With so much bad news swirling around—COVID-19, politics, racial injustice—you’d think Americans would be throwing up their arms and gobbling down ice cream.
But according to an exclusive new Fast Company-Harris poll, 75% say they’re feeling about the same or better in 2021 compared to how they felt previously during this time of year. And people who normally contend with seasonal depression are twice as likely to say they’re feeling better this year versus previous years—32% compared to 16%.
The study also finds that 79% of Americans report feeling their sense of purpose in life is stronger than or about the same as this time last year (though individuals with seasonal affective disorder were twice as likely to have weaker senses of purpose).
Experts say the harrowing year we’ve all just been through could have played a role in reminding people to appreciate what they have in life. “All these shocks have really gotten people focused on their own values and putting them out into the world,” explains Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project and host of the “Happier” podcast. “When you can’t see family members or friends, it makes everyone realize how much they value those times. Some things we were taking for granted, we now see how important they are and we are grateful.”
The arrival of COVID-19 vaccines may also be a factor in people’s improved outlook, she adds. Toss in the lack of a commute, which research has long shown to make people miserable, and the sense of control that some people now feel over their lives, and it’s a period of uplift, not sadness.
“People are developing self-awareness and emotional intelligence, the ability to really reflect,” says Toronto-based happiness researcher Gillian Mandich. “Pre-COVID, for a lot of people, life was go-go-go. When the world shut down, people received this gift as a silver lining. Happiness has two components, the in-the-moment when you feel the joy [and] the purpose, meaning, contentment. Because of everything that’s gone on, people are really starting to have time to be clearer on that for themselves.”
What to do when you’re down
According to the Fast Company-Harris Poll, Americans turn to various different kinds of activities when they want to boost their moods. Among them are binge-watching TV shows and movies (40%), hanging out with family and friends (37%), reading books (35%), spending more time with a significant other (35%), and exercising more often (28%). This year, 21% are seeking professional help for their seasonal blues versus 19% in the past.
According to Rubin, 50% of a person’s happiness level is genetically influenced (“Some people are born Tiggers. Some are born Eeyores.”) and a chunk is related to life circumstances, factors like health, education, income, and marital status. The rest stems from conscious thoughts and actions; for example, do you view working hard to connect with friends over Zoom as worth it despite the inconvenience—or as a hardship?
Cultural factors also influence happiness, Mandich says, including religion; geography; whether the person has faced difficulties before; and skill level for problem-solving, resourcefulness, stress management, and resilience.
“Happiness is a practice, not a destination. We don’t ever just arrive at happiness. We work on it our whole life. We don’t get to happy and then, we’re done,” she says.
But feeling down in the winter is the norm for many people. One-third of Americans say they’re depressed this time year because the weather is cold, it gets dark early, and the excitement of the holiday season is over, the Harris Poll finds. Certain groups tend to feel it more, like employed people under age 65 (38%) and parents of children under age 18 (45%).
“Part of life is embracing the palette of human emotions. We have highs and lows. The goal is not to be happy all the time,” Mandich says. “Once we understand that, it can take pressure off us to not be happy all the time. There’s a more realistic picture of what the goal is.”
Jason Brown, principal of PublicCity PR in suburban Detroit, is one of those smiley-face people. Over the last 10 months, he continued to take care of his clients as best he could, started walking more (both with the dog and without), joined a professional group, rejoiced that his family was healthy, and adapted to his kids’ in-person school/virtual learning schedules.
The 49-year-old faces challenges, though. He has Crohn’s disease, which he must contend with on daily basis, and applies some lessons learned from that life experience to staying positive now. He thinks about what he’s grateful for, stays away from politics on social media, and grants himself some alone time.
“I try to live my life to the fullest,” Brown explains. “I turn 50 this year, so I’m somewhat excited about that. My wife and I talked about going places we haven’t been . . . I look forward to those opportunities and life moments. I can’t just sit and think doom and gloom.”