EXPERT ADVICE: Fostering happiness in times of crisis

Posted on April 13, 2021

It has been about a year since the COVID-19 pandemic led to lockdowns around the world, and we have all had to make substantial changes to our daily routines, with some of us losing loved ones and others contracting the virus.

Given our current state of grief, hardship and general unhappiness, should we even consider the notion of happiness? Recent studies suggest a resounding yes!

In 2012, the United Nations declared 20 March as the International Day of Happiness, effectively recognising the relevance of happiness and well-being as universal goals and aspirations for people the world over. The World Happiness Report is released on the same day every year and contains rankings of national happiness based on people’s evaluation of their own lives. This year’s survey focused on the effects of COVID-19 on various aspects of people’s lives, including happiness, mental health and social connections.

While many experienced more stress and sadness in 2020, surprisingly, there were no changes in average levels of positive emotion and life satisfaction, which are widely accepted as indicators of happiness. The report further suggested that, globally, people seemed to have recovered from the initial negative mental health impact of the pandemic to some extent. One contributing factor seems to be trust – those who had trust in their communities and who were able to count on others were more likely to experience sustained life satisfaction during the pandemic.

South African survey data shows a similar trend, with levels of distress decreasing in February 2021. Additionally, 58% of respondents indicated that they felt hopeful and 59% said they remained hopeful in difficult times. Most South Africans surveyed indicated that they had a strong support structure made up of family and friends, and experienced a sense of solidarity with their community. In other words, there are some signs of resilience and well-being despite the challenging circumstances we experience.

Having strong negative emotions is an appropriate reaction to the pandemic, but it is important to prevent these negative emotions from becoming a downward spiral. Well-being is not about avoiding unpleasant emotions; rather, it is about balancing the positive and negative as we navigate life in general, and the pandemic specifically.

If it is possible to experience a sense of happiness in difficult times, how can we foster it? The following strategies could be useful:

  • Stay connected to others. This can be among family, in small groups or using virtual platforms. Overall, connectedness seems to be one of the most important factors that has contributed to well-being during the pandemic.
  • A sense of meaning and purpose can help us cope with stress and trauma, and even make us stronger in a psychological sense. While some of your plans might have been derailed by COVID-19, you could also see this as an opportunity to better understand your motivation behind making these plans in the first place. Consider revisiting your goals and explore ways in which you can give back to society and the planet.
  • Remember that positive emotions can co-exist with negative emotions. Build your positive internal resources through noticing positive events, practising gratitude and engaging in acts of kindness.
  • Practise self-compassion. In other words, treat yourself with the same care and concern that you would give to a friend who might be struggling. This includes acknowledging feelings such as uncertainty or sadness without trying to make them go away.
  • Cultivate hope by sharing your hopes with others – particularly loved ones and close friends. This means that you will be supported in staying hopeful and reaching your goals.

Happiness and well-being are both relevant and achievable in times of uncertainty. The pandemic has rightfully directed our attention to vulnerabilities, loss and threats to mental health. However, it has also shown us that people can be hopeful, kind, resourceful and optimistic when life throws a curveball. Therefore, it is equally important to consider psychological resources, happiness, well-being and ways in which well-being can be supported. By doing so, we can weather the COVID-19 storm until it abates and even come out stronger.

- Author Professor Tharina Guse, Head of the Department of Psychology at the University of Pretoria

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