5 simple ways to spark happiness during uncertain days

Learn how paying witness to your life will lead to joy

Posted Jun 25, 2020

The last time so few Americans were "very happy," it seems, was in the early 1970s.

American soldiers were dying overseas. The Ohio National Guard shot and killed four students at Kent State University. Jimmy Hendrix and Janis Joplin died. 

Fast forward 50 years.

Today Americans are grappling with a life-altering pandemic. Social distancing has created a yearning for the familiarity of family and friends. Human connection for many has been reduced to digital interactions — Zoom meetings and phone calls. Unemployment is soaring and the stock market is erratic. Racial protests are erupting across the country. Political divisiveness is stressing relationships and accelerating tensions.

Understandably, today people are less happy and more fearful about their future than in the past. They are asking, “What does tomorrow look like and how do we plan for it?"

This month, the results of a study conducted annually by NORC at the University of Chicago were released. Based on previous data from a different survey, the new results indicated that fewer people are "very happy" today than at any survey point over the past five decades. The study found that only 14% of American adults say they are “very happy.” This represents a rapid decline over the past years. In fact, in 2018, a mere two years ago, 31% of those surveyed said they were “very happy.”

These NORC findings are jarring but not unexpected. We see it in our community and every day on the news. People are feeling anxious and depressed in response to what has become an unpredictable future.

What can we do?

First, let’s reflect on the meaning of happiness. Feeling happy is the by-product of being present to witness your life. Happy people live in the present not in the past or in the future. 

Second, let's explore practices that will help you live mindfully in the present moment. Here are five recommendations of activities that promise to make you more present, ease your anxiety, and boost your personal happiness.

1. Practice meditation

Buddha was asked this question: “What have you gained from meditation?”

He replied, “Nothing at all.”

“Then Blessed One, what good is it?”

“Let me tell you what I lost through meditation: sickness, anger, depression, insecurity, the burden of old age, the fear of death. That is the good of meditation, which leads to nirvana.”

Meditation is a practice of training your mind to focus on a single point. Studies show it sharpens our cognitive and emotional abilities to cut through the noise of life. It reduces distraction, irritation, and negative emotion.

There are benefits in abundance for those who practice meditation, including lowered blood pressure, a slower rate of breathing, improved sleep, strengthened immunological response, and even increased telomere length. Notably, increased telomere length directly correlates to the length of one’s lifespan. In fact, one Harvard study showed that with only eight weeks of meditation, there was enhanced brain activity in regions of the brain known to be involved in attention, memory, and emotion. There were also structural changes in the amygdala, a pair of tiny almond-shaped structures in the brain that process fear and anger.

In our book, The Two Most Important Days, How to Find your Purpose and Live a Happier, Healthier Life, we discuss six forms of meditation: Buddhist meditation, Vipassana, Mindfulness, Loving-Kindness, Transcendental Meditation, and Taoist meditation.

Here, let’s discuss Mindfulness, the art of being aware of the present moment through non-judgmental observation of your thoughts, feelings, breath, and bodily sensation. Here’s a simple practice you can try.

a. Sit comfortably in a quiet space.

b. Set a time limit, perhaps 10 minutes, and over time increase it to 30 minutes.

c. Close your eyes. Listen to the gift that is your breath. Pay attention to each inhale and each exhale.

d. Accept that your mind will wander and, when it does, gently return your thoughts to your breath.

e. When the time limit you set ends, sit quietly for a few minutes, and enjoy the feeling of relaxation that surely will engulf you.

 Gina Vild
Read a poem a day
Source: Photo: Gina Vild

2. Read a poem

Poetry can be life-changing. So much wisdom is tucked into so few words. A good poem will make you think, and it will make you feel. 

In an article for NPR, author Alan Heathcock suggests that we read one poem a day each and every day. He said, “That's the practical greatness of a poem. They don't take much time, travel well, don't require any plug-ins or accessories. It's the ancient and perfect technology of words on a page that make you imagine beyond your means, make you feel the truths of lives that are not yours, and contemplate the life you have.”

If you aren’t sure how to begin, here are a few poets to explore.

John O’Donohue  

From his poem Blessing:

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.
And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

Julia Kasdorf

From her poem What I Learned From my Mother:

I learned that whatever we say means nothing,

what anyone will remember is that we came.

I learned to believe I had the power to ease

awful pains materially like an angel.

Like a doctor, I learned to create

from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once

you know how to do this, you can never refuse.

To every house you enter, you must offer

healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,

the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.

Mary Oliver

From her poem The Summer Day

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

With your one wild and precious life?

3. Make a gift of yourself

As Bradley Whitford said, “Do what you can to make grace happen.”

You can be a force for good in the world and that goodness will reward you many times over, boosting your own joy.

Think of those to whom you can be of service, such as neighbors and others your community. Consider that they, too, may be worried and fearful about the future. They may have suffered loss. They may be concerned about their health or the health of those they love. They may be isolating alone and feeling lonely.

Here are some simple things you can do to be a source of calm and support during the pandemic.

Give money to a food bank. The pandemic has caused considerable hardship for many who face unemployment and are struggling to eat and to feed their family. Your contribution will tremendously valued. Many grocery stores accept contributions for food banks, and you can also search online for food banks in your community.

Be extra kind to service workers who are on the frontline of the pandemic. They are putting themselves at risk to ensure that our basic needs are being met. When you are in a grocery store, post office, gas station and drug store, express gratitude for their service, and when you can use the employee's name to say thank you.  

Call an acquaintance who is living alone. Check in on elderly neighbors. They may appreciate your dropping of groceries at their front door. Do you know anyone in a nursing home who would enjoy a conversation by phone?

Sew masks for the community. In many parts of the country, there remain health care works who do not have sufficient PPE. The shortage of protective equipment for health care works has not adequately been resolved. If this is the case in your community, learn how you can help. Make masks and share them with your community center. Seniors in particular will appreciate your effort to help keep them safe.

4. Think of dancing as a shortcut to happiness

Vivian Greene famously said, “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.”

Music is a boon to mood and serves as a tool for productivity and joy. Is there any single thing other than music that can instantly lift you up, energize you, calm you, and make you weep with joy?  Music taps into the whole brain and carries with it the power of the whole human experience.

When we listen to music, a variety of effects cascade along the beat of our daily life. Stress is immediately reduced, mood changes, work becomes more focused, sleep comes without a fight.

So for an instant mood booster, log on to Spotify or Pandora or turn on the radio to find music that you love and just listen. Better yet, tap your foot, sing along, or dance alone in the kitchen.

5. Experience nature

The birds, trees, and flowers don’t know that we are grappling with a global pandemic. Nature is flourishing, perhaps now even more so because the world has temporarily gone quiet.  Enjoy the serenity of this moment in time. We may be isolating, but that doesn’t preclude us from communing with nature.

Be on the lookout for birds.  Reportedly, bird watching has soared since the onset of the pandemic. The National Audubon Society has reported the download of their bird identification app has doubled during the first two months of the pandemic, up by half a million. You will find it both soothing and exciting when you see your first Goldfinch and hear the cry of a Bluebird.

Plant a garden. Head out to a garden center and buy some flower seeds or tomato plants. Pot a tub of basil and inhale its sweet scent. Watch the roses bloom. Pay attention to the life cycle of plants. It is humbling and joyful.

Take a walk in the woods. Robert Lock outlined the value of a walk among the trees. He said it may help prevent cancer by boosting our natural killer cells that fight cancer. The scent of a forest is known to reduce stress and suppress depression. A study found that Londoners living near trees had better mental health than those who had little contact with nature. It even has been said that a walk in the woods will improve memory and learning.

So experience these antidotes for unhappiness. Try meditation. Read a poem. Dance. Take a walk in the woods.  Feel the gratification of your hands in the soil. These practices are simple and inexpensive and may well launch your journey to greater happiness.

References

University of Chicago Study on happiness https://apnews.com/0f6b9be04fa0d3194401821a72665a50

Harvard Grant Study https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/04/over-nearly-80-years-harvard-study-has-been-showing-how-to-live-a-healthy-and-happy-life/

NPR poem a day: https://www.npr.org/2011/12/26/143853118/a-poem-a-day-portable-peaceful-and-perfect

PPE shortage in hospitals: https://www.bostonglobe.com/2020/06/21/nation/dangerous-shortages-protective-gear-persist-mass-hospitals-clinicians-say/