The Happiness Project, The Happiness Equation, 10% Happier — these are just three of the many books about positivity that have climbed to the top of bestseller lists in recent years. As people have developed addictions to mobile phones and focused on increasing their productivity, society has worked to balance the desire to do everything with the need to smile while doing it. In the spring of 2020, however, happiness feels hard to find.
Susan David, author and Harvard Medical School psychologist, is okay with putting happiness on the back burner. In fact, she believes it is essential to the struggle to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When we overly focus on happiness as a goal, we actually become less happy over time,” David said in the first installment of the TED Connects conversations series. “We’re almost seeking something as opposed to just living our lives. Rather than try to find happiness, I think now, for all of us, it’s best to come into ourselves, to come into our emotions, to not try to brush away the grief.”
David has surveyed around 70,000 people to understand their approaches to processing their emotions, and she found that many spend too much time avoiding any negative feelings. “We need to be curious,” she said. “What is my frustration telling me about what’s important to me? What is my guilt telling me when I’m interacting with my children right now? What does my anger tell me about what I value?”
“Life,” David said, “is calling on every single one of us to move into the place of wisdom within ourselves.”
Finding that place in a time of extreme worry — aka every minute of every day right now — is not easy. David said that when a situation is ambiguous or fearful, “our minds try to fill in the blanks.” If you’ve recently read a predictive piece about how this pandemic might end, the number of potential deaths, or any other article that aims to offer some degree of certainty in a time of uncertainty, that’s the filling-in-the-blank approach at work. David said that it “often provokes more anxiety, more fear…the very opposite of what we need.”
“We get sucked into our news feeds,” David said. “Instead, we should be asking ourselves, ‘Is this helping me? Is there some alternative way that I can be engaging?’”
For David, those alternative forms of engagement have included gardening, calling old friends, and starting a list of books she wants to read. They are welcome breaks that help her get in touch with her emotions — an activity that can benefit everyone right now. “We own our emotions,” David said. “They don’t own and define us.”
David McMillin is an associate editor at Convene.
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