Happiness in the Age of COVID-19

By Beth Allgood,  U.S. Country Director, IFAW

In 2013, the United Nations (UN) marked March 20th as the International Day of Happiness to recognize the importance of happiness and well-being in the lives of people around the world. Last year, I attended the launch of the annual UN World Happiness Report in New York. This year the UN is closed to the public and the 2020 Report launch was virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic. What a difference a year makes. But what happens to happiness levels in the face of a crisis like this? Can we still be happy in the midst of a global crisis? Can we look at this as an opportunity to make the changes necessary to make society support our well-being instead of focusing on increasing economic growth at all costs?  Where will the world be by next March 20th?  I think we are at a crossroads.

The UN website about the 2020 World Happiness Report FAQ says that COVID-19 poses great risks to some of the key drivers of well-being, especially to health and income. But, it says “ A high trust society quite naturally looks for and finds co-operative ways to work together to repair the damage and rebuild better lives. This has led sometimes to surprising increases in happiness in the wake of what might otherwise seem to be unmitigated disasters.”

This is an important finding and one that can help us understand why some societies are more resilient in the face of disasters than others. The authors go on to say that when communities and institutions work together, it “delivers a heightened sense of belonging, and pride in what they have been able to achieve by way of mitigation. These gains are sometimes great enough to compensate for the material losses. But, where the social fabric is not strong enough to support co-operative action on the required scale, then fear, disappointment and anger add to the happiness costs of a disaster.”

For those of us who have the luxury to work at home, keep in touch with friends and family virtually, and not worry immediately about our financial security or health, we have a rare chance to slow down and reflect upon what really makes us happy. In survey after survey by the UN, OECD, Gallup and others, family relationships, friends and community, health and vitality, purpose and meaningful work, spirituality and religion, as well as being around animals and within nature, figure prominently in many respondents definition of happiness.

In 2019, IFAW commissioned an independent poll of US voters in which 94% of respondents said that pets contributed to happiness. In the same poll, 88% of respondents said that wildlife contributed to happiness. In the very short time that these COVID-19 restrictions have been in place, we have seen and heard some amazing stories of happiness and wellbeing in the face of difficult circumstances. Stories of Italian towns coming together – emotionally – by singing together from their balconies, blue skies and birds singing over Wuhan, canal water running clear in Venice, and smog lifting from cities in Europe now under lockdown show us what is possible in a short time.

Some people are conducting virtual meetings with cats and dogs on their laps or by their sides and having lunches or dinners with their family members, some for the first time in a long time. In other words, while we are forced to quarantine, the waters are starting to be clean again, the air is starting to clear, trees are being left alone, and our wildlife is living free for a little while.   We are living through something historic: this is the year that the Earth has forced the world to pause. Though the pandemic has brought the world tragedy, it has also highlighted some lessons we can learn, has given us a moment to reassess what we value, and the opportunity to chart a new course.

For instance, the wildlife trade and consumption bans that China has taken recently are a critical step forward for wildlife and people. However, this pandemic gives us an opportunity to make other fundamental and transformational changes that will not only benefit our shared environment, but can make people happier in our homes, communities, and around the world.

It is obvious now that we are all connected. It is also clear that we actually CAN make the changes that are necessary. Knowing that now, how can we restructure our policies to better support – and be supported by – our fellow community members to ensure access to basic services? How can we stop wildlife trafficking and habitat destruction that allows a zoonotic disease to spread in the first place? And how can we change domestic and international policies to prioritize people, animals, and the places we call home above short-term economic gains?  We can also take the time to look more inward. What makes you happy? Can you do more of it now? When worry is rampant and times are scary, can you bring a little more happiness into your day?

This is the moment to look at what truly matters in society and redesign our policies to better support well-being for all. This includes species conservation, habitat conservation, and pro-climate policies, for we won’t survive and thrive without all people, animals and the earth thriving along with us. In 2016, IFAW issued a report, Measuring What Matters, about the importance of broader wellbeing policy measures that included examples of how animals contribute to human well-being. Now is the time to revisit these measures. Let’s do what we can to celebrate International Day of Happiness today, and work towards a vision of the future that is happier for everyone. Next March 20th, let’s really have something to celebrate.

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