Happiness Habits for the Corona Crisis
It is normal and natural to feel distressed by distressing circumstances and what we are facing with the Covid-19 pandemic is the biggest threat to wellbeing that many of us have ever known. Resilience is about maintaining wellbeing in unfavourable conditions and the scientifically-grounded practices that help our happiness in favourable conditions can also support our wellbeing in the very difficult circumstances we find ourselves in now.
The Little Book of Happiness was published in 2019 with 12 happiness habits based on positive psychology, the science of wellbeing. I’ve adapted them for the times we find ourselves in. One of the basics of resilience is to accept that which is outside your control but aim to move forward with the things that are under your control. Around 50% of happiness is shaped by genetic make-up outside of our control. That doesn’t sound like positive news, I know, but it’s the other 50% that we need to focus on. When people want to grow their wellbeing, they often pay attention to changing their circumstances – a new job, a new home – but this only accounts for around 10% of your wellbeing. The corona crisis is the circumstance we are in, so even though this is having a major impact on quality of life that still leaves around 40% of wellbeing that we can directly influence with our mindset and the practices we engage in. Happiness is not a spectator sport. It’s something we do rather than something that just happens.
Happiness Habits for the Corona Crisis
1. Learn to Play: With life on lockdown many of us have got an unexpected pocket of time to use. Active recreation like cycling, making music or gardening is better for wellbeing than passive leisure like watching TV. They can take us into ‘flow’, a state of engagement when you’re fully absorbed in an activity. Now is the time to resurrect those flow-inducing hobbies. On my street baking and gardening are taking off with neighbours clubbing together to source flour (like gold dust at the moment) and to share seeds. Jigsaw puzzles are coming out of the attic to be sprayed and shared.
2. Express Gratitude: Much has been lost during lockdown but what have we gained? Gratitude is not only about saying thank you, it’s about hunting the good stuff. Tuning in to notice the positives that we have in spite of the negative situation. Gratitude is a practice that helps overcome the brain’s negativity bias, where we’re wired to notice what’s wrong before we notice what’s right. So what is there to appreciate in the current circumstances? I’m appreciating the slower pace of life, the arrival of spring and the fellowship of my neighbours who are rallying around to support each other.
3. Savour the Positives: Savouring is “the capacity to attend to, appreciate and enhance the positive experiences in one’s life.” Now there’s the opportunity to slow down and smell the roses. To savour the positive aspects of life, whether that’s good relationships, a home you like or a functioning immune system. After more than a decade of teaching savouring, I’m now able to extract great joy from the smallest of pleasures. I don’t even have to leave the house to relish the stillness or feast my eyes on the vibrant marigolds in the garden.
4. Harness your Strengths: Your strengths are the inner resources that you can draw on to help you through tough times. They strengthen your resilience. You might discover new strengths in yourself. Which of your strengths are helping you cope with quarantine life? Adaptability has been helping me. So yes it’s true I can’t deliver the training that is the mainstay of my work but I can use this time to draw on one of my other strengths – creativity – to develop new products and services.
5. Live with Meaning: What is your ikigai? Your reason to get up in the morning? Having a sense of meaning and purpose is one of life’s essentials. This pause is an opportunity to reflect on what’s really important to you and what you will do differently post-lockdown. Having meaning in life is a form of eudaimonic wellbeing, a concept that dates back to the Ancient Greeks and broadly means to live well and do well. There are many elements to eudaimonia but it can be summed up in one handy formula. If you put effort into something meaningful you gain the deeper happiness of fufilment. So now that the world has come to a standstill, use the opportunity to reflect on what gives your life meaning and how that may be changing.
Meaning + Effort > Fulfilment
6. Learn Optimism: It would be understandable to succumb to pessimism in the current circumstances but practising optimism acts as psychological self-defence preventing the downwards spiral into depression. Optimistic explanatory style is a form of optimism that you can learn. It’s based on the way we think about the causes and influences of events that happen to us. Optimists and pessimists think in opposite ways. When something goes wrong for an optimist they tend to think about how the cause might not be personal (so they look to the bigger picture and notice what other factors played a role), not permanent (they see it as a temporary blip) and not pervasive (they see the negative event as being limited and that it won’t spread and affect other areas of life). By thinking like an optimist you can protect yourself from strong negative emotions that undermine your resilience.
7. Value Relationships: The biggest contribution to our wellbeing comes from relationships, so social distancing poses a major challenge. In reality though it’s more about physical distancing – we can still keep up relationships by getting creative with online meet-ups – cyber coffee, zoom quarantinis, houseparty quizzes or go back to basics and pick up the phone. The corona crisis has led to an explosion of community spirit in the face of adversity. There’s never been been a better time to discover the people on your doorstep.
8. Practise Kindness: Times of crisis reveal the very best in humanity and there have been many tales of kindness, which is the virtue of doing good deeds for others without any expectation of personal gain. Like 99-year-old Capt Tom Moore, who has raised many millions for the NHS by doing 100 laps of his back garden. Acts of kindness are a win : win. They are good for you and for the greater good. Volunteers are stepping up to support the essential services nationwide and neighbours are helping each other out locally. Volunteering has many benefits for wellbeing. Kindness develops positive communities and nurtures relationships. It puts the kind into kindred spirit.
9. Get Physical: One of the surest ways of boosting mental health is to do something physical. Having a restriction placed on the exercise you can take outside the home enhances the appreciation of what you can do. The tip here is to make the most of your home space to get the pulse rate up and enjoy the release of endorphins. Get physical with the housework doing plunges as you vacuum, put on some music and dance around the kitchen.
10. Turn to Nature: One of the positives has been witnessing the return of nature. Waking up to birdsong instead of traffic, wildlife coming out of hiding like the plucky mountain goats taking over the streets of Llandudno. Nature is a great healer. Being out in the fresh air and foliage lowers stress levels, lifts the mood and restores wellbeing. Even if you can’t get outside, the simple act of looking at nature through a window or on pictures can give you its benefits. Getting out into green spaces will boost your Vitamin D level and immune system.
11. Practise Mindfulness: Mindfulness can help manage the stress of the corona crisis and is a recognised treatment for anxiety and depression. Mindfulness is about ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’, turning our awareness to the inner and outer landscape, noticing without judging. It helps us to be present rather than ruminating over the past or anxious about the future. Tuning into the body or the breath will help settle the mind when anxiety is high.
12. Strive for Success: This is probably the hardest happiness habit to do with normal activities restricted but a different question to ask is how to make a success of quarantine? It’s a reversal of the ‘cash rich, time poor’ lifestyle. Having a routine will give you a structure to the day. You might use the time to rest, reflect and refine your direction post-pandemic. What can you achieve within the current constraints now that the frazzle of daily life is on hold? A time to catch up on that book you never got around to finishing or sorting out those small jobs around the home.
‘This too shall pass’ is the phrase that has sustained many in times of adversity. This crisis will come to an end, lockdown will lift and the silver lining in this adversity is that it can act as a springboard to function better than before. What doesn’t kill us can make us stronger. Positive change can happen in the wake of adversity. This is post-traumatic growth.
Miriam Akhtar is taking part in a Museum of Happiness summit Cultivating Happiness in a Crisis today.