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It’s OK to Feel Joy Right Now

By A.C. Shilton | March 20, 2021 | The New York Times

The birds are chirping, a warm breeze is blowing, and some of your friends are getting vaccinated. After a year of anxiety and stress, many of us are rediscovering what optimism feels like. And the good news about an increase in available vaccines could not come at a more joyous time.

Spring is the season of optimism. With it comes more natural light and warm weather, both great mood boosters, and some of our most hopeful religious holidays: Easter, Passover, the Hindu festival of Holi and Nowruz, the Persian new year that celebrates springtime and renewal.

But if you’re expecting your happiness to skyrocket the moment we finish off this pandemic once and for all, think again.

Yes, receiving your vaccine shot, daydreaming about intimate dinner parties or those first hugs with grandchildren may give you a jolt of joy, but euphoria, unfortunately, tends to be fleeting.

Blame “hedonic adaptation,” said Rhea Owens, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota Duluth, who conducts research on positive psychology interventions in counseling practices. When good (or bad) things happen, we feel an initial surge or dip in our overall happiness levels. Hedonic adaptation means that, over time, we settle back into wherever we were happiness-wise before that good or bad event happened. Even if the good thing — like getting your dream job — is continuing.

To maintain those positive feelings, you are going to need to work on it a bit. Thank evolution.

“Our brains developed biologically for survival, not happiness,” said Sanjay Kumar, director of contemplative practices and well-being at the Fish Interfaith Center at Chapman University in Orange, California. The human mind, he added, “prioritizes negative experiences to be remembered more strongly than positive ones, as a way for us to anticipate potential threats in our environment.”

While that’s good for evolution, excessive worry isn’t anyone’s idea of a happy state of mind.

Ultimately, happiness is more of a daily practice than anything else, Kumar said. Which is why getting your coronavirus shot may make you happy for a moment but won’t bring you long-term happiness. The good news is that researchers have found steps that will (and no needles are required). Even better: these strategies work perfectly in a moment like this — when hope is on the horizon, but the path toward it isn’t clear.

To start, it’s OK if you’re not OK.

While many Americans are beginning to exhale, many others are buried deep in grief.

If that’s you, it’s OK if this stage of the pandemic does not feel joyous, said Shannon South, a transpersonal psychologist based in Asheville, North Carolina. If you need to avoid pictures of your friends getting their coronavirus vaccines on social media, that’s fine. Consider this your permission to let yourself feel what you need to feel.

If you’re not allowing yourself to feel happy because you worry you’ll be disappointed by future bad news, that’s OK too, Owens said. This is called defensive pessimism, and it can help people feel more in control of a bad situation. In a moment like this, where there are worrying signs of more trouble ahead — like Italy and Spain putting in effect new lockdowns — and case numbers in the U.S. remain stubbornly high, it’s understandable if you are just not ready to feel optimistic yet, Owens said.

Savor this (and everything).

Your first time hugging friends in a year is going to be so sweet, you’ll undoubtedly savor every moment of it. But there is joy in everyday things, too. Spring seems especially full of good moments for savoring — like finding the shell of a just-hatched robin’s egg, spying a chorus of daffodils in a local yard or just feeling the sun of a spring day on bare arms. Even the mundane things — like watching yet another youth soccer game — can feel special if you take a moment to remember the not-so-distant past when so much of our lives was put on hold.

Owens recommends simply taking the time whenever something good happens — no matter how small — to really acknowledge it.

Marvel as much as you can.

In the past decade, researchers have been investigating the relationship between wonder, happiness and good health. In 2013, the Social Interaction Lab at the University of California, Berkeley, started Project Awe to study the intersection of awe and happiness. In one study published in the journal Emotion in 2015, participants (in this case college students) who experienced more positive emotions had lower levels of interleukin-6, a marker for inflammation. And participants with the lowest levels of interleukin-6 were the participants who reported feeling awe most often.

Awe also may make us more generous. A 2015 paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology looked at five different studies on feelings of awe and “pro-social” — what’s good for the collective group — behavior. The researchers found that being awed made participants more generous toward others and ethical in their decision-making.

Perhaps this research explains why getting the vaccine is such a serotonin boost for so many. Not only do you suddenly feel like the future is brighter, but you may also feel awe at the wonders of modern science.

If needles don’t make you feel awe, that’s fine. This feeling can come from a walk around the block, said Allen Klein, author of “The Awe Factor.” One of his favorite strategies for ensuring his daily dose of awe is heading out for an “awe walk.” On these strolls, he’ll turn off his mental list of chores and things to remember, and instead focus on finding wonder in small things along the way.

Be grateful and kind.

Acts of kindness tend to increase people’s ratings of their happiness, Owens said. “I think we could all use a little bit of extra kindness right now.”

The boost you get may not be huge, however. A review of studies published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2018 found benefits of kind acts were modest. But they were there.

You may also get some benefit from simply thinking about good deeds you have done in the past. A 2021 study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology by researchers at the University of California, Riverside, found reflecting on past kind deeds improved well-being at a rate similar to actually going out and doing new good deeds. This isn’t clearance to never be kind again, though. But if you’re stuck at home and cannot get out to help a friend, try thinking back on a time when you did those things.

Realize happiness alone isn’t enough.

If you have been struggling with depression throughout the pandemic — as many Americans have — working to boost your own happiness may not be the cure you are hoping for. “The opposite of depression is not happiness,” said Jeff Ditzell, a New York-based psychiatrist. “The opposite of depression is no longer being depressed.”

The good news, South said, is that for many Americans, their circumstances may be driving their depression. A 2020 study by researchers at Boston University looked at depression symptoms among survey takers before the pandemic and then during it. Participants reporting symptoms of depression more than tripled, and having financial trouble and high levels of stress correlated with having a higher risk of depressive symptoms during the pandemic.

If you have been struggling with symptoms of depression these past 12 months, you may feel your depression subside as the pandemic slowly wanes. It may not. Clinical depression should be treated by a mental health professional.

Break out your calendar.

While we still don’t know when indoor concerts, big parties and other activities we enjoyed before the pandemic will return, scheduling a few safe activities can do wonders for keeping your optimism up. In fact, just anticipating an event can sometimes be as pleasurable as the activity itself. Perhaps it’s too early to set a date for that 15-person dinner party, but you certainly can crack open a cookbook to start planning the menu.

And when party day arrives, don’t forget to savor every last morsel and belly laugh, as you eat, drink and be more than just fleetingly merry.

© 2021 THE NEW YORK TIMES COMPANY

A.C. Shilton
The New York Times

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