When a friend read my Grass is Green post back in March, he reached out and said I might appreciate Ryan Holiday’s book, The Obstacle is the Way, to help me cope with the pandemic. The small but potent book teaches that what matters is not to avoid adversity. Avoiding adversity is impossible. Instead, what matters is how we choose to react to adversity: to focus on the things we can control, rather than freaking out or lamenting the things we cannot. To use the obstacle to get through the obstacle.
My friend was right. I did appreciate the book. In May, I joined with friends from work and from life to take a free, online Science of Well-Being course, or as many call it, the Science of Happiness course. While I can’t control Covid-19, I can control the actions I take in my life in the face of it. And as I learned from this course, I can influence my own happiness and well-being through the actions I take, both during the pandemic and on the other side of it.
The course is fascinating and also practical for building beneficial habits. Each week, we were to do what the instructor called “rewirement” practices. This was basically homework, because the course is an actual course at Yale, but the practices are intended to rewire our brains, which are constantly tricking us into thinking certain things will make us happy that don’t actually bring us lasting happiness: more money, more stuff, promotions at work, falling in love/finding a partner. The instructor goes into the psychology of why those things won’t make us happy long term and what will make us happy instead. For a Cliff’s notes version, I recommend The Happiness Lab podcast, but the tl;dr is that the shine of newness fades and we get used to things — money, material stuff, married life — and then we become discontent and think we need more or better.
The weekly practices had a real impact on me. They helped divert my focus away from things that depressed me and towards behaviors that would theoretically improve my well-being and make me happier.
My biggest lesson, both from the instruction in the Well-Being course and from the real life practice, is that doing kind and loving things for others provides a huge boost to happiness. This is something that will never leave me. Releasing the hold on my own comfort, convenience, or need to protect my money for myself was powerful. The most rewarding rewirements, the ones that filled me with a pure sense of fulfillment and well-being, were the rewirements done entirely for the benefit of someone else, preferably with no recognition or acknowledgment needed for myself.
Practices to boost happiness
The following practices contribute to well-being:
- Use your strengths (from the VIA character strengths survey)
- Gratitude and Savoring
- Kindness and Social Connection
- Exercise and Sleep
Use your strengths
I’m a big believer that focusing on your strengths is more effective and more rewarding than trying to get better at the stuff you’re weak in. Trying to get better at what you’re bad at often leads to frustration and feeling like a failure. However, using your strengths celebrates what you are good at and can bring to a situation, and I was excited to see that reinforced in this course. In fact, when it comes to job satisfaction, it’s not promotions and compensation that are primary contributors to making someone happy in their job, it’s whether they’re using their strengths.
This practice is the most practical for me when it comes to confronting specific challenges in my days. If I am feeling overwhelmed, I focus on my perspective strength. If I am feeling sad, I focus on my humor or appreciation of beauty and excellence strengths. If I have a big project at work due, I focus on my perseverance strength. If I need connection with others, I focus on my love strength.
Gratitude and Savoring
I love this one. I think everyone has heard by now that gratitude is one of the best antidotes to discontent, and my experience in this course has made me a believer. It’s hard to focus on two things at once, so if I’m thinking about what I’m grateful for, that means I’m not thinking about my worries or complaints.
Savoring was a new one to me. Now that I think about it, savoring seems to be a form of mindfulness practice. To savor an experience is to give it your full attention, making it richer and making it last longer. I started a savoring journal specifically to remind me to sit in beautiful moments and savor them (see Savor a small moment). Writing is a wonderful practice to encourage savoring because it makes me pay attention to my senses and be present in the moment. Plus it gives me an excuse to use my fountain pens and good paper.
Kindness and Social Connection
This was probably the hardest rewirement for me. I don’t know why. When tasked with intentionally performing acts of kindness or connecting socially with people during a pandemic, I was like OMG SO MUCH PRESSURE WHAT DO I DO?! Especially the acts of kindness part. I asked other people who are good at this what kind of stuff they do, because they clearly derived a lot of joy from it, and I wanted in on that joy.
And when I started intentionally practicing acts of kindness or reaching out socially, I did get in on that joy. The feeling of making someone else’s day brighter is a joy like no other. And the beauty of it is that two people get to feel it instead of just one. These are the some of the actions that either brought me joy or provide a sense of fulfillment, even weeks later:
- Sending notes of gratitude to friends, coworkers, and our mail carrier
- Sending letters for no reason to friends and family
- Buying coffee for the person behind me in the Starbucks drive-through
- Randomly messaging coworkers to tell them I’m thinking of them (and without needing anything from them)
- Sending random gifts to friends for no reason except that I knew the thing would make them happy
- Taking the kids to get milkshakes or bringing them home treats from the grocery for no reason
- Buying from real people, from Black-owned and woman-owned businesses, and from businesses that demonstrate compassion through their practices
Exercise and Sleep
These are two things I’ve built into my life fairly well, so the biggest difference for me on this one was to switch my mindset from exercise needing to be a workout to exercise being moving my body, and especially trying to move my body outside. My main form of exercise, swimming laps, was no longer an option once the lockdown began, so this rewirement inspired me to take daily walks around my neighborhood. On those walks I see neighbors, enjoy everyones gardens and flowers, and see beautiful sunsets.
I admit that I’ve not been great at this one. When I do do it though, I definitely feel more serene. Each time I meditate, I feel like I have a little more practice corralling my thoughts. When I meditate and notice myself thinking instead of being, I put the thoughts in little boats and watch them float away. It’s fun to smile at them and wave buh-bye.
After the course ended
I stopped actively practicing these behaviors. Even though I saw a marked difference in my sense of well-being, and I knew they were helping me feel happier, I fell off the wagon. If a practice isn’t a habit then it becomes effortful. It requires attention and energy. Work got busy, I didn’t have accountability partners anymore. I didn’t remember to practice gratitude, random acts of kindness, using my strengths. If I did practice them, it wasn’t intentional, and I didn’t notice that I’d done them. I didn’t savor them and pay attention to their benefits.
An old friend reached out and asked if I was doing okay, and I realized, hmm, not really. So I decided to pick these practices back up again. I set intentions for my new year based on the behaviors that most resonated with me from the course. And best of all, I started a well-being journal in a new type of notebook that is EXCELLENT for my fountain pens (Leuchtturm1917), so writing my exercise, moments of gratitude, acts of kindness, funny stuff from my days is itself a joy.
Hopefully I’ll keep it going :).
I encourage anyone who’s struggling with coping right now to take the Science of Well-Being course. It’s 10 weeks and it’s free. There are no external obligations associated with the course, so there’s nothing to worry about there; it’s all for your own benefit. I found it really helpful to take it with others, so that I had accountability partners and people to talk about it with.