Is Now the Time to Focus on Happiness?

In March, as we all transitioned to remote working and learning, a slew of educational institutions made some of their content available for free. One of these classes was the renowned Science of Well-Being from Yale University.

Oh, fancy. Yale.

I signed up. I figured I needed to fill my time with…something. Pre-pandemic, I had activities every night of the week, but that doesn’t fit well into a shelter in place order and my husband and/or our dogs would murder me if I brought that big extrovert energy on nightly basis. Plus, who doesn’t want to just casually drop “I learned in this class I’m taking at Yale…” into conversations? Sure it’s petty, but it’s a pandemic.

So, let’s study happiness at a time where we’ve moved from asking “how are you doing?” to “how are you holding up?” because we’re just assuming life is kind of shades of shitty, especially as cases continue to tick up and we prepare to send kids back to school.

Did it feel slightly tone-deaf to focus on “happiness” with thousands of people losing their battle with COVID-19 on a daily basis? Yep.

Was it laughable to take a quiz to measure my happiness when the world felt like it was falling apart? Oh yes.

Was it helpful none-the-less? Sure!

The course, led by Dr. Laurie Santos, lasts for ten weeks and takes about an hour or two per week. It’s the most beautiful mix of Buzzfeedesque quizzes and self-helpiness talk to genuinely put you in a better mindset. You explore how you’re already good at making yourself happy (nice work), and how you’re also a pro at making yourself miserable (let’s work on that!).

You might be thinking “Ma’am, it’s a pandemic. People are sick, the stock market has taken a trip to Six Flags, and it must be sooooo nice to focus on your happiness. I’m just trying to get my kids to stop using their telepathic ability to predict when I’m about to have a meeting and start a fight.”

It felt a little indulgent to focus on such a big concept, but through the weeks it goes from such a big, pie-in-the-sky idea to very real thoughts of how we self-sabotage, even in these uncertain times.

For example: Do you catch yourself scrolling endlessly on social media to fill up your time, comparing your quarantine to others and wondering why your sourdough starter, named Greg, has died twice while everyone else’s looks happy, bubbly and fermented?

Do you catch yourself focusing on how much money you need to make, compared to how much others might be making? Do you know that, according to the research presented in the class, you’ll never really feel like you’re making enough money?

Fun fact: Folks making $30,000 wish they could make $50,000, folks making $150,000 wish to make $250,000. There’s no end to if you make x, you’ll finally feel like you’ve made it. If your needs are being met, you might as well strive for more but maybe hinge your happiness on something else.

How do you actually get happier? Here are four easy, pandemic-friendly, takeaways:

Start getting grateful.
Keep a gratitude journal and jot down 3-5 things you’re grateful for every day. Big things. Little things. Medium things. My SodaStream ended up on this list way more than I’d like to admit, but I’m incredibly grateful for those little bubbles in my H2O! It’s a small, but meaningful quality of life staple in our house.

Savor, savor, savor.
When you find yourself doing something you enjoy, sit in the moment and savor it. Savor a good meal or really soak up a beautiful day on your porch.

Exercise.
Yeah, exercise. Go for a long walk in the morning – call it your “commute”, do some yoga, find a piece of heavy furniture and lift it a bunch. Whatever gets you a little sweaty will work.

Get off of social media.
I know, I know. But consider the time you spend on there as something that’s eroding your quality of life and you might stop doing it so much. Few people post the bad stuff, so you’re left comparing yourself (the good, the bad, and the ugly) to their best moments (the good, the prettiest, and the most staged and filtered) or you continually expose yourself to the moments you don’t agree with. It wears on you! And as screen time ticks up as we stay home, it can have prolonged effects on happiness.

Moral of the story: maybe happiness is a big ask right now. Maybe it’s a big ask even after all this is over. If you hear about “a class on happiness” and want to flip a table, I hear you. But now more than ever, we need to be kind–especially to ourselves–so maybe setting yourself up for happiness success isn’t the worst idea. After taking the class, and more importantly, doing the homework (but it’s fun homework!), my happiness points went up around 22%. Granted, the first assessment was in the spiraling chaos of “uncertain times” and the second was in a much more stable “new normal” – I can say that likely helped boost my score a bit, but it wasn’t the only factor. Taking the time to exercise 4x a week and starting up my gratitude journal helped.

If you can’t dedicate a full ten weeks, or even a few hours, Dr. Santos gave a delightfully entertaining interview on the podcast Getting Curious with Jonathan VanNess called “How Can We Stop Being Such Grumpy Nightmares?” and to be honest, even after this class, it’s still a question I ask myself.

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