IT’S BEEN AN UNHAPPY few months. Stepping outside means risking our health. One out of six U.S. workers is unemployed or soon will be. The stock market has suffered its worst decline since 2007-09. And while we can take steps to help ourselves, the situation is largely out of our control.
Feeling glum? One of my abiding interests is happiness research, and that research offers ideas that can make our current situation a little cheerier. But how? We can think of any occasion—perhaps it’s a fun experience we’re planning or a purchase we want to make—as having three elements: the time before, the event itself and the time after. Each offers the opportunity for happiness, but it takes effort on our part.
1. Before. I’ve stopped asking friends and family whether they have any plans for the weeks ahead, because the question seems almost silly. Many folks are reluctant to, say, eat at restaurants or go to the beach—and, depending on where we live, these things may even be prohibited. But if we can’t make plans, what’s there to look forward to? The fact is, one of life’s great joys is anticipation.
My suggestion: Create two wish lists, one for today’s world and one for our post-pandemic life. The current list might include things like restaurants we want to order from, hikes we’d like to take and items we want to purchase online.
Yes, I realize there’s currently a debate about the ethics of online shopping—and whether we should limit ourselves to ordering essentials, so we don’t put fulfillment and delivery workers unnecessarily at risk. I’m not going to weigh in on that. But if you are inclined to buy online, I’d spend time scouring the internet and considering different items, so you add to your anticipation. And if you decide to make some purchases, lean toward items that can be shared with others, such as kitchen utensils that’ll allow you to make a special meal for your family or games that require multiple players. Most things in life are better when they can be shared with others.
Meanwhile, even if we can’t imagine climbing on an airplane today or going to a concert, we should make a second wish list that includes, say, places we’d like to visit and performers we’d like to see. We might do some research online, and then hatch plans with friends and family. This sort of daydreaming costs nothing but could bring great pleasure: We can muse about countless enjoyable experiences—and, even if we can only make the vaguest plans at this juncture, we’ll get the boost to happiness that comes with anticipation.
2. During. How can we ensure an eagerly anticipated event lives up to its billing? We should remind ourselves how lucky we are to be making this particular purchase or having this experience. And as we enjoy the event, we should put ourselves on sensory high alert, taking in as many details as possible.
Indeed, very deliberately focusing on the positive aspects of an occasion—whether it’s before, during or after—appears to be one of the best strategies for boosting happiness, according to academic research. We should strive mightily to focus on the event at hand, rather than letting ourselves get distracted by, say, the latest COVID-19 news or that annoying email from a colleague.
We should also avoid comparing our purchase or experience to that enjoyed by those around us—because there’s a grave risk that such comparisons will detract from our happiness. This is one reason to favor experiences over possessions. Your neighbors might drive cars that are obviously superior to yours. But it’s much harder to conclude that your neighbors have, say, better hobbies or better family gatherings.
One final suggestion: It seems we get greater pleasure from events if they end on a high note. On vacation, we might plan something memorable for the final day. Making a special dinner? Yes, you should definitely serve dessert.
3. After. We ought to strive not only to remember happy occasions, but also to remember the more enjoyable parts. Forget the annoyances and think about the high points. And as we ponder the good things in our life, we should take a moment to be grateful. We can boost our happiness simply by thinking about how lucky we are to have a beautiful home, good friends or the opportunity to spend a week in Europe last summer.
Indeed, we should take steps to ensure we’re regularly reminded of our good fortune. At dinner, we might mention the pre-pandemic cruise we took, and ask what our spouse and children remember about the trip. Similarly, we could bring up the topic of vacations with friends, so we can regale them with our stories. We might also keep the photo albums out on the coffee table, so we’re more likely to leaf through and remember past events.
One caveat with all this: Focusing on the positive and expressing gratitude won’t be especially effective if we aren’t wise in how we choose to spend our time and money. Research suggests we often misjudge how happy an event will make us—and sometimes much-anticipated occasions don’t make us happy at all.
But with any luck, those wish lists will help. By writing down how we’d like to use our money and spare time, and then regularly revising those lists, we’ll avoid impulsive decisions—and, fingers crossed, end up making wiser choices.