Lessons in Finding Happiness During Hard Times
Researchers say we're wired for joy and what it means for resilience
En español | In the short list of songs that have brought the world joy, you'd be hard-pressed to top the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” with its lilting melody and deeply hopeful lyrics ("the smiles returning to the faces"; “I feel that ice is slowly melting").
No wonder that hospitals played it repeatedly over their public-address systems this spring as an auditory balm in some of the most stress-filled, soul-scorching places on the planet: the intensive care units overflowing with COVID-19 patients struggling to stay alive.
At Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, the song started up every time a coronavirus patient was discharged or recovered enough to breathe without the help of a ventilator. “Everyone in the hospital is under tremendous pressure,” says pulmonologist Steven Feinsilver, M.D., who has been caring for non-COVID-19 lung cases to free his colleagues to treat those with coronavirus. “Especially for those I see on the front lines of critical care, it's like a war zone here. The work is relentless. To hear this song on the loudspeaker is brilliant. It's just what people need, a reminder that patients are recovering. You feel good for a moment."
Feeling good may be the last thing on your mind as the coronavirus pandemic grinds into its sixth month in America. As we struggle to revive after arguably one of the world's worst health and economic calamities, is even talking about happiness self-absorbed and inappropriate?
Quite the contrary, countless researchers say. Pursuing happiness and, more importantly, finding it, matters more during dark times, says Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology at Yale University. “Happiness gives us the resilience to get through. This is a challenging time because it's both a physical and mental health crisis. We need to focus on happiness more now, not less."
The emotional lift provided by that Beatles song shouldn't be underestimated, notes Lenox Hill nurse manager Amanda Griffiths. The song played some 20 times on a single day, Griffiths recalls, and each repetition made her feel better. “It was an overwhelming sense of, wow, we're making a difference. I got very teary-eyed."
Clearly, the kind of happiness that matters in tough times has nothing to do with birthday hats or smiley faces. “This isn't delusional Hollywood glee and delight,” says psychologist Maria Sirois, author of A Short Course in Happiness After Loss. "The happiness that helps in great difficulty is realistic. It recognizes fears and anxieties. It looks for meaning. It nourishes and sustains us."
To better understand happiness and its role in hard times, AARP asked me to speak with the full spectrum of researchers and doctors focused on the topic to find out the deeper truths of joy. Here is what they want you to know.
Happiness Rx: Play Some Music
In mid-March, when stay-at-home orders were starting to take root, two kids in Columbus, Ohio, came up with a simple way to help a neighbor through the isolation. Taran Tien, 9, and sister Calliope, 6, carried their cellos to the front porch of Helena Schlam and played an impromptu concert for the 78-year-old Mozart fan. “It was delightful,” Schlam says. “Music is a comfort to me."
Indeed, in difficult times music can help relieve our mental anguish. “It's almost like an aspirin. You have a back pain, that gives you a little relief,” says Andy Tubman, chief of therapeutics for Musical Health Technologies, whose SingFit products guide people with dementia through singing exercises. “Music can be a healthy distraction in that sense."
AARP and the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH) plan to release a report on June 21, World Music Day, on how music affects the brain. “People who study the brain have shown that listening to music you enjoy can cause a release of dopamine, a chemical that increases feelings of happiness,” says Sarah Lenz Lock, AARP's senior vice president of Policy & Brain Health and GCBH executive director.
Songs of empowerment also bubble up in troubled times. During the pandemic, songwriter Nick Lowe, 71, performed his anthem “(What's So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding,” among other tunes, in virtual shows from his home. “It's a brand-new experience to me, to sing to a phone,” he says. “But when people see a musician sitting at home and not freaking out, I suppose that cheers people up."
To help, AARP has compiled a Spotify playlist, Songs of Hope and Happiness.
Lesson 1: Happiness is possible in dark hours
In the wake of a life-shattering crisis or global disaster, something surprisingly positive often happens. Two months after the World Trade Center terrorist attacks in 2001, a University of Pennsylvania survey of over 4,000 Americans found that they felt more gratitude, hope, kindness and love than they did before 9/11. And the effect wasn't transitory. In a three-year State University of New York at Buffalo study of 1,382 American adults, 58 percent said they continued to see positive consequences emerge from the attacks.
They weren't hiding their heads in the sand or pretending the disaster hadn't happened. A study by psychology professor Barbara Fredrickson, now at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, found that students acknowledged the great despair, anger and fear they felt after 9/11, but some also were buoyed by what Fredrickson calls the “ordinary magic” of fleeting positive emotions, such as those sparked recently in hospital patients hearing “Here Comes the Sun.”
“Finding positive meaning may be the most powerful leverage point for cultivating positive emotions during times of crisis,” Fredrickson noted in the study.
It's intuitive that happiness helps create and sustain emotional resilience. But the converse is true, too. Emotional resilience — knowing how you can get through a crisis with a little less despair and a little more sanity and perspective — can also lead to happiness.
Medical studies confirm it. They found that people dealing with a serious health crisis (like cancer, spinal cord injury or debilitating chronic pain) who found a higher sense of meaning in their plight also experienced better emotional well-being. How? By switching from nursing their personal sense of tragedy to encouraging empathy with others who might have it worse. That's why so many volunteers feel deep joy in what they're doing.
Suffering is never good, of course. And right now, more than one-third of Americans say this pandemic is having a serious impact on their mental health, according to a national poll by the American Psychiatric Association. This may not be the time to focus on fun and laughs. But something deeper can help. Psychologist Maria Sirois, who has written about the emotional resilience of children with cancer and their families, calls it “positivity,” a mix of realism, hope and compassion. Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl famously called it “tragic optimism.”
The good news is, we can all reach for it. After a crisis, it's estimated that up to two-thirds of adults actually experience an increase in well-being that the American Psychological Association calls post-traumatic growth.
Getting to these constructive emotional states begins with acknowledging the bad, Sirois says. “I could binge-watch Netflix for seven hours a day, but that won't sustain me spiritually or emotionally or in my relationships,” she says. “Let yourself feel what you're really feeling.”
Then think about what's important to you right now.
"What's in line with your values? That could be more kindness, spirituality, appreciating life in all its big and small moments, using your own strengths more in the world,” Sirois says. Finally, act on these goals. Go slowly. Take small steps. “When you pay attention to how you shape your life right now, you won't feel victimized by what's going on,” she says. “Resilient people know they have this choice. Happiness doesn't come from the outside.”
Lesson 2: Give up wrong ideas about happiness
Laurie Santos knows a lot about unhappy people. Witnessing the stress and joylessness of her students at Yale, the psychology professor developed a course in 2018 titled Psychology and the Good Life that revealed the physical and emotional underpinnings of happiness, and what could be done to increase them. The course became an instant campus phenomenon — and then a worldwide sensation. Nearly a million people of all ages signed up for a free online version in the first three months of this year.
The 10-session online class romps through all of the science-backed strategies for happiness you've probably heard about, like eating well, sleeping well, exercising and managing stress. But Santos also makes a big point of dispelling misconceptions that block true well-being.
Turns out, we're terrible at predicting what will actually make us happy, so we go after the wrong things (money, status) and overlook the unique, everyday stuff that truly jazzes us. To start, we compare ourselves to others, rather than pursuing our own bliss. “Comparing yourself to other people is a great way to feel less happy,” Santos says. Case in point: In studies of Olympic medalists, bronze medalists looked genuinely happier with their third-place win than silver medalists. “It's easy to beat yourself up because you didn't get the gold medal,” Santos says, “and forget about the amazing experience you're having."
We also get so used to the good stuff in our lives that we forget to immerse ourselves in it. And we undervalue the simple stuff because it just seems so … simple. Bottom line: “Our minds suck at happiness,” Santos says. “They're naturally wired for survival. We pay more attention to trouble. You have to work at happiness.”
Three strategies from her course, and from other experts, have been proved to increase happiness.
Human connection is the classic recipe, the chicken soup for happiness, underscored by some of the most credible experts in the field. Among them is Robert Waldinger, M.D., director of the 83-year-old Harvard Study of Adult Development, considered the world's longest-running study of well-being.
”The clearest message we get from our study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier, period,” he says. A sense of joy seems to reach into our cells, reducing corrosive forces like inflammation and stress that “break down multiple body systems over time like your joints, your cardiovascular system, your brain,” Waldinger notes.
Another key finding: “It's not the number of friends you have or whether you're in a committed relationship. It's the quality of your relationships that matters,” Waldinger says. “That's something we can work on at any age.”
Move … and breathe
Physical activity can boost your happiness by reducing stress and releasing feel-good brain chemicals. Yoga is a good choice.
“The combination of simple postures with deep breathing can make you feel happier,” says Amy Weintraub, an instructor and author of Yoga for Depression. “It brings more oxygen to your brain, stimulates your vagus nerve, which calms the anxious mind and, over time, can create beneficial brain changes, too.”
Take a moment to savor
Pausing to soak in a wonderful moment — a sunrise, the morning's birdsong, the joy of our pets — is a great way to learn how to savor. Or you can recall a cherished memory, play music linked to a special moment or linger over some old photos. “A regular savoring habit can increase happiness for longer periods of time,” says Jennifer Smith, director of research at Mather Institute in Evanston, Illinois.
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Lesson 3: Work with your happiness biology
Here's some optimistic news: As we move through our later years, the typical person grows steadily happier. “There really is a U-curve of happiness,” says Dartmouth College economist David Blanchflower, who published two headline-grabbing papers on the subject in January. Put simply, people in general hit high levels of happiness in their early 20s, low levels in middle age (around age 47, Blanchflower says) and then start seeing a steady increase in joy from that point on.
We're not talking about a cultural quirk of Americans; the study involved people from 132 countries. “The U-curve occurred in places where wages are high and where they're low, in countries at the top and the bottom of life expectancy,” he says.
What explains this curve? “Maybe it's genes,” Blanchflower says. “Maybe it's coming to terms with our limitations. Whatever the reason, it's ingrained in us."
Frank Infurna, an Arizona State University psychologist, has his own theory. He has just finished studying 360 midlife women and men and was struck by how much more stress they were under than he ever realized.
“We found that midlife has become a time of crisis,” Infurna says. “But it's not the kind of crisis that exists in popular imagination” — the foolhardy quest to regain the glory days of youth. “The midlife crisis experienced by most people is subtler, more nuanced.” It's a “big squeeze” in which adults face tough choices about how to split their resources — time, emotions, money, skills — between themselves, work, kids and aging parents.
But there's an upside to these challenges. Decades of life experience combine with brain rewiring to create a new kind of happiness for people in their 50s and beyond, says Dilip Jeste, M.D., a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego. These later-life brain changes are as significant as the circuitry upgrades that turn teenagers into adults or that promote good parenting after a first baby.
“In older people who keep themselves physically, mentally and socially active, we see the growth of what we call the neurobiology of wisdom,” Jeste says. “You don't get as upset when things go wrong. You focus on the positive and on people and connections. You feel great when you have a sense of purpose."
In her Emotion & Cognition Lab at the University of Southern California, neuroscientist Mara Mather finds signs of these changes deep in the human brain. She's tracing how the brain reacts to information at different ages. Among her findings: Older people remember and pay attention to positive images (cute babies, happy couples, joyous families) better than negative images. They also remember more positive experiences from their past.
Meanwhile, happiness is turning up in our DNA, too. Meike Bartels is a leading expert on the genetics of joy. Since 2016 the research professor and her team at Vrije University in Amsterdam have discovered 304 “happy” genes. She suspects that more than a thousand genes may be related to emotional well-being. “We've found that 35 to 40 percent of the difference between people's happiness levels is genetic,” she says.
Bartels believes we have to respect the unique things that make each of us happy. They're wired in us. “Some people get a real mood lift from exercise. But others don't. Spending time in nature may increase your happiness but not someone else's,” she says. “People's likes, dislikes and preferences are a deep part of who we are — part of our own unique DNA.”
Few people know how “Here Comes the Sun” came about, but the story captures what Bartels and others have been saying. The song was composed when all seemed to be going wrong within the Beatles. George Harrison just couldn't face yet another stress-filled business meeting with bandmates and accountants, so he played hooky instead and went to the house of his friend Eric Clapton. There he borrowed a guitar and came up with the melody walking around a garden.
At recording time, John Lennon was recovering from a car crash, so he never contributed to the song. The day of the song's mixing was the last time the four Beatles were ever together in a recording studio. From such tension was born one of the happiest songs of our lives.
Sari Harrar has written on health and science for more than 25 years, including authoring or coauthoring 17 books and contributing to about 20 national magazines. She writes frequently for AARP The Magazine and the AARP Bulletin.