March 20th | International Day of Happiness.
It feels strange to publish a piece about happiness, especially as the world faces its biggest health challenge in recent years. But perhaps now more than ever, the science of happiness has a place in the world in mitigating the ongoing fear and anxiety sweeping our nations. Though the virus spreads, fear is the greatest disruptor to our way of life. And the best way to address the fear and uncertainty is to cultivate positivity.
It’s only natural that we’re all frightened of an invisible virus silently spreading through our populations — it’s a problem unlike any we’ve faced. Fear is a powerful emotion. It evolved over the millennial to help us deal with threats. It’s a strong motivation that moves us to take evasive actions:
These reactions are highly functional and help us deal with immediate and imminent threats.
However, fear is also highly stressful and takes a toll on the body. When fear hits our bodies, we enter the fight or flight mode, and our brains shut down non-essential functions (like thinking). Adrenaline and cortisol flood our bodies, increasing our heart rates and blood pressure, as well as preparing us to repair tissue. These reactions are necessary if we were in an actual fight, but we rarely encounter the situations where we need this kind of response in the workplace.
Entering fight or flight at the news of a virus spreading does not help us either. The fight or flight response increases the risk of heart attacks, as does the likelihood that in our agitated state our relationships come under increased strain. Fear is functional, but it carries unintended consequences.
We know from numerous studies that positive emotions can undo the physical effects of stress. Studies have shown, for instance, that running or dancing can shift us out of a bad mood. Our worries melt away when we are with someone that we trust and who cares about us. We relax when we return home to our own safe, familiar environments. We feel positive emotions, happiness and then, physiologically, our nervous systems calm down.
A calm nervous system not only feels good but strengthens our immune systems — the only thing we have to resist COVID-19. A famous study showed that happier people were less likely to fall sick when exposed to the common cold. Compare that to the reverse: we’re more likely to come down with an illness when we’re stressed.
Currently, the physical health mantra is to wash your hands and maintain social distance. To maintain mental health, we can add: Keep sane — be positive.
If positive emotions can help boost the immune system and undo the effects of fear, the question then is how do we stimulate positive emotions in a time of such fear?
Stimulating happiness is something that we at Friday Pulse are keenly acquainted with. Our Founder & CEO, Nic Marks wrote an influential report called The Five Ways to Wellbeing in 2008. Commissioned by the UK Government Office of Science, the report reviewed the academic evidence on what actions people could take to improve their mental wellbeing.
Since its publication, The Five Ways to Wellbeing framework has been used in thousands of contexts and settings, from national public mental campaigns to small local community projects.
COVID-19 is forcing us to slow down but it is also allowing us to cultivate happiness in our lives where it was lacking. The Five Ways to Wellbeing framework is a reminder of the types of activities that will keep us feeling sane and happy during these difficult times. It provides the positive actions that we can build into our day-to-day lives — especially as we face disruption to our daily routine.
Our relationships are often what define us. In these challenging times, they will be even more important to us. Make a conscious effort to reach out to your friends and family – a daily phone call, WhatsApp, FaceTime can help make all the difference.
Moving is good for our positive mood. Even if you are stuck inside, you can stretch, do yoga or dance. Get creative in how you move your body and avoid the temptation to just sit down all day.
Taking time to slow down and notice our immediate surroundings is calming for us. Stay curious. Appreciate the beautiful. Take quiet moments for mindful self-reflection. All of this helps us gain insights into what is truly meaningful.
Learning new things makes us more confident, as well as being fun. Many of us will now have more time. So, take the opportunity to rediscover an old interest. Sign up for an online course or set yourself new challenges you will enjoy achieving.
Being generous feels good as well as doing good. Reach out with offers of help to friends and neighbours. Listen to others who may be more anxious or scared than you. Keep smiling and remember laughter is good for the soul.
The coronavirus scare can be an incredibly lonely affair. With the need for social distancing, self-isolation and working remotely in place, the opportunity to connect is somewhat curtailed. However, this puts greater emphasis on our need to connect and gain the buffering of mental health offered by the other five ways.
Thankfully, we have the internet and social media — it offers the opportunity to connect with other people without physical proximity. In addition to calls and emails, we have instant messaging, texting, and a host of different forms of communication at our disposal. It has never been easier to reach out and connect with someone.
Isolation and social distance are undoubtedly bad for our mental health, even though they are essential for our physical health. We need to be mindful of the need to find other ways to maintain and boost our mental health and happiness. The Five Ways to Wellbeing framework provides a very useful reminder of the types of activities we can all do during these unprecedented times.
Telling people to be happy in this current climate may seem like a bad joke, but the WHO defines health as a “complete state of physical, mental and social wellbeing, not just the absence of disease.”
So, despite these uncertain times, let’s take the world’s happiness seriously.