By Eva Mandelbaum
Close your eyes and visualize the last time you were truly happy. By happy, I mean a fulfilled and content feeling that fills every inch of your body up with jubilance. If you were able to think of something, that’s great news; you’ve achieved the goal most people have in life. If you struggled to remember the last time you’ve felt truly happy, you are most certainly not alone. It’s been…a year, to put it simply. These past few months have been filled with stress, unease, a longing for normalcy, and a general feeling of lethargy. I have good news for you: with vaccinations on the rise and as life is slowly starting to piece together again, bouncing back from the trauma this past year has brought us is not only more tangible than we realize, but the pandemic may cause us to become happier people in the long run.
Have you begun to notice and appreciate the little things that you didn’t before COVID hit? Maybe it’s going on a nature walk and noticing the trees. Maybe you’ve become more grateful for your family and friends, or possibly it’s a newfound appreciation for a hobby or skill you picked up. Overall, you can probably acknowledge that you have grown as a person since last March’s trauma began. There’s a name for this wondrous phenomenon: Posttraumatic Growth. According to Scientific American, Posttraumatic Growth, or PTG, is, “a positive psychological change that is experienced as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life circumstances.” According to that same article, the seven areas of growth that have been reported to spring from adversity are greater appreciation of life, greater appreciation and strengthening of close relationships, increased compassion and altruism, the identification of new possibilities or a purpose in life, greater awareness and utilization of personal strengths, enhanced spiritual development, and creative growth. So, believe it or not, that newfound appreciation of the birds in your backyard is a sign that you’ve been experiencing PTG.
The embodiment of PTG is Melissa Moody, a woman who was hit by a truck, but finds herself happier after this traumatic experience. She lost everything she had cared about in her life: her looks, her husband, and her sense of self. Despite this, she experienced PTG: after the accident, she now has a newfound appreciation for her horses, met the love of her life, and she became a practitioner, transforming her pain into helping others. As she shared in the “Happy” Documentary, “It is a strange truth, but the truth is that I am a happier person. I am more grounded, more centered, more connected and integrated with who I am and grateful for who I am today.” She also emphasized, “I think you can make a choice and do make a choice when things happen in life.”
As Melissa shows us, it is completely possible to transform trauma into happiness. “There’s no such thing as pleasure without pain,” explains Read Montague, Ph.D. professor of neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine. “Your nervous system is a differential engine. It looks at changes and it looks at contrasts and that’s all it cares about.” So, as science shows us, where would we be without unpleasant experiences?
At this point, you’re probably thinking, “Ok! It’s possible to be happy again…now what?” Well, according to Greater Good Magazine, 50 percent of your happiness is determined by genetics, but the other 50 percent of happiness comes from your daily habits, life circumstances, and intentional activity that influences how you feel. So, time to get moving, meditating, and doing more things that bring you joy!
According to a study, physical activity has been scientifically proven to contribute to a sense of purpose in life. So, swap those slippers for sneakers and get outside! Even going on a ten-minute walk will make you feel much better. According to a plethora of studies, meditation also increases chemicals in the brain that are linked to happiness such as endorphins and serotonin. After all, you can control your happiness, and you can switch from languishing to flourishing.
If all of this sounds new to you, you’re surely not the only one, but believe it or not, PTG has been around for ages. According to a UNC Charlotte article, “Although we coined the term posttraumatic growth, the idea that human beings can be changed by their encounters with life challenges, sometimes in radically positive ways, is not new. The theme is present in ancient spiritual and religious traditions, literature, and philosophy.” As history shows us, PTG is completely credible.
So, how does PTG relate to the pandemic? Most of us have been intuitively experiencing Posttraumatic Growth, even if we haven’t noticed it. One freshman in high school, Isabel Hoch, explained, “The Pandemic was really hard at first and it took me a while to adjust, but it definitely showed me that you can really grow. You can find your interests and new ways to connect with people.” She also feels like the trauma of the pandemic has allowed people to learn more about themselves and grow from where they were before COVID.
The COVID-19 pandemic has darkened the lives of everyone in the whole world, but what if we changed the narrative and viewed things differently? What if the pandemic has brought a light to peoples’ lives that they would have never noticed had the pandemic not occurred? Maybe (ironically enough), what the world truly needed was a chance to heal. Although the pandemic has brought death, devastation, and change, its trauma may have also brought growth. So, next time you’re asked to think of the last time you were happy, think about the moment you are in right now, and everything that it’s taken for you to get to this moment in your life. You just might feel at least a little happier.