In times like these, it can feel wrong to feel happy. There is so much suffering in the world that appreciating the goodness that still exists can seem unempathic, if not altogether futile. A landmark study on happiness often mentioned at dinner parties and social gatherings (when we had those things) considered how people react to intense, sudden changes to their circumstances. The researchers found that people who had recently won the lottery were no happier after some time had passed than people who had experienced severe trauma that paralyzed their lower bodies. It’s a testament to stubbornness as our common lot in life — and the resilience we also share.
The lottery winners seemed to lose their ability to find joy in mundane aspects of their lives, while the survivors of trauma had a different experience entirely: they focused more on idealized memories of their past, perhaps at the expense of channeling energy into appreciating 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 in various forms of emotional, behavioral, and physical trauma. How have we, as individuals, coped?
What happens when trauma continues to unfold?
In many, many cases, we have not coped — or rather, we’ve coped to our limit, but the trauma continues. Many people, particularly the privileged among us, have never experienced the intensity and duration of the emotional toll taken by this pandemic. We are in uncharted territory, and the early data are troubling.
Since the pandemic began, mental health symptoms related to depression, anxiety, suicide, and substance use are up dramatically. As many as 40% of US adults have reported struggling with mental health or substance abuse during this time. This number represents a serious and deadly corner of the pandemic that has not received enough attention.
Resilience, solace, and moments of joy
Yet I have also noticed striking glimmers of resilience from those with and without formal diagnoses of mental health disorders. In my own life, I discovered solace in the rituals and routines of everyday tasks. I did my work. I wrote. I spent time with family and time outside. The simple act of maintaining my routine helped me gain momentum, and kept me 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 got back were incredible. Like me, some described the privilege of finding comfort and purpose in basic, ritualized tasks. Others seemed to blossom by seeking out new adventures and skills. My friends wrote about becoming suburban caretakers to chickens, learning to garden, growing their own food, picking up or revisiting an instrument that had long been gathering dust. They became devoted to baking and cooking in new and interesting ways. One former colleague said she particularly enjoyed rollerblading to work instead of riding public transit; what began as a necessity at the start of the pandemic had become a passion, and perhaps the only time in each day that she felt at peace in the world. Still others turned their pandemic angst into good by making masks for those in need.
Finally, a large group of my informal survey respondents said that they simply found ways to appreciate the world around them. They began going for daily walks around the neighborhood, noticing details in plain sight yet unseen until this year. They became friendlier with their neighbors. They took moments to not only breathe, but to appreciate the air around them. They recognized their good fortune in the midst of challenge — not every day, and surely not always — and sometimes found ways to share it.
The problems we face today are uniquely challenging, but our resilience has never come in so many different forms. We’re bonded by our shared drive to keep moving forward. Someday, when our lives begin to resemble the before times, I hope we carry with us the lessons we’ve learned.