The Science of Happiness during COVID-19

Yesterday, I participated in a webinar on “The Science of Happiness During Covid-19” (the discussion begins at 16:14 below). In this program, Marina Tolou-Shams (Director of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at San Francisco General Hospital) interviews my first Psychology mentor, Dacher Keltner (Professor of Psychology at the University of California – Berkeley and founder of the Greater Good Science Center) about happiness during this time of pandemic.

Dr. Keltner summarizes much of the literature on the science of happiness by discussing three important areas of individual practice: (1) coping, (2) gratitude, and (3) awe. Each of these may play a critical role in helping individuals through the various stresses we encounter during this pandemic.

Recently, I’ve written several posts about coping with this difficult time, including one the discusses much of the stress and coping literature, one that deals with self-worth, and another that discusses the theology of Christian suffering, in particular. Given this – and reflecting more of the emphasis of yesterday’s discussion – I’ll focus a bit more here on the importance of self-transcendent experience during this time.

As Dr. Keltner notes, there is an impressive research literature on the benefits of gratitude, some of which I discussed in this post about thanksgiving. Practicing gratitude during a pandemic is not meant to be pollyanna, but rather an acknowledgement that, even though the world is in crisis and we may be experiencing many difficult emotions, there also are aspects of life for which we can be thankful. Taking a moment everyday to talk or write about these good things can help shift us toward better emotional balance. For example, my family and I are taking a moment at every dinner together every night to discuss our “highs” and “lows.” The “lows” help us to express times of struggle or dissatisfaction, but the “highs” help us to be more aware of what is good, and also to look for patterns of behaviors that might be helpful for us to be intentional about implementing in the days, weeks, and months ahead. For instance, last night, all four of us had a “high” of exercising in one way or another, and this says something about how important exercise is for our well-being now.

Most of the discussion in yesterday’s webinar focused on awe and related emotions. I’ve written a lot about awe, including this post on what awe is, this one on research-supported practices that boost awe, and a related post on the new science of “being moved.” What may be most helpful during this time is to settle on some regular awe-inspiring practices in order to – as Dacher described it yesterday – experience “mini-bursts” of self-transcendence, which may serve to re-orient and ground us in a better place. For instance, my family and I are making a point to get outside every day now – to look at the weather forecast for the day and select a time that seems best in this moody spring season, and then to follow through at that time. Ideally, as we do this, we take a moment to allow ourselves to be absorbed by the details of something vast and “mind-blowing,” if we just take a little time to notice. I often walk or bike by the Vermillion River by my home, and there are places along the path, for example, where I stop and “take in” the sensory details of the water flow, the sounds of the birds, the smells of the fallen leaves, etc.


Vermillion River, Hastings, Minnesota

At the end of the video, Dr. Keltner was asked about his idea for what could change the world, if only it were implemented. Maybe this is an idea we’re all learning now, and I end here:

“This emergency or crisis… tells us that we need to return to the everyday sources of wonder and awe… We’ve gone astray in our habits, and there’s all this wonder around us. If we can just get back to those roots, a lot of things head in the right direction.”


3 thoughts on “The Science of Happiness during COVID-19

  1. Pingback: The Quest for a Good Life

  2. Pingback: Prayer, mental health, God, church …. and Covid-19 – the way?

  3. Pingback: Prayer, mental health, God, church …. and Covid-19 | the Way?

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