The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How I found joy in life during difficult times

(Steven Petrow)
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Five years ago this month, my mother died. Three months later, my dad passed away — and in between, my husband and I separated. Before the year had ended, my sister had been diagnosed with cancer.

This is not to garner sympathy, but simply to say that 2017 was an awful year for my family and me. Joy was nowhere on the calendar. In fact, if anyone had asked me how to find even the tiniest spark of joy during those dark days, I probably would have answered, in my best Steve Martin impersonation, “Well, excuse me?”

To be honest, I couldn’t imagine being entitled to a modicum of joy that year. I also thought of joy as an either/or scenario — either you felt it or you didn’t. I didn’t.

The past 22 months haven’t registered high on what I’d call the joy-o-meter. Poll after poll confirm what we all know about these pandemic years: We’re not feeling a lot of joy or happiness. A Kaiser Family Foundation study reported that 4 in 10 U.S. adults had symptoms of anxiety or depression during the coronavirus pandemic, up from 1 in 10 in 2019.

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That’s a huge increase. And why not? We’ve been mired in lockdowns and shutdowns; facing mutants named beta, delta and now omicron; and dragging our sorry rear-ends through nearly two years of masking, distancing and hand-washing. There is very little joy in Mudville, right?

Guess again. I was shocked to read a new National Poll on Healthy Aging, published by the University of Michigan, called “Joy and Stress During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” It reports that 83 percent of adults over 50 had felt “some” or “a lot” of joy since March 2020.

When I spoke to one of the researchers, Jessica Finlay, co-lead of the poll, she acknowledged her team’s surprise with these findings.

“It’s not a monolithic story of decline or loss,” she told me. “People are finding silver linings in this time and are resilient to what they’re experiencing.”

She had a laundry list of examples: spending time outside and taking joy in the everyday spaces around us, hearing a bird’s song in a tree, and receiving a big hug from a family member after months of isolation. In other words, people are finding joy and staying afloat even during the prolonged public health crisis.

Still, I was skeptical. So I conducted my own informal survey among Facebook friends, asking simply, “How have you found joy in these difficult times?” The answers lifted me up and made me smile.

There were hundreds of responses, among them those that told of adopting a hamster “who lives in a hamster mansion,” spending time with the grandchildren, streaming British comedies, eating chocolates, making a daily gratitude list, dancing, writing poetry, baking cookies, volunteering, cycling, enjoying the solitude and — my favorite — “the unpredictability of auto-correct.” The deeper themes weren’t hard to see: connection, humor, helping others, exercise and eating lots of calories. Out of all the responses, only one person went all doom and gloom.

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During my “annus horribilis,” I, too, unexpectedly found joy in the darkness. One afternoon, I spontaneously snapped a photo of a brilliant sunset, posting it on Instagram with the hashtags #gratitude and #beautyiseverywhere. Soon enough, I’d begun a regular “practice” of taking and posting photographs — of sun- and moonrises, flowers and fields, but also of a brick wall overlooking a parking area with humorous graffiti that read, “Bark here.” Each time, I enjoyed what I’d think of as a “joy hit.”

At first I thought this was simply about taking pretty pictures. Then I believed it was about seeking and noting beauty in the everyday. Eventually, as more and more friends responded and began posting their own photos with the hashtag #gratitude, I understood that my joy came from the sharing with others. I’ve continued this practice throughout the pandemic, and it never fails to delight me — and, apparently, my friends.

More surprising was the realization that I could feel both joy and grief, not either/or. To this point, the University of Michigan poll reported high levels of stress among its respondents, with nearly two-thirds saying they felt “some” or “a lot” of stress — and these were the same folks who also reported experiencing joy in overwhelming numbers.

Who is more likely to feel joy? Finlay says it’s those in better health — either physical or mental — as well as those with higher incomes.

Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, points to social factors, too. “People laugh five times as often when they’re with others as when they’re alone,” he wrote in the New York Times last year. “Peak happiness lies mostly in collective activity,” he says, meaning singing in choruses, running races, sitting together at a coffee shop — almost anything done with others. According to Grant, those of us who pursue happiness socially become more connected and happier. We’ve missed many of these opportunities during the pandemic.

Video services such as Zoom and Skype often take a bad rap for increasing our feelings of loneliness and isolation. Think “Zoombie apocalypse.” But again, things may not be quite as black and white as they first appear. The University of Michigan poll found that 83 percent of respondents said they found joy by connecting in person, while a surprising 79 percent also found joy by phone or virtually. Finlay pointed out that virtual connection — through phone calls, Zoom get-togethers and direct messaging — is very different from scrolling through Facebook or Instagram. “We can achieve a lot of the benefit perhaps of in-person contact, even if it’s through a screen format,” she said.

To her point, just before Christmas, I tested positive for the coronavirus, along with two of my nieces, necessitating another distanced holiday. We took our Christmas Eve dinner to Zoom, and from five different locations, we shared dinner and family memories.

I am not the only one who has found that same joy of connection on social media. In March 2020, my friend Cathy Hankla, a retired professor of English and creative writing, posted a photo on Facebook of a red-bellied woodpecker in her lilac tree, which was blooming for the first time ever. Soon enough, Hankla found herself posting daily and titled her new series, “Miracle Reports,” which she explained “are reminders that perceiving the miraculous is a state of mind, pointing to the profligate nature of miracles, not rare but potentially everywhere.”

But what gratified her most? “They made me feel more connected to others when they reacted to the posts or started similar posts [citing] miracle reports as their inspiration.”

She was right, as I, like many others, became a follower and fan of her posts.

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Not everyone is a photographer, a comic or a cookie maker — nor should you be! But we can begin to live in a space that’s not either/or. Life is not always purely joy or no joy. I began to understand that during my mother’s memorial service, which brought together a lifetime of friends and family who shared the funniest of stories, many of them focused on Mom’s lack of skill in the kitchen. (More than one ended with, “And that’s how she became known as ‘Shake ’n Bake.’ ”) By the end of her service, I realized joy and grief can coexist in our hearts.

One of my favorite novelists, Barbara Kingsolver, once wrote: “In my own worst seasons I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another . . . [a]nd another . . . [u]ntil I learned to be in love with my life again. Like a stroke victim retraining new parts of the brain to grasp lost skills, I have taught myself joy, over and over again.”

I have, too. And I’m guessing you can, as well. For sure, we will face challenges in the year to come, but I feel equally certain that we can find joy in the midst of sorrow. It’s there when we look for it, and when we open our hearts to it. It’s also to be found in our memories — “Hello, ‘Shake ‘N Bake’ ” — which may be what we need to call on during more challenging times.

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