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Americans are unhappier than ever — here's how to find joy in troubled times

A new poll found Americans are the unhappiest they've been in 50 years, but there are ways to feel happier — even during a global pandemic.
Rather than noticing what you don’t have, pause to give gratitude for what you do have.
Rather than noticing what you don’t have, pause to give gratitude for what you do have.Getty Images

Americans are the unhappiest they've been in 50 years, according to the COVID Response Tracking Study, conducted in late-May by NORC at the University of Chicago. Only 14% of respondents said they were very happy, down 31% from the same period in 2018.

During such painful times, the idea of cultivating personal happiness might seem trivial — selfish, even — but it might just be more important now than ever before.

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“All of this negative energy taxes the mind, body and spirit,” says Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist and author of “Joy From Fear: Create The Life Of Your Dreams By Making Fear Your Friend.” “As such, it’s vital to intentionally counteract this toxic, fearful energy with a conscientious investment in creating happiness.”

Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology at Yale University who teaches the class “The Science of Well-Being” (an online version is presently free on Coursera), argues the importance of cultivating happiness for its potential health benefits alone. “There's evidence that positive moods can boost our immune system and can protect us from respiratory viruses, so it's not something to feel guilty about; it's a smart strategy just like washing our hands.”

But how does one actually boost happiness during a global pandemic? It’s certainly not as simple or tactile as washing one’s hands — but there are actions we can take to manifest joy. Here’s what experts recommend:

  1. Double down on physical self-care — especially exercise. Gretchen Rubin, author of numerous books including “The Happiness Project” and host of the weekly podcast “Happier with Gretchen Rubin,” says that the first step in boosting happiness is to take care of your body. “Your physical experience will always influence your emotional experience,” she says. “And exercise is the magical elixir of life.” Even light yoga or taking a quick walk can do the trick, Manly says, adding: “Research shows that a mere 12 minute walk is sufficient to create an upbeat, happy mood.”

  2. Meditate. “You’ll actually foster inner joy by slowing to meditate for even five minutes at a time,” says Manly. “Meditation increases feel-good neurochemicals, as it reduces stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol.”

  3. Improve sleep hygiene. A good night’s sleep is hard to come by when you’re self-quarantined in a global pandemic, but rest is crucial to both physical and mental wellness. Take extra measures to at least try to regulate your sleep. “I recommend setting an alarm to go to bed, just as you set one to wake up in the morning,” says Rubin.

  4. Connect with other people. “Ancient philosophers and contemporary scientists agree that connecting with people is truly important,” Rubin says, adding that even if we’re alone in quarantine, we mustn’t deprive ourselves of social interaction. “We’re fortunate that we have so much technology we can use to connect with people who aren’t nearby. Now’s also the time to look out for our loved ones who may not know how to use these technologies. Make sure they’re not left out or isolated.”

  5. Make your bed and declutter your space. “A lot of people feel more inner calm and happiness when their outer surroundings are more clutter-free,” says Rubin, who wrote the book, “Outer Order, Inner Calm.” “Decluttering can be difficult now, with more people home and a heavier load on your household, but whatever you can do can help give you a sense of control over your life. Making your bed, for instance, actually can make you feel better.”

  6. Experience nature — even if that’s just looking at a photo. We may have to work a bit harder to access nature right now, with many county and state parks closed, but if you can put that extra effort in, you’ll likely be happy you did. “Exposure to natural environments has been linked with better general health and less stress,” says Allison Buskirk-Cohen, associate professor and chair of the psychology department at Delaware Valley University. “Studies have shown that natural environments are associated with lower brain activity in the frontal lobes and low frequency brainwaves. In other words, our brains relax more. For those who are unable to get outside, there’s also some research indicating that looking at photographs of natural environments (like pictures of the beach or the mountains) can have similar effects.”

  7. Say thank you. “Rather than noticing what you don’t have, pause to give gratitude for what you do have,” says Manly. “For example, if you are unable to take your regular yoga class, focus instead on the freedom you have to enjoy the myriad classes [online].” The trick here is to really immerse yourself in gratitude not only by say, writing down a list of things you’re grateful for, but by thanking everyone who crosses your path, including yourself. “Whether you thank the delivery person for the load of boxed groceries, your partner for bringing you a cup of tea or yourself for finishing a work project, your happiness level will increase when gratitude flows,” Manly says. Participating in acts of gratitude that are larger than yourself are also highly recommended. For instance, Rubin, who is located in New York City, feels joy each evening when at 7 p.m., she and her family cheer on healthcare workers from their window. “One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make others happy. So ask yourself, ‘How can I lift other people’s spirits?’”