COVID-19 and the Truth About Happiness

COVID-19 and the Truth About Happiness


Finding perspective on COVID-19.

The past week, I've been staying home. Instead of running to get Thai food for lunch, I eat leftovers. Instead of a joyous and loud Saturday night with friends, I hang out on the couch with my wife.

My workday is often interrupted by the kids, now that school is closed. I make lunch, check on schoolwork, and remind them to practice their instruments. It stresses me out. I sometimes take 5 minutes just to enjoy being with them. My stress dissipates.

Life goes on—and life never stops giving us gifts. The well-known but poorly named phenomenon called the hedonistic treadmill posits that people have a set chart of happiness, going up and down in a regular pattern, never going particularly high or particularly low for any extended period. Something nice happens, they're happier than usual. Something annoying happens, they're less happy. But then something nice happens again. For a billionaire the "something nice" might be the delivery of a yacht, and for the rest of us it might be a night at the movies. But the billionaire isn't any happier for it.

I remember once visiting with a man who had been homeless and now had a small room. He proudly showed us his cans of soup, stocked above the refrigerator. His smile almost broke his face. Meanwhile, lottery winners and movie stars are often miserable.

Real gains in happiness are hard won and inch our levels of happiness upwards in the long-term, not for a day or two. Real gains come from what could be called, in a word, wisdom: the understanding of our place in the world; the absence of struggle against our defining circumstances.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, most people's happiness chart will zig down but then move back up. Seeing a hawk out the window or getting a call from a friend will be enough to create spikes. Eventually the happiness chart will look more or less like it always does.

Hopefully a few people emerge on the other side a little better than they were before—a little wiser, with suffering turned to wisdom. That's my goal.

At S&H we hope to put COVID-19 in context, giving you tools to stay sane, stay well, and reflect. We're compiling our best stories at And we have lots of uplifting content that will help take your mind off COVID-19 for a bit too: guided meditations, our free podcast, poetry, recipes, and, of course, writings on spiritual traditions from around the world.

I hope this helps. Let us know how COVID-19 is impacting you. If there's any content you would like to see that would help you, let us know here: [email protected].

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