People keep asking me how I am coping with lockdown. Given that it is also January, the coldest and often most miserable month of the year, and given that I am a little up and down emotionally at the best of times, and struggled with lockdown when it first happened in March 2020, this is understandable – and kind of them. So, I know they will be surprised when I answer them truthfully: “I am fine.”
Actually, I am more than fine. Christmas is always a challenging time of year in our house, and this latest one was no different. In fact, it was intensified by waiting to see if my key worker husband was going to get Covid from his boss and my growing awareness of the appalling situation in hospitals despite the apparent blackout of the news outlets on this subject. My frustration at this blackout and at the fact that people were still out and about, Christmas shopping when it was barn door obvious that we were facilitating an even worse surge post festivities gave a whole new meaning to the phrase, ‘Shop til you drop,’ and I could not bear the thought of what was to come.
So come January, public craziness curbed, lockdown underway, albeit with as many holes in it as a colander, and although I was crying every night at the news showing scenes in our hospitals, I started to feel better. While everyone else is now wilting under another lockdown, horrified at the news and the daily figures, I am doing better.
So, what is that all about? Why, when the country is currently in the worst position it has been arguably for ever, am I coping with life, as I know it?
It’s to do with expectations. About knowing where we are, and getting on with it. About remembering what I can and cannot control and focusing on those areas accordingly. It is about the temporary suspension of the expectations I had of happiness. It is about acceptance.
Did you know that the more we focus on happiness, the less happy we are likely to be? It makes sense doesn’t it. And yet we find ourselves in a world now where people are examining their own and each other’s feelings with more regularity than they have ever done. But research is telling us that the more we subject ourselves to scrutiny, the more we interrogate ourselves and others, for how we are doing, potentially, the less happy we will be. David Robson, in a recent article claims that over the last decade studies have shown that by being attentive to and concerned about our happiness, we may actually be damaging it; that an over focus on how we are doing can remove the pleasures we can get from simplicity and spontaneity. He cites work in California and the UK that demonstrates the dark side of the pursuit of happiness. A constant desire to feel happy can make us too lonely, and can lead to us forgetting those around us in our own self concern.
I recognised as a teenager that happiness came from unpredictable places – from fleeting, inconsequential things – a walk in the fields, a conversation with a stranger, a great book, and I developed my ‘Disneyland theory’ which posited that we don’t always feel exquisitely happy on the day we have longed for since forever. The weight of expectation, and the kinds of small but irritating things that can take the shine off a day – a headache, lack of sleep, a disagreement with someone, a flat tyre, they may mean that the day you have looked forward to for so long – and possibly spent so much money on, may not be the best day of your life after all.
I am concerned though at the legacy of Covid on our attitudes to well-being. I am not sure that we all need the same approach. Some of us need to know that there will be a huge shake up of the workplace culture which results from the lessons learned during this time, but others need something quite different altogether. Just as we are not actually all in this together at all, so we need different strategies for coping with these times and different approaches afterwards.
How far is an individualistic focus on happiness good for any of us? By focusing on how debilitating lockdown is for some of us who are still working from home, still being paid, still have our families are we creating the kind of overly self focused happiness obsession that Robson says is counterintuitive?
Losing loved ones, good health, jobs, income, homes – that is devastating and warrants our concern. Going into work daily for inhumanly long shifts, to do inhuman things, to witness death and destruction all around you – that is devastating. Working longer hours with fewer resources in a life and death environment where you cannot utilise your regular skills is incredibly challenging. It threatens our identity, our sense of self, it really messes with who we are.
Hearing from the incredible people who do try to keep us alive if we develop Covid – or indeed any other serious medical condition; watching the news night after night – which, tough as it is, I see as my duty, makes me realise that complaints about home schooling, about zoom calling, about grocery ordering belong to Robson’s categories of counterintuitive complaints. Missing out on your holiday, not seeing your friends, or being unable to wander round the shops or go to the gym or the pub, or eat out – that is just inconvenient. And a focus on it is not going to help.
As the new year dawned, I decide that I needed to get on with the life I now have – working from home, safe (not stuck) in the house, and to count my blessings. I am exceedingly fortunate that I am not put at risk by my job, so why would I put myself at risk by going out and mixing? I also realised after last year that constantly asking myself how I am, was not helpful. I am safe, I am alive, I am well. I have my family, my home, and my work. I can entertain myself when I need to do so. Yes, I have lost a career that sent me on eight or nine fabulous trips abroad every year, which I loved, but compared to other losses, that doesn’t register.
So, if you do ask me how I am, be ready for the answer: “I am fine, thank you.”