I’m sitting in my garden. The sun is warm on my bare arms, the birds are singing, and all feels right with the world. I couldn’t be more wrong, of course. Every few minutes the birdsong is punctured by a siren, and I’m reminded that outside my enviable little bubble there rages an extraordinary battle against a deadly virus, and that there is a deluge of human suffering, from the victims of COVID-19 to those treating them during long, exhausting shifts, those struggling to keep our infrastructure running, and those undergoing extreme financial stress.
There’s guilt, of course. There’s helplessness, uncertainty, anxiety. But overall, I feel an incredible sense of wellbeing. Just as my relative good fortune stokes the guilt, it expands my gratitude too. While I’m wondering, who am I to have a garden, to be in good health, to be enjoying this time, I’m also repeating, I am so bloody lucky. I am so bloody lucky. How did I get so blessed?
I’ve always been Type A. I strive, I constantly propel myself forward. I’m usually focused on some lofty goal and I tend to adopt an ‘when/then’ approach to happiness: when I achieve X, then I’ll be happy. I know I’m not alone in feeling that quarantine has pressed pause on all that. The Type A part of me worries that I’m losing my edge, but my common sense tells me that this pause is really, really good for me.
I’m reading a lot about happiness at the moment, partly because it’s the subject of my next book but also because it feels good to focus on positivity. COVID-19 is also a great way to stress-test the theory that happiness lies within us and is not an external destination. It’s all well and good to be happy when everything is hunky-dory. Can we replicate our feelings of wellbeing when we’re facing the darkest times in living memory?
The book I’m reading currently is Solve For Happy, by Mo Gawdat. The happiness formula he created was tested beyond belief when he lost his beloved son to medical error during a routine appendectomy. The book is beautiful. Last night he suggested writing a Happiness List – a straightforward list of what makes us happy. I started to mentally write my list while continuing to read, until he wrote:
“My hunch is that your list consisted almost entirely of ordinary moments in life—a smile on your child’s face, the smell of warm coffee first thing in the morning, the kinds of things that happen every day.”
How right he was. Of course my list comprised these things. And this helps me to answer the question I asked in the title of this post: why do I feel so damn happy? I think it’s because my perspective has shifted. COVID-19 has totally changed our normal. While this is devastating, it also allows us the perspective to understand how absolutely fricking awesome our normal was. The stuff we take for granted is, it turns out, priceless. Who knew that we would be ecstatic to walk in the park, to hug a friend or to pop to the supermarket?
Everything in life is relative. If we’re a millionaire surrounded by billionaires we’re likely to feel fairly down on our luck, outrageous though that may be. Many people reading this will come from a place of extraordinary privilege, relatively speaking. We know intellectually how lucky we are. We think ’there but for the Grace of God go I’ when we pass a homeless person or hear about the plight of Syrian refugees. But we don’t always know it in our bones. The upheaval caused by this pandemic throws our relative fortune into light relief: we really see how lucky we are compared to billions of people and we understand properly how beautiful, how innocent, our day-to-day lives were before everything we knew to be true was thrown into question.
The truth is that we appreciate absolutely everything much more fully than we usually do, and appreciation is just the most wonderful of states. When things are easy to come by, we can become immune to them, entitled. When none of the facets that make up ‘ordinary’ life can be guaranteed then they suddenly become extraordinary. We have to work harder for them, and they increase in perceived value.
I’m not sure if the government will ban outdoor exercising, and so right now my riverside walks are utterly delectable (the photo above is of my children by the Thames this morning). Yesterday my next-door neighbour dropped over some items that she’d allowed me to order within her online Tesco shop, and I was like a child at Christmas. Every leftover works hard, and I work harder to turn it into something that doesn’t taste like leftovers. I love the challenge of this! My sense of achievement feels wonderful.
At the end of the day, we are simple creatures, but we’ve made everything so complicated. It’s exhausting. In a myriad of ways, life has simplified over the past few weeks. Choices have been taken away, FOMO has vanished, and all that asked of us is to stay at home and do what human beings are born to do: just be. Life is transient, precious, fragile. I think we’re just beginning to understand that.