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What 2020 Taught Us About Happiness

2020 took a toll on us. 

Loneliness, depression, and anxiety caused by social isolation. A lack of purpose and meaning as a result of high unemployment and uncertainty in the job market. Restlessness and increasingly sedentary lifestyles after being pressured to stay inside for months. The stress caused by the uncertainty of not knowing when things were going to get better and what might happen to the most vulnerable members of our families and communities.

And yet, through all of that darkness, we managed to adapt.

In light of social distancing, people began hosting virtual meetups and happy hours with friends and family to get their social fix. Businesses across a variety of industries allowed their employees to get their work done from the comfort of their own homes. Some people moved away from dense urban areas to lead simpler, slower paced lives. Some learned to cook and become more self-reliant. Others had more time to explore their hobbies and interests.  

2020 was a trying time. But it also helped to shine a light on what is important, and what it means to be happy.

It would have been easy for the average person isolated at home to spend months binging Netflix and eating ice cream. And if you equate unending pleasure with happiness, that might sound like a happy life. 

But is it? Do the pleasurable choices in life lead us to happier lives in the long run?

As it turns out, one of the biggest happiness myths is that a happy life is about the constant pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain.

That is a myth because a happy fulfilling life contains both pleasure and pain. 

“Sometimes what we do that is meaningful to us doesn’t necessarily provide pleasure.” — Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar

If you want to be strong and enjoy life into old age, you endure the pain of pushing your mind and body to get stronger. Your mind and body will deteriorate much faster if there is no stimulus to grow.

If you want to learn a new skill, you endure the pain of consistent practice and the failure that goes along with trying something new. And on the other side of that pain can be a fulfilling hobby or new line of work in a field you find interesting and exciting.

If you want to find a healthy lifelong relationship, you endure the pain of one heartbreak after another until you find someone who wants to spend his or her life with you. And anyone who has found that kind of love won’t hesitate to say all those heartbreaks were worth it.

If you want to improve your self or your life, you have to endure some amount of pain. The greater the change you want, the more pain you have to go through.

“There are only two kinds of people who don’t experience painful emotions – psychopaths and the dead.” — Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar

That’s why a happy fulfilling life is a balance. We embrace pain to grow, and once we’ve grown, we can take time to rest and enjoy the fruits of our labor. 

But there is also more to life than simply your experiences. 

Humans are social animals, and social interaction is critical for our mental and emotional well being. This is true whether you are an introvert or extrovert. It might feel more challenging to be social if you are an introvert, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need social interaction on some level. 

“The #1 predictor of happiness is quality time we spend with people we care about and who care about us.” — Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar

Many of us experienced the negative effects of social isolation as a result of the lockdown and social distancing last year. In a country like the U.S. where loneliness, depression, and anxiety were already issues, scaring people into avoiding one another made a bad situation even worse. 

Some people adapted and found creative ways to get their social fix, some were able to spend more time with their families, and some people found love. Others were not so lucky, and those will be the people who need connection the most.

We are now transitioning to whatever the new normal is. Kindness and empathy will be important as we attempt to make new friends with anyone who had a traumatic 2020. People will be coping with loss, struggling with social anxiety and the mental health issues that accompany loneliness, and trying to figure out what the point is. 

If you were fortunate enough to come out of 2020 better than when you went into it, remember we are all in this together. Don’t be afraid to reach out to someone you think might be struggling.

We all have an opportunity to be the light in someone’s darkness. 

If you want to learn more about happiness and positive psychology, check out our fantastic discussion with Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar from our latest podcast and let us know what you think!