsized amount of time with the people we live with, while seeing other other people rarely, if at all. Even seeing people we love via FaceTime or other video apps doesn’t fulfill our physiological and emotional needs.

As such, we need to proactively “correct” for these losses, she said. “When they’re not happening spontaneously, we have to plan them.”

That means scheduling phone calls and video chats with family members and friends. “To make them more rich and personally fulfilling, talk about what’s going well,” she said, and listen actively and empathetically, instead of planning what you’re about to say next.

It also means using small windows of opportunity to interact with people we do see in person, even if they’re strangers. For example, Simon-Thomas suggests coming up with a few “fun, friendly and informal” questions you could ask someone waiting in line near you at a store.

“You could ask them if they’ve listened to a podcast they think is fascinating, or what is the best book they’ve read,” she said.

Similarly, Ashley Fetter, writing in The Atlantic, recommended that people abandon the typical “How are you? Fine,” exchange for something more meaningful under the circumstances.

“However you choose to start your conversations during quarantine, perhaps the most important thing is to ask a genuine question that invites a genuine answer,” she wrote. “One of the kindest gestures we can extend to others in a time like this is to make clear that they don’t have to pretend they’re fine.”

By proactively making a connection, however brief, you improve your own sense of well-being, as well the other person’s, much like performing an act of kindness, another strategy that social scientists recommend.

“Random acts of kindness — it’s not just a bumper sticker in Berkeley, California. It’s a real strategy for uplifting your own happiness and making someone else feel happy,” Simon-Thomas said.

“And, interestingly, people who witness random acts of kindness between others feel morally elevated and uplifted and are more likely to turn and be kind in their own life circumstances.”

The ‘happiness portfolio’

Arthur C. Brooks, who teaches a class on happiness at Harvard Business School and also has a related column and podcast, said it’s important that people not see the pandemic as something they have to get through. Instead, he said, it’s important to embrace “the sacredness of suffering” and to see the opportunities for growth and learning that exist during this time. 

“When people have bad experiences, that tends to be the time that they find the greatest meaning and purpose; it’s an inflecting moment of their lives,” he said. “Suffering is super, super important, even though we avoid it every day of the week.”

Brooks teaches that the aspect of happiness that we most have under our control is our habits in four areas: faith, family, friends and work. Those areas comprise a “happiness portfolio” and the pandemic is causing us to confront how well we are doing in each area. “One of the things that we can learn from this crisis is if we were overinvested in work and underinvested in faith, family and friends.”

He also recommends that people stop thinking about things they want to have, and instead focus on decreasing the things they want.

“Make a bucket list — but not of exotic vacations and expensive stuff. Make a list of the attachments in your life you need to discard. Then, make a plan to do just that,” he wrote.

During the pandemic, Brooks said he has lost about two-thirds of his income, but he is focusing on other things, like the additional time with his family.

“I’m going to have better relationships coming out of this, and God’s taking care of me and my family, and I’m just trying to help others,” he said. He’s also made adjustments to keep life as normal as possible even in abnormal circumstances. For example, instead of going to church daily, as he usually does, Brooks, who is Catholic, is watching Mass online.

Finally, even when self-isolating, people can improve their happiness through activities such as meditation and centering prayer, Simon-Thomas said. Even time spent praying for other people improves your own well-being.

“Compared to nonsocial strategies for self-improvement, such  as setting goals or stress  management, socially engaged strategies had more power to change life satisfaction,” Simon-Thomas said.