It’s not always easy to find happiness in an uncertain world, especially with so much — health, finances, social turmoil — outside of your control. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this lack of control may have significantly affected your mental health. But what can you do about it? 

Psychiatrist Victor Frankl put the solution this way: "When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves."

It's possible to find contentment — and a greater appreciation of life — even in the most difficult circumstances. How? The key is to prioritize the practices that lead to happiness, such as: 

  • recognizing our thought patterns (e.g. positive and negative thinking) and 
  • forging connections outside of ourselves.

In part one of our finding happiness series, we learned about staying positive during challenging times by:

  • distracting ourselves from negative news, 
  • enjoying nature, 
  • celebrating important milestones, and 
  • planning for the future. 

Here, in part two, we tap into science to discover five more ways to boost our happiness.

1. Reduce stress through deep breathing

What often happens when you're worried, upset or anxious? Your heart beats faster, you breathe more rapidly and blood rushes to your brain. That “fight or flight” response once helped us survive. But today we experience this stress response in a more chronic, low-level way. Now more than ever, we need to find ways to counter it, and the answer may be found in something we do all day long – breathe.

In some cases, studies have shown that controlled breathing can help make you feel calm and alleviate depression.

It’s no wonder, then, that yoga and meditation practices are centred around breath and breath control. It has a palpable calming effect that you can feel almost immediately. 

What’s convenient is that you can practice deep breathing anywhere, anytime – yoga pants optional. Start by focusing on your breathing for two minutes, once or twice a day. Try inhaling for five seconds and exhaling for five seconds more. Then try lengthening the exhales: inhale for four counts and exhale for eight. By spending more time exhaling, your heart rate slows and you feel calmer more quickly.    

Put deep breathing to work for you and start reducing stress with every breath.

2. Start giving back and helping others

By looking outward, and using your time and talents to help others, you’ll also be lifting your own spirits. 

In fact, studies overwhelmingly show that those who volunteer their time to help others live longer and healthier lives, by a wide margin. And through MRI imaging, we can see how giving lights up the pleasure centres of our brains.

While it's important to take care of yourself first, helping others can elevate your mood at the same time. So do the self-care, but also try and find time to: 

  • look after your elderly neighbours, 
  • order food from your favourite local restaurants and 
  • support your local businesses financially by buying gifts or gift cards this holiday season. 

There are also many important charities that need your help. More and more people are now taking action to support causes like diversity and anti-racism. If you’re looking to make charitable donations or become a bigger part of an important cause, here’s how you can start

3. Become more grateful

In positive psychological research, gratitude is strongly linked to greater happiness. Practicing gratitude amplifies everything we have to be thankful for — especially important in a time when bad news is everywhere. 

Gratitude focuses our attention on what we have, not what we lack. Another bonus? It squeezes out the negative feelings that are more abundant during trying times like these.

So what’s an easy way to practice gratitude? You can start by thanking someone every day, either in person, by email or just by offering mental thanks.

Another way is through writing daily in a journal whatever it is that made you feel grateful. 

If you have a meditation practice, you can focus on whatever it is that you’re grateful for at the moment. Though it might feel contrived at first, this mental exercise grows stronger with use and practice.

4. Take a social media break

Too much focus on other people's lives can make us feel inadequate. Social media amplifies this effect by showcasing glossy snapshots of other people's 'perfect' lives.

Research shows that we tend to pick the most visible and accomplished people to compare ourselves to, unconsciously stealing our own joy. For example, you may compare your career to the most successful person in your line of work. Or, you might compare your level of fitness to your friend who runs marathons.

Instead of comparing yourself to someone else, celebrate your own accomplishments, and take a log off social media if it doesn't bring you happiness.

5. Reconnect with old friends and make new ones

Connection is a cornerstone of happiness. Studies have even found that people – particularly adults aged 50 and up – who are isolated tend to feel more depressed. 

Fostering a sense of community can be the best way to counter feelings of isolation. But how do you do it? 

Start by spending more time — whether in-person, via video chat or just a phone call — with your closest circle of support, friends and family. Coworkers can be a lifeline, too. Get to know them (even if only virtually) on a deeper level than day-to-day routine. 

You can even widen your circle by connecting with the people in your community. Getting to know local shopkeepers, restaurateurs and small business owners creates a sense of shared responsibility for your neighbourhood.

The future depends on how well we take care of ourselves and one another. That’s why the ability to reach out has never been more important. The positive vibes gained are another big bonus.

Happiness is always possible, even amid the extraordinary circumstances many of us are facing today. Find the practices that work for you, to bring some calm and clarity into your daily life.