Choosing joy during difficult times

Feeling good may be in short supply these days. The pandemic is on the upswing again, and many of us anticipate spending the colder months ahead cooped up in our homes with computer screens as our only windows into the world. Meanwhile, climate-related natural disasters are driving thousands of people out of their homes. Millions of jobs are being lost. I won’t even mention politics. It is as if the whole universe has conspired to take the joy out of life.

Then, in the midst of it all, I lost my sense of smell and taste after a bout of COVID. I was very distraught. I couldn’t taste the delicious chocolate cake my wife made for my birthday, nor smell the lilacs that burst into bloom in our garden. Suddenly, my world had gotten smaller, grayer. No one else I knew had this disease. I began to ask myself, “Why me?” — forgetting for the moment so many other people who were faring much worse than I was.

Our attitudes and actions partially influence our happiness

Looking for a way to feel better, I turned to literature about resilience and overcoming adversity. I read books by spiritual teachers, psychologists, and wellness coaches. They all mentioned our inherent potential to become whole again and experience joy in life despite painful adversities. I delved into this research. One study, quoted in the Dalai Lama’s Book of Joy, particularly impressed me, as it noted that lottery winners were not significantly happier than those who had been paralyzed in an accident! Another study cited in the book concluded that each of us has a “happiness set point,” a sort of happiness quotient, or HQ, which is only partially determined by immutable factors such as genes and temperament, or by circumstances beyond our control, be it a pandemic, a bad economy, or any unplanned life disruption.

The rest of a person’s HQ — almost half of it, in fact — has to do with our own attitudes and actions. These include the ability to acknowledge difficult feelings; to reframe a situation more positively; to experience gratitude for the good things we still have; to be kind and generous to others; and, last but not least, to cultivate a sense of humor. Makes sense, I thought. But how do you practice all these wonderful things when you’re down in the dumps?

Lessons from my patients in finding joy

In the end, it was my patients who helped me gain a perspective on my own predicament. As a clinical social worker, I witness various forms of human distress firsthand every day. I’m both humbled and inspired by my patients’ ability to find a measure of contentment, if not happiness — and sometimes, even joy — amidst their suffering.

For example, take Jane (all patients’ names and identifying details have been changed to protect their privacy), a 75-year-old woman whose husband has dementia. Because of the pandemic, Jane’s husband could no longer attend his day program. Now that she needed to look after him full-time, she worried about having no life left for herself. On the insistence of a friend, she joined a support group for caregivers. She got the energy to ask her son and daughter to pitch in whenever possible, and discovered that during the day her husband would happily watch TV. In the evening, Jane puts on the ballroom music that her husband still responds to, and they dance together. And they watch a lot of black-and-white comedies and laugh. It helped, of course, that Jane and her husband had always had a pretty good relationship. But she admitted that there were times when she needed to have a good cry to release stored-up tension and sadness. Then she’d be able to laugh again.

There is also Marsha, a woman in her 40s with atrophied limbs due to a congenital disease. When I first met Marsha, I was taken aback at the extent of her physical challenges, and wondered how she managed. I learned that Marsha felt that she was doing just fine, and that she finds contentment in simple things, like reading a good book, talking to a loved one on the phone, or taking care of her cats. It’s not that Marsha didn’t have her own dark night of the soul. For years, she struggled with depression, medications, and hospital visits. A day arrived, however, when she realized that she had a choice: She could continue to be miserable, or accept reality and find a way to move on.

And then there’s Jim, a young man in a wheelchair whose career as a promising athlete was cut short by disease. He is now homebound, barely able to make it from his bed to the bathroom under his own steam. Jim knows that he will probably never marry or have a family of his own, and that his years on this planet are likely to be short. COVID added its own blows, interfering with the delivery of special equipment he needs and keeping at bay family members who are willing to live with him. Yet each time I see Jim and ask him how he is, he replies, “I’m doing okay,” often with a genuine smile. In spite of the pain and discomfort, he keeps busy with workbench projects and hobbies. Once Jim said something that really blew me away: “I don’t ask myself, ‘Why me’? I mean, Why not me?”

In the words of the Dalai Lama, choosing joy at a time like ours is a revolutionary act. As my patients have shown, we can make such a choice even when things seem to be falling apart.

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