At times like these, it may feel bad for feeling happy. There is so much suffering in the world that appreciating the goodness that still exists can seem without empathy, if not totally futile. A landmark happiness study often mentioned at dinner parties and social gatherings (when we had these things) looked at how people react to intense and sudden changes in their circumstances. The researchers found that people who had recently won the lottery were no happier after a while than people who had suffered severe trauma that paralyzed their lower body. It’s a testament to the stubbornness as our common lot in life – and the resilience we share as well.
Lottery winners seemed to lose their ability to find joy in the mundane aspects of their lives, while trauma survivors had an entirely different experience: They focused more on idealized memories of their past, perhaps in the dark. the expense of channeling energy to enjoy whatever they could about their new life.
In this year of the pandemic, there are very few literal or proverbial lottery winners. Many of us have shared various forms of emotional, behavioral and physical trauma. How did we, as individuals, cope?
What happens when the trauma continues to unfold?
In so many cases we have not faced – or rather, we have faced our limit, but the trauma continues. Many people, especially the privileged among us, have never experienced the intensity and duration of the emotional toll caused by this pandemic. We are in uncharted territory and the first data is disturbing.
Since the start of the pandemic, mental health symptoms related to depression, anxiety, suicide and substance use have increased dramatically. As much as 40% of American adults reported having had mental health or substance abuse problems during this time. This figure represents a serious and deadly corner of the pandemic that has not received enough attention.
Resilience, comfort and moments of joy
Yet I have also noticed striking glimmers of resilience in people with or without a formal diagnosis of mental health disorders. In my own life, I have discovered solace in the rituals and routines of daily tasks. I did my job. I wrote. I spent time with my family and time outdoors. Just maintaining my routine has helped me gain momentum and move away from doomscrolling.
I thought back to the happiness study and wondered if others were experiencing a similar phenomenon. When I posed the question to my friends online, the responses I received were amazing. Like me, some have described the privilege of finding solace and purpose in basic, ritualistic tasks. Others seemed to thrive on seeking new adventures and skills. My friends have written about becoming suburban keepers for chickens, learning to garden, growing their own food, picking up or seeing again an instrument that had long accumulated dust. They dedicated themselves to baking and cooking in new and interesting ways. A former colleague said she particularly enjoys rollerblading to work rather than public transit; what started out as a necessity at the start of the pandemic had turned into a passion, and perhaps the one time of every day that she felt at peace in the world. Still others turned their pandemic anxiety for good by making masks for those in need.
Finally, a large group of informal respondents to my survey said they just found ways to appreciate the world around them. They started taking daily walks around the neighborhood, noticing details that were clearly visible but invisible until this year. They became more friends with their neighbors. They took moments not only to breathe, but to appreciate the air around them. They recognized their good fortune in the midst of challenges – not every day, and certainly not always – and sometimes found ways to share it.
The issues we face today are particularly difficult, but our resilience has never taken so many different forms. We are bound by our common will to keep moving forward. Someday, when our lives start to look like the ones before, I hope we take the lessons we have learned with us.
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