By Diana Bruk, a Russian-American journalist living in New York, who has written for The New York Times, The Paris Review, Cosmopolitan, Esquire and Elle, amongst other publications.
It’s an understatement to say that things in the US are not so great right now. A recent study found Americans are the unhappiest they’ve been since the survey began in the 1970s. And that was BEFORE the George Floyd unrest.
So we Americans are officially unhappy, the most miserable we’ve been since records began in 1972. That’s saying something, given that this is by no means the first time the country has been plagued by civic unrest or financial uncertainty.
The year 1972 itself wasn’t exactly a bag of laughs, what with the Vietnam war still raging, Richard Nixon carrying out the Watergate break-in and cover-up, and Arab terrorists slaughtering 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics.
Since then we’ve endured terror attacks such as 9/11, hurricanes like Katrina leaving hundreds dead, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, space shuttles exploding, riots, financial meltdowns, AIDS.
Then along comes Covid-19 and lockdown, and we’re reduced to record levels of misery. A recent survey conducted by the University of Chicago, mostly before George Floyd’s murder set the country aflame, found that just 14% of American adults say they’re very happy – down from 31% in 2018.
As everyone knows, happiness is not about what’s happening around you so much as what’s going on internally. Mental health experts warned us that, while social isolation was necessary, it would take a significant psychological toll, and it seems they were right. Everything from suicide and murder rates to drug and alcohol abuse have risen. Fear and anger are in the air, and anxiety seems to be the word of the year.
More than ever, America reminds me of ‘90s Russia, with its general vibe of “Yes, we’re all in the gutter, but at least we’re all in it together,” and with its more sympathetic approach to criminality, fear for survival, and the impulse to drink in the morning.
There is increased anxiety about the direction the country’s heading in. Another poll, from Monmouth University, shows that a mere 21% of Americans think that the country is on the right track, compared to 74% who think we’re not. Just three months ago, the split was 39% right track versus 54% wrong.
There’s a sense that things are out of control and – perhaps for the first time in our history – we feel powerless to fix it. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll published early this month found that 80% of voters think things are out of control, with just 15% believing that things are under control; while a Gallup poll showed only 42% were extremely proud to be American, the lowest since the pollsters started asking the question in 2001.
However, here’s the good news: even in the worst of times, there are ways to be less miserable, but you have to take actions that will give your brain a boost of feel-good hormones. These actions might seem uncomfortable or strange at first, but – unlike everything else that’s going on right now – they’re under your control.
Focus on the good news
If you’re feeling down, remind yourself about how far we’ve progressed. In the last 20 years the proportion of people living in extreme poverty worldwide has almost halved. Life expectancy grew from 53 years in 1960 to 73 in 2018. Read about Captain Tom Moore, the 99-year-old British Army veteran who started with a goal of earning £1,000 for the UK health service by doing laps in his garden – and who went on to raise nearly £33 million. Or about how young gorillas have learned to dismantle poachers’ traps. Or why we’re about to get nuclear fusion that will give us almost unlimited energy, and hyperloops that will shuttle people between New York and Washington in around 29 minutes.
Don’t compare your life to that of other people
A lot of what I hear from friends right now is, “Well, if I had a husband, like Sandy, I’d be fine too,” or “Well, if I lived in a bigger house, like Bill, I’d be less miserable.” Research has shown that, past a certain point, money has no impact on a person’s happiness levels. And, surprisingly enough, even the bliss of finding The One drops off after around 18 months. Telling yourself everyone else is better off than you will only send you into a spiral of negative thoughts. It’s better to focus on what you have rather than what you don’t have, and remind yourself that even though other people don’t have the same issues you have, you undoubtedly also don’t have some of the issues they face.
It sounds hokey but, according to science, it works. You undoubtedly have something to be grateful for, whether it’s your health, your family, or the fact that you still have a job. It’s easy to take what we have for granted, so experts recommend taking five to ten minutes each day to write down five things you’re grateful for, and truly savor them
You’ve probably heard that exercising for just one hour a day every day can alleviate anxiety and depression even more than medication. With many fitness centers around the country still closed, we’re a little limited in that regard. But don’t sweat it (ha, I had to do it). There are alternatives, like taking a walk or a run in the park, especially since being in nature has been shown to give the brain a boost. You could also try doing an online yoga class, which has added benefits, since research has shown meditation can alleviate anxiety.
Don’t hit the bottle
By now, we all know that while alcohol does relieve anxiety in the short term, it can lead to depression in the long term. There’s nothing wrong with having a few drinks, and don’t beat yourself up about it if you have a few bad days. But whenever I feel an anxiety attack coming on, I always think to myself, “OK, I have two options: I can kill this anxiety with alcohol, or I can channel the manic energy it gives me into completing tasks.” It’s tough, but the days when I do the latter are definitely the happier ones.
Don’t self isolate entirely
The rumors are true: loneliness kills, and the lack of social contact is probably one of the biggest sacrifices we made in quarantine. But even if you’re still self-isolating physically, be sure to reach out to friends and family via Skype, Zoom, phone call, or the dozens of other channels we now have, especially if you’re struggling. Because it’s not the ‘90s anymore. One of the few upsides of this pandemic is that it has normalized mental health issues. You don’t have to white-knuckle it alone, and there’s no shame in calling up a friend to say you’re having a panic attack, especially since they’re also probably having a panic attack – and then you can laugh about your panic attacks together.
Remember this too shall pass
It’s easy to feel this will all never end. But when it’s winter, it feels like summer will never come, even though you know that it will. This too will pass, and it will all be OK.
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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.