How to Be Happy During These Uncertain Times


Please login to view this content , or sign up for an account

The solstice in December, the day I am writing this, marks the first day of winter. In the Northern hemisphere, it is the shortest day and the longest night of the year. Ever since ancient times, this day has been celebrated across the world as a time of renewal, a kindling of hope, in the depths of darkness. It is something deeply embedded in the human mind that has been adopted by different religions and cultures for thousands of years. Lights on the Christmas tree and all the magical Christmas decorations tempting us to visit the local mall to buy a last-minute present are only one of the most popular versions of this ritual, co-opted by commercial interests which have made Christmas shopping one of, if not the most profitable time of the year. The ancient rituals of happiness have been replaced by a frenzy of pleasure-seeking activities.

Photograph of a nativity scene carved into a wooden mold in 1571. This mold was used by my father to make gingerbread cookies for the local Christmas market.

If we only judge by the daily flood of negative information in the media, there is little to be happy about moving towards the end of this unusual year. The beginning of the third year of the pandemic, with a new variant leading to the unexpected return of lockdowns and an overwhelmed healthcare system, extreme weather patterns around the world, with predictions of things to get much worse, millions threatened by starvation, heartbreaking stories of desperate refugees drowning in the freezing waters of the English Channel, out of control autocrats with return to cold war scenarios and continued paralysis of the political system here in the US, preventing any meaningful solutions to our most pressing problems. Unsurprisingly, in addition to the 800,000 COVID-related deaths in the US so far, and a continued death toll of about 2,000, we are witnessing an epidemic of mental illness in the form of anxiety, depression and PTSD that is overwhelming mental healthcare providers.

Is this the right time to be happy?

Instead of frantically engaging in last minute shopping sprees and focus on the transient pleasures we obtain from getting beautifully wrapped gifts, enjoying Christmas dinner and indulging on delicious sweets, we should reflect for a moment what a mental state of happiness really means, and how it is fundamentally different from the transient experience of pleasure.

In his inspiring book, Happiness, Tibetan monk Matthieu Ricard states … “We look for happiness outside ourselves when it is basically an inner state of being.” And he goes on to explain, “…by happiness, I mean here a deep sense of flourishing that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind. This is not a mere pleasurable feeling, a fleeting emotion, or a mood, but an optimal state of being. Happiness is also a way of interpreting the world, since while it may be difficult to change the world, it is always possible to change the way we look at it.”

Such an inner state of happiness is more urgently needed than ever to deal with the ubiquitous negativity around us. Based on our inability to fundamentally change the way we live, we can expect that it will only get worse in the coming years. Unfortunately, most of the national and global problems that are currently unfolding are beyond our control. The transient state of dopamine-driven pleasure will be over for the majority of people after the Holiday Season, and pessimism, fear and anxiety will return. What remains will be a craving for the next pleasure- providing high.

This may be a good time to reflect on the true meaning of happiness. As stated so clearly by another Tibetan monk, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, “those who seek happiness in pleasure, wealth, glory, power and heroics are as naïve as the child who tries to catch a rainbow and wear it as a coat.”

True happiness, as defined above, is a state that most people in the United States and other industrialized societies have forgotten how to achieve. But the good news is that there is a growing popularity of contemplative practices, such as mindfulness meditation, and the nurturing of empathy and compassion. As we have discussed in many previous editions of our blog, these contemplative practices are not only essential to obtain a state of lasting happiness and equanimity, but they protect us against the ill health effects of negative emotional states and associated lifestyles.

Emeran Mayer, MD is a Distinguished Research Professor in the Departments of Medicine, Physiology and Psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, the Executive Director of the G. Oppenheimer Center for Neurobiology of Stress and Resilience and the Founding Director of the Goodman-Luskin Microbiome Center at UCLA.