Our COVID Odyssey: What the Pandemic Teaches Us about Happiness and Purpose

COVID has changed life as we know it, forcing people to adopt new lifestyles, behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs. While this level of disruption is unparalleled for many of us, it is also highly instructive. Like many crises, COVID can help us evaluate what matters, what’s working, what we miss, what we need, and where we should go. I suggest distilling all these questions down to one essential concern: What can we do to be happier?

I think about happiness a lot. I’m an ambitious person, but I’m not as driven by status and success now as I used to be in my 30s. I earn money in a variety of ways, some that are corporate, others entrepreneurial. I try to devote myself to activities that I enjoy and help me feel fulfilled. I try to balance my work life with other interests.

My father, who’s now 91 years old, seems incredibly happy to me. He sings all the time and seems to be in a good mood most days. For me, happiness has always been tied to engagement with life and self-actualization. It’s more about moments than a permanent state, and often requires frustration, disappointment, and unhappiness to experience.

recent study made me think about the trajectory of happiness throughout a lifetime. The authors, led by Amy Orben, note that happiness drops sharply as adolescence sets in, flattens out through much of adulthood, and begins to climb again in our 50s. This rang true to me.

Satisfaction with life through the years, source Amy Orben

Adolescence was a sudden shift in my life. Like many people, I went from being a carefree youngster, obsessed with playtime, to a morose teenager who felt moments of stress, pressure, depression, and despair, even as I seemed like a relatively untroubled and happy person on the surface.

At some level, I assumed that was brain chemistry. But now I think it had more to do with engagement and purpose. The school was interesting, but it didn’t consume or drive me like work, and family life did start in my twenties and thirties.

Still, I can’t say I was often “happy” over the following decades. I think I hardly paused to breathe, I was so on-the-go all the time. Life was filled by struggle, busy-ness, and stress, punctuated by moments of joy, satisfaction, laughter, and love.

Then, I went through some major changes that forced me to reevaluate my life and world view. I stepped away from my role as an executive in a corporation and became a mentor, entrepreneur, and advisor. I wrote a book about crisis and purpose.

F. Nouri, from my story “An Okay Letter to My 18-year Old Self”

Out of that period of deep self-reflection, I gained more awareness and clarity. I wouldn’t say I’m happy all the time now, but I’m very happy with who I am, and I understand better how to connect with what matters to me.

The author, Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar, talks about the difference between the “first half” of life and the “second half”, an idea that comes from Jungian psychology. Rohr says that our first half of life is filled with striving, struggle, and achievement. We’re trying to establish ourselves in the world. The second half is marked by introspectioncontemplationpresence, and meaning. We’re trying to slow down and make sense of the world and our place in it, and in this way, we can discover joy.

Rohr believes this shift is hard because Western culture and capitalism are very “first half of life” oriented. The drive to succeed, survive, earn, and accomplish is reinforced by the world around us. Rohr says that it usually takes a very difficult time in life, a “rock-bottom” moment, to turn us away from a first-half of life path and toward more introspection and awareness. I call it a crisis.

He tells the story of Odysseus who spends most of his life-fighting wars, then the next twenty years sailing the world trying to get back from Troy to his homeland Ithaca. Near the end of that struggle, he visits Hades (the underworld, “Kato Kosmos” as we call it in Greek) and gets a message that once this extended voyage is over, he must embark on a new voyage, not on the sea but to the interior of an island.

Oysseus in Ades, Jelgersma, Tako Hajo, 1717–1795

Commentators say that this moment in the Odyssey was Odysseus’ low point. He literally went to hell. And while there, he learned that he needed to go on a new, different journey inland — which they interpret as meaning inside himself.

Slomo, San Diego Ville
Similarly, Dr. John Kitchin is telling his story in a must-watch-video. He quits a successful medical career when the imbalance between “spiritual and financial promotion” led him to a dead-end with health implications, to follow his passion: skating along the boardwalk of San Diego’s Pacific Beach. He calls himself “Slomo.” Same pattern, three parts of life, satisfaction & joy first as a young teenager then stress and anxiety ending to self-discovery, fluidity & wisdom — if you are lucky enough.

Today, because of COVID, many people are experiencing low points. Some are busier than ever. They’re working from home and logging onto endless Zoom meetings while taking care of children who can’t be in school and elderly parents at risk of infection. Other people are stuck with less to do. They don’t have and can’t find jobs.

This disruption is forcing so many people I know to figure out new ways to live. A recent article in the Financial Times talked about the changes in work patterns in large cities like London. Pre-COVID, rents and living expenses were so high and wages so flat that people had to live far outside the city and make long commutes just to participate in desirable jobs. Now, many of those jobs have gone virtual and people are commuting less and getting more for their money.

Will this establish a new model for living, and raise the happiness curve for the 25–49 year old demographic?

We now have the opportunity to question many aspects of the life we lead. What contributes to our life and what detracts from it? What do we need more of and what do we now realize is less important? Will we value moments of a community (schools, restaurants, cinemas) more because they have become harder to access? Will we want to maintain the ability to experience solitude or practice yoga on Zoom?

My hope is that we discover the essence of what makes us happy and focus more deliberately on achieving it going forward. Perhaps, despite the tragedy and difficulty of this time, there are lessons and experiences we will value and want to keep.

That would be a real gift of crisis.

 CT/Sep20
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