We’re in the midst of a world crisis—and it’s not just one crisis, it’s two crises. It’s a health crisis and an economic crisis. Events are changing very fast. There’s uncertainty, fear, anxiety, death, devastation.
In a time like this, many people wonder, “Is it morally appropriate for me to think about my own state of mind? With everything that’s going on in the world, is it selfish to spend one minute thinking about trying to stay calm, or exercise, or work on my Ph.D. thesis?” In a world so full of suffering, it may seem callous and self-centered to think about our individual concerns.
That’s an understandable and worthy thought.
And of course, many people—far too many people—don’t have this concern right now. Healthcare workers, essential workers, single parents, people who have lost their jobs…so many people are in such taxing circumstances that they’re just trying to get through the day. No words can express the debt that we all owe to them.
And many people are sick, or caring for those who are sick, so the days are consumed with those concerns.
But for now, for many of us, we’re safe at home, and we’re not going anywhere for a while. Is it selfish to think about how to be happier, calmer, more energetic, more focused?
In fact, research shows—and common experience confirms—that it’s not selfish. Research shows that when we’re feeling happier, we’re more interested in helping other people, and more interested in taking action in the world. We’re more likely to help other people; volunteer more time; give more money to charity; be more forgiving; have better self-control; stay more tolerant of frustration; are more likely to vote; act as better team members and better leaders; and are more interested in tackling social problems.
This makes sense. It takes the emotional energy to turn outward to think about the problems of other people and the problems of the world. It’s the airplane cliche about “Put on your own oxygen mask first.”
Now, at a time like this, it’s not possible to be happy. It’s a terrible time of global catastrophe. That’s the reality. But we can all take steps, within our own situation, to be as happy, and calm, and energetic, as we can be, under our own circumstances.
And by doing so, we help ourselves to weather this crisis more effectively, and we also strengthen ourselves to be more helpful to others and our community—now, and in the days to come.
So it’s not selfish to ask ourselves, “What can I do to get better sleep? How can I get some exercise when I’m safe at home for weeks? What activities will help me calm down when I feel frantic about paying the bills? How do I focus on my work when I’m so worried?”
By taking steps–what’s within our own power–to take care of our bodies, connect with other people, give ourselves mental breaks from the worries of the day, and so on, we help ourselves stay strong to deal with what’s coming—and by doing so, we help ourselves stay strong to take care of other people.
This situation is going to continue for a long time. So much is unknown. We need to have the stamina to meet the challenges that lie ahead.
Sometimes people say, “I don’t want to worry about myself; I care about others.” But this is a false choice, and actually, a misleading choice. We can work to support our own well-being, and at the same time, work to support the well-being of others.
For instance, many of us are spending enormous amounts of time with family members. I’m home with my husband, two daughters, and dog. Because of the psychological phenomenon of “emotional contagion,” we catch emotions from other people. If I’m happier and calmer, I’ll help the other people in my household to stay happier and calmer. I’ll have the energy to reach out to people who need support. I’ll have the self-discipline to wash my hands over and over, and to resist making unnecessary trips to the grocery store.
One of the greatest elements of a happier life? Gratitude. And one of the unexpected consequences of this time is that I’m more awash in gratitude than I’ve ever been in my life. For instance, I’m so grateful for all the brave people doing essential work every day. Every night at 7 pm, I love hearing the cheers ring out across New York City, as we all honor their work.
I’m so intensely grateful for so many things that I’d never before considered. It feels like bad luck even to list all the things I’m grateful for right now.
In dealing with this crisis, we have a long way to go. By doing what we can to manage our own states of mind, we strengthen ourselves to deal with the current situation, and what lies ahead. And we also better equip ourselves to help other people face the challenges that lie ahead, as well.
Together we can get through this tremendously difficult period as best we can, to face the future with determination and fortitude.
Right now, we’re in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, and it will continue and change for a long time. While everyone across the globe is affected, it’s hitting people differently in different places. Countries are experiencing it at different times, and within the United States, states are being hit at different times. The crisis affects individuals very differently, too; people’s fears and challenges vary dramatically. Wherever we are, we’re all so grateful for the healthcare workers and all the essential workers who are doing such important work, so courageously, during this time.
I’m writing from my own experience, at this moment, in New York City.