Living through Covid-19 can be a stressful time but happiness is possible experts tell Simon Lewis
THERE’S nothing like a pandemic to heighten the senses. With Covid-19 providing a daily lockdown diet of death tolls, economic recession, and exam uncertainty it could be all too easy for stress levels to sky-rocket and perhaps worse for the more anxious and vulnerable.
Yet there is another option. Professor Laurie Santos says happiness is possible to achieve while living in the midst of a pandemic, even with home-schooling on the schedule.
Santos is a professor of psychology at Yale University who studies the science of happiness and whose 10-week course at the Ivy League college, ‘Psychology and the Good Life’, saw a record 25% of Yale’s undergraduates enrol. They were searching for what we could all do with, learning strategies to negotiate the pitfalls of the day to day in order to turn our lives into happier ones.
Right now seems like a good place to start, whether you are a stressed-out parent, a stay-at-home worker, an anxious student or anyone struggling with life in lockdown Ireland. Santos has some of the answers to becoming happier about our lot, adding something as grave as a pandemic should not get in the way of that pursuit.
“Even though we often think that happiness comes from our circumstances, there’s lots of evidence that people in awful circumstances can be quite happy,” she says.
“There’s also evidence that people who live in really privileged circumstances can be quite miserable. So it’s definitely possible to be happier in a pandemic if you engage in the right behaviours and mindsets.”
Some of the evidence Santos cites can be found in an academic article written in 2004 by Richard G Tedeschi & Lawrence G Calhoun entitled ‘Post-traumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundations and Empirical Evidence’.
Tedeschi’s and Calhoun’s work investigates “the experience of positive change that occurs as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life crises”. It offers examples of, for instance, a cancer patient who found special meaning in even the smallest of joys such as a sunset or a hug from a child. Or the survivor of an air crash who felt that after her near-death experience everything she experienced felt like ‘a gift’.
Such experiences are not uncommon. The former Chelsea and Italy player Gianluca Vialli recently relayed his new-found outlook after beating two bouts of pancreatic cancer and how that has helped him communicate positivity to the current Italian squad he now works with alongside manager Roberto Mancini.
Faced with a year’s delay to the European Championships due to Covid-19, he told the young players: “This is a time when you can know more about yourself than ever before. You should look at this with curiosity. Playing behind closed doors, is this going to affect me? What are the mental challenges? A crisis is an opportunity to grow.”
Santos takes forward the argument that such challenges can be linked to happiness.
“It is [linked], but not in the way we think. There’s lots of evidence for post-traumatic growth— that people sometimes get happier and stronger after going through adversity.
“Sometimes crises can make us stronger.”
Santos has evidence that her own 10 weeks to happiness course can have a positive effect and believes the same approach can apply to whoever decides to follow the same path, be they stressed-out workers and parents or schoolchildren uncertain about end-of-year exams.
Pilot data shows that even before the lockdown the Yale undergraduate class who participated in the course “got about a whole point higher on a standard measure of wellbeing”.
“We’re currently testing whether this still works during the lockdown, but anecdotal reports suggest that people are learning skills that have helped them make it through this crisis.”
Santos does not dispute that the current and widespread uncertainty in the world right now can undermine one’s attempts at finding happiness but suggests there are still things we can do to reduce anxiety despite the challenges we face.
That includes being more careful about how we consume news and manage our social media feeds during the pandemic. In a world of so much misinformation, or fake news, including from world leaders, the professor starts by suggesting we should stick to a reliable source.
“Making sure we’re using reliable sources is critical. But we also need to be mindful about how we’re feeling after interacting with media. Do we feel more informed or more anxious? We need to make sure we’re consuming information nutritiously and in a way that’s doing more good than harm.”
Away from our newspapers and screens, there are plenty of positive access points to happiness and the key indicators of a happy person are easily spotted, Santos suggests.
Maintaining them in such troubled times is key to the search.
“Happiness comes from having strong social relationships and prioritising social connections, doing random acts of kindness, taking time for gratitude, promoting healthy habits like sleep, exercise, and meditation.”
Such is the level of stoicism among Irish people there is no doubt many of us who may be thinking the pursuit of happiness in the midst of a deadly pandemic is an altogether selfish pastime. What right have we being happy when anxiety and genuine fear is all around us?
“I think it’s the opposite,” Santos counters. “It becomes all the more important to focus on happiness during a crisis, since happiness helps in ways we don’t realise. Happier people are more creative. Happier people have more resistance against catching colds. Happier people even live longer. So it can be more important than we think.”
The heartening thing for those of us not intellectually engaged in the science of happiness is that Santos is not merely engaged in the abstract.
Feelgood’s initial email requesting an interview prompted an out-of-office reply which included the message: ‘I am currently trying my own personal wellbeing experiment — I’m going to try to practice what I preach and reduce the amount of time I usually spend on email.’
It is an admirable policy and thankfully, Santos deemed us worthy of an immediate reply though she was only prepared to respond to emailed questions, the last of which was to ask whether she was seeing and feeling the benefits of this course of action.
“I think we all need boundaries to protect our time affluence. I get over 50-100 emails a day from online students, and for a while I was trying to answer all of them. Now I realise that doing so meant I wasn’t modelling positive habits for my students.”
David O’Sullivan is the director of the MA course in positive and coaching psychology at University College Cork. He points to a Character Strengths Survey, available at www.viacharacter.org, after which the original participants reported increased happiness levels six months later.
“Although positive psychology is a relatively new science, at this stage there are several robust interventions that can help improve people’s wellbeing,” O’Sullivan says.
“One evidence-based exercise is using your character strengths in new ways.
“Complete the Character Strengths Survey which identifies your top five strengths. These are your signature strengths.
“In the original experiment, the participants were asked to use one of these signature strengths in a new and different way every day for one week. Six months later, they still had increased happiness levels. Many people like this exercise so much they continue it beyond the week.
“The reason it probably works is that when people act from their signature strengths they are acting in ways that are fundamental to who they are, they become more engaged with their lives, and they become more true to their fundamental selves, and it is this that fosters their wellbeing and happiness.
“Using your strengths in different ways causes you to reflect and try out new ways of doing things, and this can help you escape any ruts you are in. This is where positive psychology coaching comes in – it can fast track this process.
“The practice of positive psychology is not positive thinking, which can be toxic, as negative emotions do carry important messages. The approach instead is to acknowledge both the positive and the negative, but to start with the positive.”
Yet O’Sullivan warns of the dangers of being too positive during the pandemic.
“Happy people are not necessarily more effective in crises,” O’Sullivan says. “In fact, you could argue that because they tend to be optimistic, and they believe that things will work out for the best, they may discount real risks.
“In the present coronavirus pandemic they could be more likely to think that the worst is over, and then let their guard down. Although you do get some realistic optimists they tend to be in a minority.
“The more important point is that happy people experience the downs and crises of life as keenly as anybody else, but they bounce back more quickly, as they tend to be more resilient.”
Prof Santos’s course in happiness and wellbeing is available for free online, coursera.org