Mere months ago, nobody would have predicted that today, there would be millions of people around the world sheltering in place and working from home amid a global pandemic. But humans are masters of adaptation, so  it’s no surprise that people have adjusted their routines in response to the challenges COVID-19 has created in daily life. 

While there’s no shortage of articles and op-eds offering advice these days, we wanted to cut through the noise to hear what a leading expert had to say about life in the pandemic. We spoke with psychologist Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, whose research shows that it’s critical to make happiness a priority now, more than ever. Here, she explains the why and the how.  

What are the benefits of happiness? 

Although people offer different definitions of it, we all know happiness when we see and feel it. According to Lyubomirsky, happiness has two components: it is derived from how satisfied you are with your life overall, and it can result from emotion — like when a person or thing makes us feel joyful. 

“People who are happier are more likely to get married, they have more friends and they’re physically healthier,” Lyubomirsky explains. Happiness isn’t a luxury, in other words: “Literally, if you induce happiness you will boost people’s immune systems.” 

Image of Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, Distinguished Professor and Vice Chair, University of California, Riverside.
Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, Distinguished Professor and Vice Chair, University of California, Riverside

Lyubomirsky’s research shows that happiness also makes us work and function better. Happiness boosts creativity and productivity, and supports our ability to adapt. It also helps us persevere, making difficult situations more manageable. As a result, happiness is more important than ever during challenging times and should be top of mind for managers, team members and employers alike. 

“When you’re happier, you’re going to be more motivated to actually address problems,” she says. “You’re going to have more energy, be healthier [and] have better social support.”

So how, then, do we harness happiness at work during tough times? 

Stay engaged with work to preserve structure, meaning and “flow”

In fact, work can be key here. It gives structure to our days, brackets our home time, and keeps us focused on something other than the news or personal concerns. Work also provides motivation for the future and keeps us busy in the present. 

With millions of people sheltering in place, it’s no longer possible for many to enjoy the social interactions of a typical workday. However, Lyubormirsky says we can and should still find ways to connect socially: “Anything you can do in your daily life that can strengthen relationships is going to make you happier or maintain happiness.”

During times of social distancing, most of those connections will happen virtually, which Lyubomirsky says is “almost as good” as in-person. Also, be mindful of what works best for you, she says, and pay attention to what doesn’t. If you find that you’re drained by being on camera, don’t be afraid to change things up with a phone call. And remember: the goal is to nurture social bonds, which will help us recharge and gain strength.

While the reality of life under COVID-19 conditions can seem overwhelming, Lyubomirsky recommends “having something that you are focused on, that you are pursuing. Whether it’s solving a problem, homeschooling your kids, learning a new skill, or doing well at work.” Finding that focus is important to achieving “flow,” another important ingredient for happiness. 

“‘Flow’ is a state when you’re so absorbed in what you’re doing that you lose track of time or lose track of yourself,” Lyubomirsky explains. “Any kinds of activities that give you flow, you should do more of.”

Surprisingly, some studies show that people experience more flow while working than during leisure activities — another reminder that work is a major contributor to happiness. Think of the satisfaction you derive from creative brainstorming sessions, that stellar interview with a potential new hire or nailing the launch of a new product. Thanks to today’s digital technologies, many workers can still accomplish these tasks from home, meaning work can — and should — continue to bring pride and meaning to each day. 

Prioritize kindness and gratitude to nurture others, community and yourself

Acts of kindness and expressions of gratitude also contribute to happiness. Lyubomirsky says that the concepts of gratitude and kindness are found across cultures, but their meaning can vary, as context greatly influences perception. Not only do they make us feel happier as individuals — they also strengthen our relationships and connections. 

“It’s hard to be grateful when things are going well,” Lyubomirsky says. “And in most situations of adversity, we need to help each other and come together as a community or as a family.”

Her research shows that performing acts of kindness for others makes you happier, and asks us to think in new ways about what those could be: “Just the fact that we’re isolating is actually an act of kindness, so we don’t spread the virus to people who are vulnerable.”

Kindness can be as simple as checking in on a coworker to see how they’re doing. Something as small as a token of gratitude — like an acknowledgement or “thank you” in a weekly team meeting — can go a long way to helping people feel seen and valued. Remember: small gestures often mean a lot to those around us, and these acts of kindness and gratitude will not only help others, but boost our own happiness as well.

Even in tough times, happiness is within reach and worth the effort

“Times of adversity bring up to the surface the things that really matter for happiness — things like relationships, connections, gratitude and kindness,” Lyubomirsky says. 

At some point, we will look back on life during the COVID-19 pandemic and marvel at all that we — as individuals, teams, companies, communities and society — learned from this hardship. 

What we know now is that happiness is an invaluable tool for overcoming adversity. By staying connected with our coworkers and communities, we support the bonds that strengthen us all. Remaining engaged with work grounds us and gives us a sense of structure and normality, inspiring us to set new goals while we navigate new territory. And finally, kindness and gratitude aren’t just good for the soul. They emphasize our shared humanity and provide an important reminder: we are all in this together. 

While it’s easy to take happiness for granted during the good times, people need it now more than ever. Using Lyubomirsky’s research as a guide, we can all work to make it through this pandemic and — ultimately —  build a better, happier future. 

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