How to Be Happy in Hard Times

Happiness can be cultivated in even the rockiest of soil.

Posted Sep 14, 2020

A global pandemic, record-breaking unemployment, police brutality, systemic racism, partisan fistfights, wildfires, hurricanes—we are certainly living in hard times.

It probably comes as no surprise that happiness among Americans is at an all-time low. According to a new poll conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago, only 14 percent of Americans say they are happy. That number is down from 31 percent this time last year and it’s the lowest percentage recorded since NORC started collecting their data 50 years ago.

These days, happiness is as hard to come by as disinfectant wipes.

The things that brought us joy so easily before—travel, grabbing lunch with friends, hugging our loved ones—are suddenly out of reach. But that doesn’t mean we can’t find new and creative ways to cultivate happiness. Believe it or not, research shows that rough times can actually leave us feeling even happier and healthier.

We’ve all heard of the term “post-traumatic stress” but less of us are familiar with its sunny cousin, “post-traumatic growth.” Whereas resiliency refers to our ability to endure hard times, post-traumatic growth refers to our ability to actually change and improve as a result of those difficult experiences.

This doesn’t mean pretending everything’s okay or denying your feelings when in the midst of a crisis. People who experience post-traumatic growth acknowledge their fear and anger and despair, but they also seek out momentary, fleeting sparks of joy wherever they can find it.

Research on post-traumatic growth has identified five sources of happiness and growth commonly experienced among survivors of tragedy:

  • a greater appreciation for life
  • enhanced feelings of personal strength
  • spiritual growth
  • closer social relationships, and
  • the recognition of new possibilities for their lives

But these benefits don’t occur automatically. When hard times hit, you have to nurture and cultivate your post-traumatic growth. Below are a few tips on how to do just that in the era of COVID (or for that matter, during any tough time in your life).

1. Listen to Some Tunes

By now we’ve all seen those heartwarming videos of Italian citizens serenading each other on their balconies. Turns out those Italians were on to something. Study after study confirms that music is an excellent mood booster. As music therapist Esther Wong puts it, “Music bypasses the thinking/cognitive brain and goes straight to your feelings, which is why it is so powerful. It touches deep into your heart and soul.”

If you’re like me and listened to music on your commute to work every day, your main music-time may have disappeared with the lockdown. If so, try to identify another time in your daily routine where you can inject some uplifting tunes—when you’re cooking dinner, taking a shower, or going for your daily walk.

2. Focus on Your Values

The human brain is a meaning-making machine. We need to feel a sense of usefulness, of purpose, in order to feel good about ourselves, but that’s hard when so many of us are out of work, working from home, or are just unable to pursue our passions.

Try using this “free time” to really think about your most important values and identify small actions you can take to work on these goals. Maybe that means exploring a new hobby you’ve always wanted to try but never had the time, like baking bread or learning a new language or giving back to your community. Or maybe it means re-engaging with your romantic partner or reconnecting with your children in a new way. The point is that even under these trying times, our lives can have purpose and meaning and we can still strive to achieve our most precious goals.

3. Connect With Others in New Ways

Humans are social creatures. Science shows that having strong social connections is the most consistent predictor of who has a happy life. But maintaining and building our social connections has become more difficult in the age of lockdown orders, social distancing, and masks that hide our smiles.

That’s the bad news, but the good news is that we are fortunate to have so many different types of technology to help us forge bonds with people we can’t see face-to-face. Zoom, FaceTime, and social media are obvious options, but even old-school tech can help. One example is that families are rediscovering the joy of drive-in movie theaters. Another is that some older adults locked down in nursing homes and assisted living facilities have turned into radio DJs to bond over music classics; others have formed the Long Distance Movie Club.

Just because we are in quarantine doesn’t mean we can’t stay connected with our loved ones; you just have to get a little more creative.

4. Get Outside (But Don’t Forget Your Mask)

Happiness guru Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project and host of the weekly podcast “Happier with Gretchen Rubin,” once said “exercise is the magical elixir of life” and the research backs her up. Studies show that a 12-minute walk is enough to boost happiness. And while you’re at it, get your steps outside in nature. Neuroscience studies found that being in nature, or even looking at pictures of nature, lowers brain activity in the frontal lobes, causing us to feel happier and more relaxed.

5. Be Grateful

A 2018 study published in Psychotherapy Research assigned students who were dealing with anxiety and depression to write a letter. Each week for three weeks, one group wrote one letter of gratitude to another person, another group wrote about their thoughts and feelings regarding a negative experience, and a third group skipped the writing activity entirely.

When the researchers checked in with these people after the writing sessions ended, they found those who wrote the gratitude letters reported significantly better mental health. When they checked back in again 12 weeks after the sessions ended, they still saw the same pattern. Those few, brief experiences of gratitude managed to provide these people with a happiness-boosting benefit that lasted long after the assignment had concluded.

Think about the people that make your daily life that much easier during this pandemic—the grocery store clerks, the nurses, and doctors, the mailpersons, the teachers, the sanitary workers, the food delivery workers. How might you show your gratitude? Not only will it brighten their day, but it will also give your own mood a lift. It might even give your immune system a well-needed boost.

To learn more ways to boost happiness, check out the best-selling book The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin.