Pursuing Happiness in a Pandemic


Musings / Saturday, May 2nd, 2020

Are you happy? What does it mean to be happy?

Happiness to me is elusive – within reach, but once I clumsily, anxiously grasp hold of it (if ever), it slips right through my buttery fingers.

Happiness to me is a moving goal post – the yardstick for happiness increases with each attainment of X, and then only the fulfilment of X + 1 will truly satisfy me.

Happiness to me is exhausting – running after an amorphous, fickle-minded and fair-weathered concept is disappointing; how can one be happy all, or even majority, of the time?

Happiness; the concept and pursuit thereof, has preoccupied most of my mind since young adulthood, with varying levels of short-lived success.

How then, does one pursue happiness in the middle of a catastrophic, global pandemic?

It’s Day 40 of London Lockdown. The world has been disarmed into a grinding halt with several countries declaring a state of emergency. More than a third of the world are in self-isolation, imposed by government lockdowns of varying degrees, and in any event, too terrified to step out save for necessities. The economy is battered, with oil prices dipping to sub-zero in the worst depression in 90 years.

The enemy?

Covid-19, an infectious disease caused by coronavirus which can affect one’s lungs and airways. At the time of writing, Covid-19 has killed about 250,000, infected about 3.5 million, and rendered millions more jobless. It’s so infectious that governments have had to resort to stringent social distancing measures to reduce the spread of the infectious and flatten the curve in hopes of preventing their healthcare systems from collapsing.

While indiscriminate in affecting politicians and impoverished alike, the virus has laid bare the socio-economic inequality prevalent in many countries, exposed the inefficiencies and underfunding of healthcare systems, and been the litmus test for the competence of leaders.

Healthcare professionals are struggling and petrified with the deluge of patients and the lack of quality personal protective equipment. Many businesses face impending liquidation and employees, unemployment. The news is tragic, but I cannot pry my eyes away.

We have adapted to a new normal – taking nearly every aspect of life online (granted, for millennials and younger, this is pretty much how we were/are brought up). From school lessons to client meetings, sermons and dating, we have swapped IRL for Zoom, Houseparty and TikTok. We have eschewed social gatherings, touch and affection for physical distancing and balcony parties. For the vulnerable that we love and care for, “I love you” has changed from visiting them at their homes bearing food and hugs to staying away and refusing to see them “because I love you”.

This is war. It is a battle of humankind against a faceless, deadly virus.

How then, does one pursue happiness in the middle of a catastrophic, global pandemic?

Before I am hunted with pitchforks at the audacity of even considering happiness in the midst of a devastating pandemic, allow me to clarify.

I recognise that I am incredibly privileged and am very thankful – I have an apartment to safely self-isolate in, a job I’m genuinely excited about which can be taken online, my family are thankfully keeping well and safe (and I pray for their health every day of my life). I am immensely grateful for what I have been blessed with.

But I would be lying if I told you that I am happy.

Quite apart from being painfully confronted with my inexperience with solitary confinement, the lockdown has forced me to face the fact that I have been overdosing on external validation as a poor substitute for happiness.

I heavily rely on external factors for happiness. Be it likes on social media (and I discuss that here), a glittering resume (this is a work in progress), getting that text back from that cute guy or being able to execute a dance move effortlessly, I centre my self-worth, and therefore, happiness, on these external factors.

It has been this way for as long as I can remember. I am a student leader. I am that girl who got that A. I am the dancer who is performing on that stage. I am a lawyer. I am the girl who is a UK size 6. I am the person in that picture on Instagram which that adorably cute dog that exudes “pretty yet approachable“.

This is highly problematic for many reasons.

These external factors are constantly moving goal posts, obtainment of which may bring about happiness for a brief period, before I feel the need to obtain something more. I think I will be happy once I have lost 5 kg. Once I lose 5 kg, my happiness is quickly overtaken by the need to lose more weight. I think I will be happy once I can execute this dance move easily. Once I master that move, new dance moves quickly emerge and I am not happy until I master the new moves.

These external factors are also constantly fluctuating. I will not always be a UK size 6. I will not always get the A. I will not always receive X amount of likes on social media. The textual relationship I have with this cute guy may never blossom into a proper relationship.

Does it therefore mean that I plunge into an abyss of self-destructive un-happiness when these external factors are diminished in some capacity in my life?

Most of the time, yes.

Pursuing (this unhealthy external validation that I have substituted for) happiness in a pandemic, therefore, is an ever more Herculean task. With the lockdown – all external sources of validation have been indefinitely cancelled.

As the hours, days and weeks blend into themselves and I no longer “live for the weekends” as the weekends are the same as my weekdays, I find myself seriously questioning the hows and the whys of pursuing happiness amid a pandemic.

Yet, I feel guilt. I feel guilty for wanting to be happy, to pursue happiness. My grievances are first world, and frankly, out of touch with the reality on the ground. Doctors, nurses, care home workers, teachers, supermarket staff, delivery personnel and many more are working to the bone, risking their lives and the lives of their families to battle this crisis and I am complaining about being sad???

I should be happy that I am alive, healthy and well – and truly, every day that I am alive, I am grateful.

Evidently, there are several conflicting questions and themes at play here. How does one be happy? Can one be happy in a pandemic? Is one selfish for wanting to be happy in a pandemic? Underpinning these is also the recognition that mental well-being is as important as physical well-being.

Unfortunately, I do not have neat or easy answers (if I did, I would be turning them into e-books for sale on the internet for just US $12.99). And I will not pretend to know these answers here. The purpose of this piece is to raise awareness on the fact that I am reliant on external validation for happiness, which some of you might be too, to varying degrees, and to consider potential healthier alternatives, which I hope will be useful for you as well.

We are in the middle of a pandemic, and we can give ourselves the permission to pursue happiness.

It’s OK to want to be happy.

It’s OK if all you are doing is staying inside and binge-watching shows on Netflix.

It’s OK if you are not losing weight, taking personal development (online) courses, or not developing a vaccine for Covid-19.

Everyone deals with stress and uncertainty in different ways. For me, my coping mechanisms are not always healthy or encouraged. Usual weapons of choice include binge-eating, binge-watching, and wallowing in self-pity.

However, we must learn to be kind to ourselves. 2020 is not a complete write-off if you are alive and healthy.

Captured a priceless moment while on a walk at Hyde Park, the weekend before the London lockdown

Depending on your upbringing, culture, religion (if any), stage in life and guiding philosophy, happiness will take the form of various different things. The lockdown has led me to acknowledge that the external things that used to make me happy are, when stripped to its core, not genuine happiness.

I have realised that I can be content and grateful (not necessarily happy), and perhaps that in itself, is happiness.

While my journey to understanding and embracing true happiness is one that is paved with detours and tears, I have learnt to appreciate the life experiences that the journey brings.

Happiness is not a person, not an asset, not a dress size, not an amount of money and most definitely not a social media following. Happiness must come from within, an unshakeable inner core anchored by one’s faith/guiding philosophy.

When put to practice, this means:

  1. Drawing happiness from an internal, unwavering source, which could be your religion or your guiding philosophy in life.
  2. Letting go of the values that you place on external, fluctuating sources. These external sources are only important because we place an artificial and arbitrary currency on them. Once you are able to recognise its inherent lack of value, it will be easier to detach from these external sources of validation and be unfazed.

Another point to note: Personally, I try my best to abstain from forming expectations of and placing obligations on people for my happiness. It sounds silly, having to flag this clearly self-evident point. However, as self-evident and trite this point is, far too often, I find myself guilty as charged. You can love, care for and move mountains for a person, but, humans are fallible and imperfect, which means that they might disappoint you should you rely on them for happiness.

I am not yet there, but I am on my way. πŸ™‚

In the name of practicing gratitude, I like to remind myself of joyful things. Therefore, here is an unsolicited list of people/things that put a smile on my face which are potentially still external but not dependent on societal standards and opinion (in no particular order):

  1. Coffee
  2. A good read
  3. A good night of rest
  4. Almost any park in London
  5. Long walks at parks in London
  6. Chats with my mom
  7. My dog
  8. Striking up a socially distant friendship with any dog on the street
  9. Memes about being a lawyer
  10. Memes about (surviving) the pandemic
  11. Donating after spring cleaning
  12. Spring cleaning
  13. A warm bowl of chicken soup
  14. An empowering and uplifting podcast

Happiness is a lifelong journey of exploration and discovery. If I may be so bold, I hope this piece has helped to illuminate some of that journey for you.

On a separate, but equally joyful note:

We celebrated Po Po’s birthday on Tuesday. We don’t know her exact age (neither does she). Aunty organised a virtual video call, and our family from four different places dialed in to sing her a birthday song and send her our love. Po Po isn’t well educated, can’t speak English and doesn’t fully appreciate the gravity of the global pandemic. But she is blissfully enjoying her golden years, and I wish many more for her. My grandparents brought me up, and they are people I hold dear and love <3

If you are reading this, know that you are loved, surrounded by love and enough. πŸ™‚

Love,

Pearls

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