When life takes a bad turn, we are often tempted to console ourselves with nostalgia. We begin to look at the past in a different light. We realise that we had been too demanding of ourselves, of others, of the world. That even though we had everything we needed we still wanted more. That we were always looking for something else, without paying attention to the essence of things.
When things turn bad, we realise how much we miss our routine, our familiarity, our habits. We realise we had been living a cliché, and that only now, after we have lost a state of normalcy, can we understand its real value.
Were we happy and we didn’t know it?
In the middle of the pandemic, many of have begun to refer to the past as an oasis of calm. “We were happy and we didn’t know it” is a saying that has recently taken over the Internet, proving that people are looking at the past with nostalgia. This is the same past that was often deemed unsatisfactory before COVID-19. How hard times have the potential to take the veil off our eyes!
If tomorrow we were to go back to our previous life, by some miracle, would we be able to put the wisdom we gained during this period of crisis into practice? Would we be able to enjoy the small things, a simple lifestyle, and the people around us? Or are we only ever happy in retrospect?
A happiness formula
History has postulated many formulas for happiness, usually based on grand goals like cultivating virtue, the pursuit of pleasure, becoming one with nature, nurturing spirituality, etc. In our day and age, each one seeks their own goals and sets their individual priorities in the equation of happiness. And they do so, not in isolation, removed from reality, but in the midst of a society whose foundation is abundance and consumerism—a society that, while providing the basic comforts, always has us wanting more: from our careers, our material possessions, our personal development, love and money, everything in the superlative.
One thing is for sure, happiness cannot be reduced to just covering one’s basic needs. Yet, how far do we have to go to actually be fulfilled? Is the sky really the limit?
No matter the answer, today we must be content with less.
The fact that we are being deprived of certain things during the state of emergency has eliminated the surplus and injected a healthy dose of reality: how many of our prior objectives are indispensable to happiness?
From where we now stand, I’d say not too many. Today, we are grateful to not be listening to so much sad news on television. To walk around our home and catch a ray of sunlight. To enjoy our family, good health and a job.
Today we evaluate actual wellbeing and hypothetical wellbeing differently. We await the return to normality thinking that we will fully appreciate it. Now, when we need a permit to get out of the house, we realise that nothing should be taken for granted.
Revelations about happiness
Beyond activating our survival instinct, the crisis brought with it some revelations:
Happiness is not just subjective, it is contextual, and we have the power to prevent the circumstances from making our decisions for us. Genes are responsible for around 50% of our personal happiness; circumstances contribute up to 10%. The rest lies in our own hands. In other words, being happy is more in our hands, quite literally, than we might think and hope, irrespective of the context and the genetic baggage.
Everyone has the right to project their own happiness and its foundations as they see fit. But how does the search for rewards and novelty serve our fulfilment? Consumerism creates fake needs; it convinces us that the picture is always incomplete. Physical and online shops are filled with things that we are always told we are missing—whether clothes, shoes, accessories, houses, cars, or motivational classes, soul mates and idyllic experiences. This is where frustrations, constant comparisons with others and exposure to impossible standards stem from. This crisis, however, has reset our values. “Measure your life by what you have not by what you don’t,” advises Michael Josephson.
People matter more. Never before has man been allowed to dream as big as he is being allowed to now. With a little willpower and outside help, we are convinced that even those less fortunate can overcome their challenges. Developed societies offer resources in every field and they promise us that if we try hard enough, we can become rich. That is why, many times, we have chosen to sacrifice other things in exchange for getting material advantages, and human relationships have suffered the most. The pandemic has reminded us just how important people are. It’s no wonder that social distancing feels unnatural. We hate being alone, not getting visits, avoiding people on the street, staying away from people on the bus. It is hard for us to live apart from others, despite having social online platforms that comfortable virtual interaction. Science confirms that close ties with our families, our friends, our acquaintances and co-workers, contribute to happiness to a larger extent than money, fame or social status. It remains to be seen if after the pandemic we will continue to offer those dear to us the important place they deserve.
The bare minimum is not everything, but it can be enough. To live on little is not a virtue. However, learning to be content with what one has makes all the difference between happiness and unhappiness. When life if easy, we tend to take for granted the comfort provided by covering our basic needs, and we add many other layers of what we think is true comfort. Under the threat of shortages, however, we soon learn to appreciate the value of the stability of basic living conditions. How important is a roof over one’s head, a loaf of bread on one’s table, warmth, and a bed to rest on? Perhaps until yesterday these things seemed to be standard needs; today we look at them with profound gratefulness.
Our health is the most precious thing we have. Health is closely tied to happiness and it must take priority under any circumstance. The current context makes us behave more cautiously than ever. We even allow some of our fundamental rights and freedoms to be restricted so as to avoid the disaster which would be caused by an explosion in the number of cases. Will we be as conscientious after we have overcome the crisis? Will we protect this personal “good”, not by wearing masks and gloves, but by paying increased attention to our bodies, minds and souls? How will we protect our health after the danger is gone?
Everything is transient, but not everything is in vain. Situations that are beyond our individual or collective control show us how fragile we are, how fragile our environment is—a straw house facing a strong wind. Often, in such times, people acknowledge their limits and start looking for answers outside of themselves. ‘Normal’ life does not pose existential questions. Leaving the comfort zone, however, demands that we make a choice: who can we trust when we are not enough? Any confrontation with the transient side of reality is ultimately welcome. It opens doors that would otherwise be inaccessible to us.
Who would have thought that 2020 would challenge our physical, mental and emotional endurance to such an extent that we would fear about tomorrow, about the economy, about the survival of the health system? Who would have thought that we would spend the holidays shut up indoors, isolated in the workplace or in the hospital?
However, any painful truth has a good side to it—it makes us think ahead and radically changes our existence. The pandemic brought many losses. But it has also helped us gain something.
It has taught us to discern the truly important things in life: love, faith, hope, solidarity, trust in a new beginning—all of the things without which happiness is not possible. We saw all of these in a new, strong light. And this new light is our greatest benefit. The durable benefit of any lesson we learn the hard way.
Genia Ruscu holds a Master’s degree in counselling within social services.