How pandemic redefined happiness
Until March last year, for much of India’s middle-class, happiness was relatively easy to define. A couple of fancy meals out every month, an annual holiday abroad, a better car, a down payment on a house… that sort of thing.
But with a global pandemic ruining the best-laid plans, that idea of happiness has seen a fundamental transformation. It had to. As people retreated into their homes, they started looking inward too. Joy sprung in the unlikeliest places – swapping the office-commute hour with family time, being grateful for the things they have, weekends devoid of forced social obligations. It’s no wonder that many have reprogrammed their energies to focus on simpler pleasures these past few months. There were staycations, camping trips, quiet interludes by the sea and smaller, journaling gatherings.
The new formula does wonders for our well being, says clinical psychologist Kuldeep Datay from the Institute for Psychological Health, Mumbai. “Positive emotions such as joy, happiness and satisfaction buffer against negative ones such as fear, uncertainty, anxiety and insecurity – all of which rose after the pandemic,” he says. “It helps to maintain our emotional health and therefore, survival.”
But appreciating what is within reach is inherently difficult for a society that is geared to dream big and defer current pleasures for future ones. “Happiness is such a nebulous concept,” says author Ira Mukhoty. “It keeps changing depending on the stage of life we are in. Too often, we conflate the planning for future enjoyment with actual happiness. So, happiness often becomes an anticipated emotion, requiring elaborate planning, and commitment to long-term endeavours.”
The pandemic rendered those long-term plans obsolete for Mukhoty. “No longer can I distract myself from current dissatisfaction by planning an exotic holiday, or some imagined future success,” she says. Just before the pandemic, she put a birdfeeder in her garden. Over the months, as bulbuls and sparrows started visiting it and a family of squirrels began dropping in, Mukohty found herself watching a new world unfold. “Now, there is even a large, raucous group of parakeets that visits every day,” she adds. “It is deeply satisfying to remember that there is a world out there of creatures who are not concerned with our human trials and tribulations. It puts my own human-scale struggles in perspective, by making me remember the awesome and endless nature of the universe, and that brings me peace.”
Many others echo this new-found sense of perspective, says youth counsellor Aman Bhonsale from Mumbai. “We have two types of lives – the one we are already living and the aspirational one,” he says. “We often take our present life for granted. The pandemic made us rethink the value of mundane activities like taking a walk, calling friends over tea, stepping out for a movie, or getting the local train. That is a key component in how we look at happiness.”
For those still struggling to make peace with a seemingly downgraded version of life, counsellors say it helps to view happiness differently to begin with. See it as an achievable goal you deserve and can work on every day.
For Bhonsale, it took a seven-month spell of solitude when he didn’t leave his building through the lockdown. “I live alone and many times I felt alienated and isolated,” he says. He created WhatsApp groups for food lovers and movie buffs to distract from everyday despair.
“We share information, inspirations and of course recipes and recommendations of what to eat and watch. My idea was to lessen the feeling of isolation and bond with strangers over common interests,” he says. “My extended network kept adding people and now the movie group has 150 members and the food one has 240 members, and I don’t even know 70% of them,” he says.
Our months of isolation also showed us how interdependent we are as a species and how happiness is not an individual pursuit, says Charles Assisi, author and columnist. “We may be extroverts or introverts, but our need to stay social or connected with people – professionally and personally – is what is potentially keeping us happy,” he says.
If the pandemic has forced us to re-evaluate what is truly important, it’s also shown us which parts of our lives are just superfluous noise and distraction. “The very idea of having to be happy, in the sense that modern society expects us to be, is a delusion,” Mukhoty says. “Perhaps it is wisdom, after all, that is preferable to what we call happiness.”