Don’t you have anything joyful in your life?
A reader demanded to know.
Too much of what you’re writing comes from the dark side, he said. Maybe you should retire.
It got me thinking. … And no, not about retirement.
To the question of joyful stuff, I can answer a conditional yes.
They’re have been small scale things close to home in a year when, ironically, I had planned to visit Bhutan – the first place in the world where government budgets are screened through the lens of their effect on citizens’ happiness and well-being.
Instead, my greatest joy was discovering on frequent neighbourhood walks this fall that those red toadstools of my childhood books aren’t fiction.
But about the dark side stuff. COVID-19 has exposed gaping holes in our social safety net. The elderly, the poor, indigenous people, people of colour are all dying at higher rates than other Canadians.
It’s shocking and shameful. So I make no apologies for writing about it. However, like the reader, I too have days when the news seems more than I can bear.
Every week, many of the world’s leading researchers trying to discover the secret to well-being and life satisfaction Zoom in to seminars organized through Oxford University.
Unlike most seminars though, the first 20 minutes of the hour are devoted to what Helliwell describes as “the kind of things you talk about at drinks after a meeting.”
So, what about all the dismal pandemic stuff doing to us more generally?
It’s true that the more you know and read about the pandemic, the more worried and fearful you become, according to the Danish Happiness Research Institute’s report Happiness in the Midst of a Pandemic.
But it also found that newspaper and magazine readers are less likely to feel that way than people who get their news from other sources, which may help explain the oblivious anti-maskers.
If it bleeds, it leads. Crime sells. Those are enduring journalistic tropes. But Aknin said it hides the fact that generosity and kindness is happening en masse.
She pointed to a recent YouGov poll that found a surprising jump in people reporting acts of kindness by strangers during the pandemic.
That polling and analysis by the Imperial College of London found Canadians were second only to the Danes in saying that the pandemic has brought people closer together. In contrast, the Americans are at or near the bottom in both that poll and work done by Gallup.
Because of greater focus on family, close friends and relationships during the pandemic, the Happiness Institute found generally people’s sense of life meaning and purpose unchanged from before.
Social connectedness is far and away the best predictor of happiness. But Helliwell pointed out that it’s also bolstered by trust in government, which so far in Canada has only increased since the pandemic.
Of course, it’s not all sunshine and light.
In fact, parts of the Danish report are downright dismal.
Extrapolating from responses from close to 12,000 people from March until late summer in 97 countries (including Canada), it says that in a population of one million people, 100 new COVID cases would lead to 2,500 people feeling less satisfied with their lives and 7,200 people becoming more anxious.
Of course, happiness isn’t imposed even if many things like pandemics seem completely beyond our control.
Happiness is subjective. It’s something of a choice, which is why the Danish report ends on a happy note with evidence-based recommendations for things within our control.
Go outside for more than 15 minutes every day. Do arts and crafts or a do-it-yourself project (sourdough bread, anyone?). Meditate.
Help someone. Keep in touch with friends. Exercise.
And don’t read your email. … OK, I made that last one up.
So, to get some perspective, I sought out some happiness experts to find out how we are doing and how they’re doing.
First, the personal. Lara Aknin bought a projector last summer, hooked it up to her laptop and screened movies on the garage door for her kids and others in the neighbourhood.
Kids were in front with individual bags of popcorn; adults in the back, socially distanced, with their own refreshments.
“Hands’ down, it was the highlight of my five-year-old’s summer,” said Aknin, a distinguished professor and associate editor of the World Happiness Report.
Beyond that, she’s organized virtual dinner parties for her colleagues working in her lab at Simon Fraser University. For the first one, they all ordered Indian food from their favourite restaurants and hung out together.
“It was so kooky and unusual. It was lots of fun,” she said.
John Helliwell is happily chopping wood for the stove at his home on Hornby Island.
“It’s purposeful exercise and I always find that infinitely better than exercising in the gym,” said Helliwell whose many titles include editor and co-author of the World Happiness Report, senior research fellow and UBC economic professor emeritus.
“It’s part of what you find in happiness studies, generally. If you help other people and do things that have a purpose and not just things for rote reasons or for your own self-interest, you’ll be happier.”
Far from feeling isolated, Helliwell has found there are now more – not fewer – opportunities to talk to friends and colleagues because nobody waits for a big, international conference to get together.