In the current coronavirus crisis, we are facing extremely challenging times. How can we respond to joy at a time like this? The answer might be to look at what we value in ourselves.
Today is International Happiness Day. In years past, I remember this day being celebrated with free hugs to strangers in my city. Today, hugging is definitely out. More significantly, people are faced with challenges and personal tragedies in the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic.
How can one cultivate happiness on this particular day, at this particular time? Happiness may be a long-term project, and its main source may well be how we treat each other. For today, taking note of the compassionate ways humans are interacting is one way to start planting seeds of joy.
It can be heartening to see how Canadian communities have united to support each other in this difficult time.
Good neighbour projects have popped up online — connecting those who need assistance, food, or supplies to those who can provide them. A public hackathon is aiming to enable the sharing of crucial medical and scientific information about the coronavirus, in real time. Performance artists are supporting each other by organizing livestream performance showcases.
To find out more about how to mark International Day of Happiness in a meaningful way during this time, we spoke with Charles Fowler. He is Chair of the Human Values Foundation, which helps children and young people discover and practice values. Fowler is also a Steering Group Member of the UK Values Alliance, which seeks to promote the awareness and use of values in society.
Here is our conversation…
Charitable Impact: What does a day like International Day of Happiness mean in the context of the global crisis like the one we are experiencing now? How can we be more conscious of cultivating joy in times like these?
Charles Fowler: On the face of it, a “day of happiness” looks incongruous in the middle of this awful crisis with all the widespread suffering and fear. But times of crisis so often bring out the best in people, and we find ourselves wanting to do our bit to help others.
In Spain a few days ago, thousands of people stood on their balconies clapping and whistling to express their gratitude to the dedicated medical workers. In Italy, they are singing from their windows to let their quarantined neighbours know they are not alone. Everywhere across the world, people are organizing themselves to fetch food and medication for infirm and elderly self-isolated neighbours.
This not only supports and sustains the vulnerable, it gives joy to both the givers of help and those receiving the help.
CI: How do values contribute to happiness?
CF: We only find true, enduring happiness when we live our lives in line with our values. This is provided that we dig down into our core values, the values that prompt us to act for the benefit of other people and not just for ourselves.
Values like kindness, generosity, justice, and compassion are mainly to do with how we treat other people without looking for personal advantage. Practicing them nevertheless makes us happy.
These values are not something that have to be learned. You could call them our human values – they are what make us human. They are what our communities and our whole civilization are built upon. We tend to forget this, and it’s times like these that remind us.
CI: I know you think of happiness as being a long-term project that we can contribute to a bit each day. Is there a way for someone to start thinking more strategically along those lines?
CF: Every day, we are bombarded from all sides with data that can fill us with anxiety and negativity. Our minds get overrun with that negativity and we lose our joy. We become unhealthily self-centred. But the truth is we are not isolated little puddles — we are part of the wonderful interrelated ocean of humanity.
We can break out of our negativity by connecting with those around us. If we ask ourselves: “What are those around us in need of — the members of our family, our friends, our colleagues?” The process of connection has started.
Then try to do something each day to help address those needs, even in a small way. It will give joy to those we have connected with, and we will find joy in ourselves.
Little by little those moments of joy will grow and, gradually, we’ll find that we are living a meaningful, fulfilled, and happy life.
The most wonderful thing about doing these little acts of love for those around us is that they are then prompted to do the same for those around them, and so on.
CI: There is a lot of anxiety and fear right now. How can we acknowledge those feelings and still take time to think of and act on our values?
CF: It is important to accept that we have those feelings. The thing is to decide not to act on those feelings. Think of others who will have the same feelings, and think what you can do to help them, to cheer them up. What little act of love can you do?
This interview has been edited.