The future of happiness

by Sarah Firisen

My eldest daughter has a new boyfriend. I met him the other day, and he seems to be a very nice young man. When I told her I liked him, she replied, “He makes me so happy. Happier than I’ve ever been.” The first blush of love is wonderful. Young love perhaps even more so because it’s so unencumbered by the cares of adult life.

The phrase, “Happier than I’ve ever been,” has been stuck in my head. Perhaps that’s because the last year and a half or so seem to have been, somewhat perversely, a time when at least some people have been happier than they’ve ever been. Or at least happier than they’ve been for a long time. Yes, Covid is scary. Having people around us get very sick, get hospitalized, die has been awful. And lockdown brought a loss of so many of the things that we enjoyed: eating out, listening to live music, travel, gathering with friends. But for many people, it was also a time for forced quiet. And in that quiet, there was the opportunity for reflection.

Arthur C. Brooks, who writes extensively on the topic of happiness, wrote this piece in The Atlantic, A Once-in-a-Lifetime Chance to Start Over. It’s time to prepare for a new and better normal than your pre-pandemic life. In it, he tells the story of a young woman who suffered from amnesia due to a traumatic head injury. Even once she recovered, she was never the same again, “Her parents always attributed these major character changes to her “bump on the head.” But she told me no—the injury had nothing to do with it. Rather, it was the recovery time, away from ordinary routines, that created a punctuation mark in the long sentence of her life. She had a unique opportunity to assess her priorities. She vowed to take nothing in her former life as given. She tore her beliefs and values down to the studs, and rebuilt them. And in so doing, she said, she became happy for the first time in her life.” Brooks likens lockdown, for many people, to this young woman’s experience.

I’ve written recently about #greatresignation. Post-lockdown this is the apparent trend of a large percentage of the workforce walking away from their corporate jobs. These people are often searching for more meaningful work. My collaborator Catherine and I often see a similar theme when interviewing people for our book and podcast.  Like many others these days, these people are often searching for more meaning and purpose in their careers.

Lockdown accelerated a trend that was somewhat underway already. But for many people, this is a search for something beyond just purpose; it’s a search for happiness. Or in many people’s cases, a search for a way to extend the happiness that lockdown unexpectedly brought them.

A recent guest on our podcast, Alyssa, was very clear about this. She explained that she is someone who was always very driven in her career. She hadn’t realized how much work had distracted her from her marriage, children, and health until lockdown. She told us that she’d come home at the end of the day, too tired to do anything but sit on the sofa and watch television. But during lockdown, she had time and energy to focus on her family and herself. She and her husband started taking multiple long walks together every day with their dogs. So many that eventually their dogs rebelled and refused to go out with them! At one point, her husband told her, “I feel like I’ve got back the woman I married.”

Alyssa decided that this happiness, this balance in life, was something she wasn’t prepared to give up as offices started opening back up. She quit her job.  She started working for a small company keeping the flexibility and freedom that brought her such happiness for the last year and a half.

Based on Gallop World Data, the World Happiness Report is an exhaustive and even-handed study of happiness worldwide. It backs up what anecdotally would seem to be the case when talking about happiness in general, but particularly during a pandemic: there are enormous differences by country, age bracket, income level, and more. And it acknowledges, “surveys usually exclude those living in elder care, hospitals, prisons, and most of those living on the streets and in refugee camps. These are populations that were already worse off and have been most affected by Covid-19.”

There are lots of fascinating data points. Still, some jumped out at me, “There has been a significant increase in unemployment and negative emotions, offset by a reduction in the reported frequency of health problems.” And this tracks with some of the reports on unexpected health outcomes that have come out since lockdown began. Such as, “the risk of preterm birth fell nearly 15% during the lockdown period, after controlling for maternal age, race, education level, hypertension, and diabetes.” Possible reasons attributed to this: less air pollution, women spending less time on their feet, lower daily stress because they weren’t commuting to offices. And this is just one of the many unexpected health positives that lockdown brought, Covid aside.

At the height of lockdown, we weren’t able to travel or have active social lives. We’ve been in our own homes, caring less about what we’re wearing and what we own, and so comparing ourselves less to others and what they own and wear. Perhaps this has led to many people feeling happier. This would track with another of the report’s conclusions that “Covid-19 has reduced the effect of income on life satisfaction.”

The report’s overall conclusion is that “subjective well-being has been strikingly resilient in the face of Covid-19.” I’ve read other reports that say that older people reported being happier during lockdown than younger people. Older people were definitely at a far greater health risk from Covid. But perhaps younger people, particularly those missing graduations, proms, and other rites of passage, cared less about health risks and more about all they were missing out on during this time.

As this New York Times piece discusses, “We find our greatest bliss in moments of collective effervescence.” And so many of these kinds of collective activities, live performances, sporting events, etc., didn’t happen during the lockdown. But many of us also got to experience a different kind of collective effervescence, “Happiness lives in the kinds of moments that we celebrated in the early days of Covid when people found solidarity singing together out their windows.” I was a very enthusiastic participant in New York City’s daily 7 pm clap for healthcare works. Particularly in the early days, I remember standing on my balcony and catching sight of neighbors all around me, on their terraces, or hanging out of their windows, banging pots and clapping. That was a pretty special feeling of collective effervescence.

We’re far from out of the Covid woods yet, so it’s too soon to make sweeping predictions. But if this year and a half’s collective life slowdown does have the effect of encouraging reflection about what makes us happy and moves more people to take action in their lives to achieve that happiness, that will be a good thing.