OPINION | Happiness in times of crisis: Is it possible and relevant?

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The author writes that recent studies show that the notion of happiness is important even during current state of grief, hardship and general unhappiness.
The author writes that recent studies show that the notion of happiness is important even during current state of grief, hardship and general unhappiness.

The pandemic has directed our attention to vulnerabilities, loss and threats to mental health. However, it has also shown us that people can be hopeful, kind, resourceful and optimistic when life throws them a curveball, writes Tharina Guse.


It has been a year since the Covid-19 pandemic led to lockdowns around the world. We have all had to make substantial changes to our daily routines with some of us losing our loved ones and others contracting Covid-19.

Given our current state of grief, hardship and general unhappiness, should we even consider the notion of happiness? Recent studies say a resounding yes!

In 2012, the United Nations declared 20 March International Day of Happiness, effectively recognising the relevance of happiness and well-being as universal goals and aspirations for people across the globe.

The World Happiness Report is released on the same day every year. It contains rankings of national happiness, based on people's evaluation of their own lives. This year's survey focused on the effects of Covid-19 on various aspects of people's lives, including happiness, mental health and social connections.

Trust 

Surprisingly, while people experienced more stress and sadness in 2020, there were no changes in average levels of positive emotion and life satisfaction, which are widely accepted as indicators of happiness. The report further suggested that, globally, people seemed to have recovered from the initial negative mental health impact of the pandemic to some extent.

One contributing factor seems to be trust. Individuals who had trust in their communities and were able to count on others were more likely to experience sustained life satisfaction during the pandemic.

South African survey data show a similar trend, with levels of distress decreasing in February 2021.

READ | Researchers find Covid-19 affects mental well-being

Additionally, 58% of respondents indicated that they felt hopeful and 59% said that they remained hopeful in difficult times.

The majority of South Africans surveyed indicated that they had a strong support structure made up of family and friends and experienced a sense of solidarity with their community. In other words, there are some signs of resilience and well-being, despite the challenging circumstances we experience.

Having strong negative emotions is an appropriate reaction to the pandemic, but it desirable to prevent these negative emotions from becoming a downward spiral.

Well-being is not about avoiding unpleasant emotions; rather, it is about balancing the positive and negative as we navigate life in general, and the pandemic specifically.

Some strategies 

If it is possible to experience a sense of happiness in difficult times, how can we foster it? The following strategies may be useful:

·        Stay connected to others. This can be among family, in small groups, or using virtual platforms. Overall, connectedness seems to be one of the most important factors contributing to well-being during the pandemic.

·        A sense of meaning and purpose can help us cope with stress and trauma and even make us stronger in a psychological sense. While some of your plans may have been derailed by the pandemic, you may also see it as a way to better understand your motivation to make these plans. Consider revisiting your goals and explore ways in which you can give back to humanity and the planet.

·        Remember that positive emotions can co-exist with negative emotions. Build your positive internal resources by noticing positive events, practising gratitude and engaging in acts of kindness.

·        Practise self-compassion — in other words, treat yourself with the same care and concern that you would give to a friend who may be struggling. This includes acknowledging feelings such as uncertainty or sadness without trying to make them go away.

·        Cultivate hope by sharing your hopes with others, particularly loved ones and close friends. This means that you will be supported in staying hopeful and reaching your goals.

Psychological resources

Happiness and well-being are both relevant and achievable in times of uncertainty.

The pandemic has rightfully directed our attention to vulnerabilities, loss and threats to mental health. However, it has also shown us that people can be hopeful, kind, resourceful and optimistic when life throws them a curveball.

Therefore, it is equally important to consider psychological resources, happiness, well-being and ways in which well-being can be supported. By doing so, we can weather the Covid-19 storm until it abates and even come out stronger.

- Tharina Guse is from the Department of Psychology at the University of Pretoria.


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