Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the planet, Americans were already experiencing record rates of anxiety and depression. Loneliness was also at epidemic rates. Add to that income loss, the resultant economic uncertainty, chronic deprivation from meaningful social contact, and the possibility that you might die every time you step outside your house, and you’ve got yourself one seriously bummed-out species.
But even in the midst of the turmoil and contagion, there are aspects of the pandemic that have surreptitiously been adding to your storehouses of happiness — or at the very least, not subtracting from them. Here are the the three ways the pandemic has been making you ever so slightly happier and less stressed:
1) Reduced exposure to loud noises. People don’t realize that ambient noise is a huge and automatic stressor. As part of the research for my Happiness Engineering course, I measured ambient noise levels in various cities. For example, New York City subway cars are some of the loudest places in the world, averaging in the 90–105 dB(A) range while in motion. That alone stresses out the passengers plenty. And that’s even before getting jostled by other passengers, missing your stop, or getting asked for handouts for a song performance you didn’t request.
As an aside, please also keep in mind that exposure to sound levels of 100db(A) for more than 15 minutes can lead to permanent hearing loss. I always wear earplugs inside subway cars, which may be a good idea if you don’t want to go deaf. If you would like to develop a healthy obsession about how ambient sound levels may be wrecking your body and stealing your soul, I recommend downloading the NIOSH Sound Level Meter app for your smartphone.
Onward. People who live in big, loud cities think that they can filter out the noise and go about their business without penalty — “Ah, you just get used to it.”
I regret to inform you: that ain’t how it works. Noise is one of the two things your body never gets used to, because noise cannot be predicted. You just adapt to it by having chronically elevated circulating stress hormones. This can wreak all kinds of havoc on your body, giving you high blood pressure, diabetes, and shredded nerves, amongst other self-inflicted maladies.
So when you’re not exposing yourself to noise from road traffic, construction, car horns, subways and sirens, your nervous system naturally calms down a few notches. Your circulating stress hormone levels go down, you chill out a little, and you’re just a little bit happier.
2) Less commuting. Were you wondering just a minute ago what the other thing was that people never get used to? Well, wonder no more: it’s your commute. Why? Because even though you’re going the same route every day, no two commutes are the same. If it ain’t the same, you can’t get used to it.
Now here’s an interesting study. Scientists wanted to figure out: what activities make people the happiest, and what makes them the most miserable? They would text volunteers at random times of the day and ask them two simple questions: What are you doing right now? And on a scale of 1–10, how happy are you right now?
Well, in every city and every country they did the study, the world champion for misery was the same: commuting. People would rather do anything else than commute. This includes changing poopy diapers and taking out trash. Another study found that the stress levels of a driver commuting to work is equal or higher than that of a jet fighter pilot.
Okay, I’m going to let that sink in for a moment: driving around in rush-hour traffic stresses you out more than being in an aerial dogfight with a Russian MiG-27. Now imagine doing that 26min commute (the American average) twice a day, five days a week. Who’s going to be a stressed-out puppy? That would be you — also with the hoarse throat and sprained middle finger from shouting at other drivers and flipping them off.
Contrast this with a commute-free, traffic-free, road-rage free day of working from home or a cafe. Now who’s feeling more chilled out and happy? You, that’s who! You probably didn’t even notice it until I brought it to your attention. But just note the contrast in the general level of tension in your mind and body the next time you hop in your car, worrying about the cars in front, the yellow light about to turn red, the crazy parking situation downtown… and let that be a source of gratitude for when you’re not driving. Which brings us to…
3) Gratitude. This pandemic has been incredibly hard on a lot of people. Millions have contracted this supremely unpleasant disease. And hundreds of thousands have perished before their time. This is tragic, sad, and heartbreaking, in so many ways that are beyond the scope of this article.
However, I’d like to bring to your attention that if you’re reading this right now, chances are very good you’re not dead yet. And for better or for worse, part of counting our blessings is comparing ourselves to those who are less fortunate. So, if you’re not in an ICU, on a ventilator, or experiencing multi-organ failure, start counting, now. Working lungs, kidneys, liver, brain — that’s a lot of blessings there.
The research on gratitude is very robust: the more of it you practice, the happier you are. So if this time last year you were perfectly healthy and perfectly taking it for granted, this year you can do better. Take time to express gratitude every time you see a pandemic counter on TV, hear about a celebrity who contracted COVID-19 or perished from it, or hear a siren of an ambulance you’re not in. Thank your immune system, thank your genes, thank whoever or whatever runs your universe. Nobody’s tomorrow is promised, so get on your knees for having had yet another one, you lucky beast.
If you want to take it to the next level, contemplate your own death, too. The Bhutanese are famously some of the happiest people in the world because they contemplate their own death five times a day. Hey, as of the writing of this piece, there’s even an app for it called We Croak. Because this much I can guarantee: if COVID-19 doesn’t get you, something else eventually will. If you think about it right, being in a position to contemplate your own death instead of actually being dead can be a source of perpetual joy.
In all likelihood, the net effect of the pandemic is a reduction in people’s overall happiness. However, while we’re counting blessings, let’s remember that you’re commuting less, exposed to less noise, and less dead than many. So let these observations inform how you may want to change your life once the pandemic threat has subsided, lest you inadvertently restore to your life the same self-inflicted miseries of yore.