An Expert on Why We Have a Shot at Happiness—Now More Than Ever

It may seem elusive to the point of impossible, but true contentment is within reach, even now. Especially now.

A few months ago, I sought advice from one of the world’s most respected authorities on the subject of how to be happier. As a recent widow locked down with a wily toddler, I’d watched my hard-won emotional equilibrium in L.A., with its self- and childcare opportunities, abruptly shatter in mid-March like a dropped bottle of oat-straw tincture. I didn’t just need professional help—I needed a guru. Laurie Santos’s Yale course, “Psychology and the Good Life,” in which she presents the latest scientific research and relatively clear-cut routes to joy, is the most popular class in the university’s history, and has since spawned an online class and a hit podcast. But my email bounced back with her auto-reply, explaining that she had been receiving more than a hundred inquiries per day and would not be responding to them individually in order to preserve her own “time affluence” and to “be a role model for my students in forming better, happier personal habits.” I had a little time to consider that a key to happiness may actually be knowing when to say no—before Santos did, in fact, respond, a result that made me feel much happier, which I made sure to tell her, expressing gratitude, one of her oft-cited tips.

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The pursuit of personal happiness may seem counterintuitive—or solipsistic, or merely delusional—during a global pandemic of indeterminate time span, amid a cultural revolution soundtracked by helicopters and sirens, under the looming shadow of great recessions and pivotal elections. But according to Santos, it’s not necessarily selfish to think about how to improve one’s mood right now. It may even be a matter of survival. “It’s all the more important to work on your mental health when times are tough,” she wrote me, citing two immediately pertinent, scientifically backed reasons for doing so during a pandemic: Happy people are less likely to catch a virus, and loneliness can be as damaging to physical health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.

But how are we supposed to get together in a world where we should, at least for the time being, be staying six feet apart? Santos said that any new moment of connection—random, virtual, or otherwise—could make you at least somewhat happier. “A quick chat with a stranger can boost your positive mood more than you expect,” she said. Even reaching out to someone on Zoom or FaceTime—tiresome as those platforms are by now—has “the same benefit,” she said. “Happy people spend time with the people they care about.” And if that time is not spent together in person, it’s still better than nothing. All of which helps to explain why even under 2020’s extreme circumstances, “a lot of research is showing that overall, most people are not any less happy” than before, says psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, the author of such books as The Myths of Happiness and The How of Happiness and a prominent scholar in the field of positive psychology. The majority of people so far have handled their sudden change in routines and conditions much better than anyone expected, she says. “It’s a little surprising. The major story is how resilient we are.”

This is also thanks in part to the phenomenon known to psychologists as hedonic adaptation, or the “hedonic treadmill”: the particular impermanence of the thrill of the new, whether it be a hoped-for job or shiny new acquisition. After an initial spike of pleasure, we eventually level off and return to our baseline. That bounce is usually true in the other direction too: Think of, say, a breakup you once thought might kill you that today makes you laugh. The pain wears off, we acclimatize to the new normal, and we come back to ourselves. Now that we’ve all been “dumped,” as it were, to some degree—less mobility, less interaction, and likely less income, overnight—it seems that many people are going through a major reconsideration of what they actually need in order to be happy. Perhaps we’ve found that some of our material aspirations and superficial acquaintances didn’t matter so much anyway; that where we are, or who we are, or what we still have, isn’t so bad after all. (For those who’ve endured losses beyond merely adjusting to a new reality—the 10 to 30 percent who are “really suffering,” according to Lyubomirsky—it may be a different story, but there is hope yet; more on that later.)

Research backs this up: Assuming basic needs for food, shelter, and safety are met, what we have, or how much of it, makes less of a difference than one might expect. (One Purdue University study pinpointed the dollar amount after which having more income no longer correlates with higher levels of happiness: $105,000 a year in North America.) Which is not to say it isn’t a factor. In 2019, Lyubomirsky addressed one widely cited aspect of her 2005 paper, in which she had estimated that only 10 percent of happiness is determined by external factors. She has since revised that figure to a much larger percentage. “Happiness can be pursued, but it is not ‘easy,’ ” she wrote.

The list of things we can do to improve our overall happiness is familiar to most people with even a glancing interest in the busy world of contemporary wellness. Social connection, exercise, mindfulness practices (like yoga and meditation), helping others, and regularly focusing on gratitude are all proven to boost measures of well-being. Meaningful experiences (a walk in nature, mastering a musical instrument, traveling), as opposed to things, also have a long-lasting impact on positive emotions. Making the time for them is also a factor.

Related: Why Planning a Trip Is Good for Your Mental Health

Where we tend to fall short is the difference between knowing these things and creating new daily practices around them. The latter is the key to actually rewiring our brains and behavior, according to Santos. Luckily, it’s never been easier to make happiness a habit, as you would meditation or exercise. After emailing with Santos, I signed up for the Coursera version of her class, “The Science of WellBeing,” and listened to her podcast, The Happiness Lab, where she interviews personalities like David Byrne (who extols the virtues of talking to strangers) and Catherine Price, the author of a book called How to Break Up with Your Phone. I attempted to view the sudden loss of social events as a “time windfall” to spend bonding with my two-year-old, remembering that she will never again be so small and cuddly. I slowed down mentally during walks, taking moments to appreciate trees and nodding at passersby. When I grew tired of online grocery shopping, I chatted up the proprietor of a specialty food market and teared up as I thanked her for assembling a produce collection with a soul. I tried to, as Santos suggested, “focus on the things you can control”—and though the future was and is terrifyingly uncertain, at least I could tackle potty training, or shape pancakes into hearts. Elsewhere on the Internet, a slew of influencers are proffering their own cross-platform solutions. Gretchen Rubin, author of the best seller The Happiness Project and host of the podcast Happier with Gretchen Rubin, offers hacks for everything from inventive uses of laundry boards while working from home, to scheduling a weekly personal-growth “empower hour.” Dan Harris, an ABC News anchor, found meditation after an on-air panic attack and went on to write a best seller promoting its benefits: 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works. He has since launched an app, a podcast, and a website with a section devoted to “Coronavirus Sanity” that gives free access to essential workers alongside daily live-streamed meditations.

Jane McGonigal used her PhD in performance studies to develop a video game called SuperBetter (also a best-selling book and TED Talk), which purports to foster mental resilience and personal growth through a series of challenges designed to feel like a superhero game—click each time you hug yourself or walk around the block or battle a “bad guy,” say, your internal self-critic, using suggested prompts for reframing a negative thought, and you could make it to the next warrior level. I played with Happify, an app and digital platform with games and activity tracking backed by a team of advisors from the burgeoning field of happiness research, while my daughter napped, and racked up points for zoning out to timed full-screen videos of Amazonian waterfalls. I wanted to be there by those waterfalls, not on my sofa, but still, when was the last time an Instagram post congratulated you for staring at it?

But even if we accept the pursuit of happiness as an essential part of the human experience, there’s still a danger in treating it too much like a goal. In other words, if it’s a vision of an idealized state you’re always working toward, rather than a process that you’re enjoying, you may find yourself falling short, into a perpetual state of wanting. This, of course, will definitely not make you happy. The remedy for this is gratitude: the art of placing your attention and action on what you like about what you do have, rather than what you don’t like about what you don’t have. It could mean sending a thank-you note, expressing appreciation to someone, or making a list for yourself of what you’re thankful for. It sounds simplistic, but the science proves that it really works: Research has linked gratitude journaling to improved self-esteem, better relationships, lower blood pressure, sounder sleep, and reduced symptoms of depression. One Harvard researcher found that participants who did it for three weeks felt more optimistic for six months.

Which is not to say that even the happiest version of yourself will always be in a good mood. It’s actually better for your over-all well-being to feel your own pain. The influential 2014 psychology book The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel van der Kolk, posits that unprocessed negative emotions and trauma are stored in the body and manifest as illness. On top of that, how would you ever know you were happy without knowing its opposite? Carl Jung said that “even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word ‘happy’ would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.”

And so even if you’re enduring a true dark night of the soul, like I am, and like that 10 to 30 percent I mentioned earlier, you might take some comfort in the existence of a phenomenon known as posttraumatic growth, or PTG. Following a life-altering event, after an initial period of shock and struggle or even PTSD, those who experience PTG go on to exhibit improved relationships and life appreciation, as well as a newfound sense of meaning and spiritual connection. They don’t just recover, they’re psychologically transformed—and in some ways, they might be happier than the rest of us. (As 2020 rages on, I can report that I’m somehow feeling like a more positive person overall than I have in ages, despite the fact that I’ve never had more reasons not to be.) Given the collective trauma of the pandemic, it’s not unreasonable to surmise that something like this may eventually happen on a global scale. Perhaps, some time after this shakes out, humanity as a whole will grow from the experience—and be happier.

To the scientists who study it, happiness means a longer-term sense of overall satisfaction with life, rather than a perpetual state of giddy excitement and pleasure (which would exhaust the body and brain, if it were even possible). You can be a happy person and spend a day feeling sorry for yourself. And if you’ve endured tragedy, you can still be happy in the moment when a stranger’s dog runs up to you and licks your face, or when you sense the pleasing crunch of fallen leaves beneath your shoes (this is called “savoring,” in psychology parlance). And the more you notice how happy these little things make you, the less you might notice how unhappy you are about the rest of it, and the happier you might feel, overall, to be alive. Because to be alive is to suffer, and to marvel at moments of serendipitous beauty, and everything in between. “The world is neither a terrible nor wonderful place—it’s both,” Lyubomirsky says. “You choose what reality you focus on.”