How COVID-19 could help us reevaluate our lives

Kathy Carter


When a class called The Science of Well-Being launched two years ago at America’s prestigious Yale University, a renowned specialist in arts and sciences, it became the most popular class in Yale's 300-year history. But why would a class about boosting happiness be so popular? How, in the 21st century (pre-COVID-19), could there be such a need for improved mental health? Surely with our personal freedoms and relatively luxurious lifestyles, as a species, we couldn’t be happier? And if we’re not, why not? Let’s delve deeper.

Why do we need a ‘happiness’ course?

As Yale Psychology professor Laurie Santos found when her course garnered so much attention, many individuals are seeking the key to happiness. What’s interesting is that the average age of an undergraduate at Yale is 20. Surely Generation Z-ers (born between 1995 and 2015), with their assumed boundless energy, and technological access to whatever their hearts desire, should be deliriously happy? Not so.

When The Science of Well-Being launched recently as an online course, more than 600,000 people signed up in March 2020 alone. Santos believes we’re surrounded by misconceptions about what makes us happy. Of course, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are seeking ways to reconnect with positivity and contentment.

Are we experiencing an existential conundrum?

As Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker wrote for TED, today, we can marry, work and live as we please. “One can imagine a social critic of today warning Anna Karenina (19th century fictional character) that a tolerant cosmopolitan society isn’t all it’s cracked up to be; that without the bonds of family and village, they’ll have moments of anxiety and unhappiness,” he wrote.

Today, leaving COVID-19 aside, we are living in a time peace and prosperity. But despite our fancy cars, holidays and wardrobes, many of us have let our ties with family, religion and community slide – have we prioritised material wealth over personal wellbeing? And as we have loosened our ties with religion (formerly effectively sharing our anxieties with a higher being, and ‘passing over’ responsibility to It), are we increasingly taking on the world’s burdens? 

What is happiness?

The field of psychology often defines a happy person as someone who experiences frequent positive emotions, such as joy, interest, and pride, and infrequent negative emotions, such as sadness, anxiety, and anger (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005). It’s essentially a satisfaction with our own lives, and the comparison between positive and negative feelings. One of the troubling issues when considering happiness is that it means different things to each of us. We all process difficult emotions differently, after all.

The World Happiness Report (an annual publication of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network) last year found that Finland was (for the third year running) the happiest country in the world, followed by Denmark, Norway and Iceland. The Scandinavians are getting something right! The actor Michael J. Fox has said: “My happiness grows in direct proportion to my acceptance, and in inverse proportion to my expectations.” This is an excellent way to look at the concept of happiness – that it is intrinsically tied up with our expectations of life, and our acceptance of where we are on our journey.

Many of us find happiness in engaging in things we’re passionate about, and building meaningful connections with people. But the first step to achieving happiness is to work out what it truly means for each of us.

Why aren’t many of us truly happy?

The World Happiness Report uses data around some specific gauges - gross domestic product (GDP) per capita; social support; life expectancy; freedom to make life choices; generosity; and corruption levels. Finland scores particularly strongly on generosity; almost half of Finns donate regularly to charity and almost a third volunteer for charity.

One factor concerning why we’re not as happy as our forebears might have anticipated could be that many of us are becoming more self-absorbed. But it isn’t just about navel gazing. Perhaps we’re taking on a wider spectrum of worry than our families and ancestors had to deal with, being concerned about terrorism and climate change (and now), the global economic effects of COVID-19? We seem to be in an existential conundrum that hasn’t existed in previous generations, that is eroding our ‘happiness banks’.

The neurological perspective

From a neurological perspective, there are four major chemicals in the brain that influence happiness: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins. Dopamine is involved with anticipation; a ‘striving’ emotion. Oxytocin is a ‘connecting’ neurochemical, linked to empathy. Serotonin directs and regulates our moods, while endorphins are responsible for masking discomfort, and the ‘fight or flight’ response.

Together, these chemicals create desirable brain states. We can pre-empt dopamine release by rewarding ourselves, and creating achievable goals. Loneliness and depression appear when serotonin is absent, so making connections, being grateful (which includes praying, or journaling your gratitude) and feeling valued, can help boost serotonin’s creation – volunteering, like the Finns, would provide such a boost.

For oxytocin, strong bonds with friends and families and worthwhile social interactions are key - a simple way to boost oxytocin is to give someone a hug. Endorphins are the ‘high’ we experience after winning a race, or singing at the top of our lungs at a gig. Laughing is one of the best ways to get the endorphins going.

What’s the happiness solution?

In these troubled times, reducing our exposure to vicarious trauma (e.g. resulting from empathetic engagement with other people that have experienced trauma) can help reduce negative emotions. Looking after ourselves with suitable exercise routines, relaxation techniques and nutrition and healthcare provisions can undoubtedly assist. Staying connected with friends and family and carrying out random acts of kindness definitely help to increase a sense of wellbeing.

Bear in mind the fantastic concept of happiness that’s tied up with our expectations of life, and our acceptance of our journey; now’s a great time to re-define where we are in our life’s journey, re-asses what makes us happy, and take steps to make the rest of our lives count. The coronavirus could be the ideal starting point to start afresh, with a brand new outlook and viewpoint.

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