Today is International Day of Happiness. I know — the irony.
But I want to talk about happiness even though the world is in the grips of the biggest health, social and economic challenge in our lifetime. What we are seeing is the biggest mass expression of fear (and its pervasive first cousin, anxiety) the world has seen in many years. Now, more than ever before, the science of happiness has a role in helping us through this crisis.
But first, let’s take a look at the emotion of fear and its role.
Fear and the Human Body
It’s natural that we are all frightened of an invisible virus silently spreading through our communities. We’ve probably been primed for this event by the zombie apocalypses abounding in pop culture.
Fear is a human emotion that has evolved over the millennia precisely to help us deal with threats. It motivates us to take action:
- Flight – run away
- Freeze – hope the threat passes
- Gather together – strength in numbers
Fear is highly functional and allows us to deal with immediate and imminent threats. However, fear is also highly stressful. When we are in fight or flight mode, our brains shut down non-essential functions. Adrenalin and cortisol flood our bodies, increasing our heart rates and blood pressure.
While this is good for dealing with threats to our lives, constant spikes of fear increase the risk of heart attacks. Additionally, our agitated states place a significant strain on our relationships. Fear brings about unintended adverse side effects.
However, this is where the science of happiness can help.
Positive emotions undo the effects of fear and stress
We know from numerous studies that positive emotions can undo the physical effects of stress. For example, think of how running or dancing can shift you out of a bad mood. Our worries melt away when we are with someone we trust and who cares about us. We relax when we return home to our safe, familiar environment. Physiologically, our nervous systems are calming down.
A calm nervous system is not only nice for us, it also strengthens our immune systems — the very thing we need to resist COVID-19. A famous study found happier people were less likely to fall sick when exposed to the common cold virus. If this sounds too fantastical to believe, then think of the reverse situation. We all know we are more likely to come down with an illness when we’re stressed.
Right now, the public health message is to wash your hands and practice social distance. I would like to add that there should be a public mental health message that accompanies it: Keep sane — be positive.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. The trick is, how do we stimulate positive emotions?
The Five Ways to Happiness
Back in 2008, my colleagues and I wrote, what became a very influential report, The Five Ways to Wellbeing. We were commissioned by the UK Government Office of Science to review the academic evidence on what positive actions individuals could take to improve their mental wellbeing. We needed to create the mental health equivalent of the popular message encouraging people to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day to maintain their physical health.
Since its publication, The Five Ways to Wellbeing framework has been used in thousands of contexts and settings, from national public mental campaigns to small local community projects. The UK mental health charity MIND used it as the basis of its core messaging about positive mental health and in Christchurch, NZ as it formed the backbone of the post-earthquake community outreach programme.
Today, COVID-19 is forcing us to adapt our lifestyles and working patterns. But it’s also allowing us to cultivate happiness in our lives. The Five Ways to Wellbeing framework is a reminder of the types of activities that will keep us feeling sane and happy during these difficult times. It provides the positive actions that we can build into our daily lives — especially as we face disruptions in our routines.
Our relationships are often what define us. In these challenging times, they will be even more important to us. Make a conscious effort to reach out to your friends and family – a daily phone call, WhatsApp, FaceTime can help make all the difference.
Moving is good for our positive mood. Even if you are stuck inside, you can stretch, do yoga or dance. Get creative in how you move your body and avoid the temptation to just sit down all day.
Taking time to slow down and notice our immediate surroundings is calming for us. Stay curious. Appreciate the beautiful. Take quiet moments for mindful self-reflection. All of this helps us gain insights into what is truly meaningful.
Learning new things makes us more confident, as well as being fun. Many of us will now have more time. So, take the opportunity to rediscover an old interest. Sign up for an online course or set yourself new challenges you will enjoy achieving.
Being generous feels good as well as doing good. Reach out with offers of help to friends and neighbours. Listen to others who may be more anxious or scared than you. Keep smiling and remember laughter is good for the soul.
Clearly, with social distancing, self-isolation and working from home now incredibly prevalent in our lives, the opportunity to connect is somewhat curtailed. However, this places greater emphasis on the need to connect and the buffering of mental health offered by the other ways. Thankfully, we live in a world of the internet and social media (a phrase rarely spoken). It provides an opportunity to frequently connect with other people, without being in physical proximity to them.
Isolation and social distance are undoubtedly bad for our mental health, even though they’re essential for physical health right now. To make it through this crisis, we need to be mindful of the need to find other ways to maintain and boost our mental health and happiness.
So, despite the uncertain times, let’s take the world’s happiness seriously today.