The Science of Happiness: How to Overcome Pandemic Grief

Masked male volunteer sorting clothes.

Andrew Rosenfeld, MD, a psychiatrist within the University of Vermont Health Network, describes the emotional impact of COVID-19 as one of wide-ranging grief.

“We’re grieving from loss of life, loss of employment, loss of educational opportunities, and from the loss of both physical and relationship contact – and there’s also this global loss of control over the future. It’s left all of us with this sense of uncertainty that’s really upending.”

Dr. Rosenfeld, who has written about the science of happiness, believes that there is a prescription that can promote our healing: altruism.

Altruism is the selfless concern for the well-being of others—in short, giving of yourself to others with no expectation of getting anything in return. But one of the surprising things about altruism is that it actually benefits both the giver and receiver.

“Practices like gratitude, compassion, kindness and giving all activate the same neural networks that light up our brain’s reward centers,” Dr. Rosenfeld says.

Studies have shown that viewing photos of your loved ones stimulates the reward-centers areas of our brains. But that link applies just as well to people we don’t know as to those who are nearest and dearest to us, Dr. Rosenfeld suggests. And evolution bears this out. We’ve evolved to take care of our loved ones, but even if people are not your kin, it’s a better strategy, from an evolutionary standpoint, to help each other out. However, that cooperative instinct can be easily eroded during times of stress and scarcity.

If you’re lost and alone in the woods, for instance, it might be better to be more selfish and view a stranger as a potential threat rather than someone to share your food with, explains Dr. Rosenfeld. “With COVID-19, there is a real threat that is conveyed by other humans, and part of safely managing that is being more cautious about our social interactions,” he says. Unfortunately, it’s those social interactions that are the very things that warm up our brains’ reward centers. After the last two years of being constantly on guard, we’ve almost forgotten what happiness and pleasure feel like.

Dr. Rosenfeld’s “prescription” of helping others can start to tip the scales back toward cooperation and reward. Like a trail through the woods, the more we use those pathways, the more familiar, and automatic, they become.

Dr. Rosenfeld shares several tips for beginning a sustainable altruism practice that will have a lasting impact.

  • Choose something that aligns with your current interests. What are you already doing for fun that may have a volunteer component? If you love to ski, think about volunteering for the ski patrol. If you love to cook, a soup kitchen may need your help. Choose an activity that optimizes your talents.
  • Make it a regular thing. Join the trail maintenance committee that gets together twice a month, or sign up to work in the soup kitchen every Friday. Make giving back a habit.
  • Choose an activity that connects you with other people, such as working in a food bank or an animal shelter with a team of volunteers. “We know that warm social interaction is good, and we know that volunteering is good, so if you combine the two, it’ll be at least as good, if not better,” says Dr. Rosenfeld.
  • Choose something where you can see the benefit. When you volunteer with local community organizations, you can see the impact on the faces of those you serve. When you click “Donate” on a website, you don’t, unfortunately, reap that reward as personally.
  • Consider making it a family activity. Connect as a family around volunteerism and giving to make your familial bonds closer and community ties stronger.

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