How to be happy in the pandemic

This post will attempt to answer the following questions:

  1. Why is this pandemic making us unhappy?
  2. Why are the guidelines and recommendations always changing?
  3. Why can’t they make up their minds?
  4. How can I feel happier in this time?

Perhaps the greatest challenge of this pandemic has been the great uncertainty that surrounds us. It is maddening at times trying to think of all the aspects of the disease that are uncertain: Why do some people get sick? How many people have had the infection and how many have actually died? Is it more or less than reported? How contagious or deadly is the virus in reality. When can we come out of lock down? Is it safe to go out? Should I wear a mask? What about gloves? And on and on…

I think the frustration inherent in these questions comes from an unrealistic expectation of what can be learned, with what certainty, and at what speed. Happiness to some extent can be boiled down to the following equation:


Happiness = Reality – Expectations


What this equation says is that if you have high expectations you will be unhappy when reality is not what you expected. I would go so far as to say that this is the source of most unhappiness in the world. It is clearly manifest in the angst that is being created by the present very challenging situation. Here are a list of expectations that I think we have:

  1. We should be able to know everything there is about this virus in a very short time.
  2. We should know those things with complete certainty and without dissenting opinions.
  3. That which we know should never be contradicted over time.
  4. This should all end quickly and we should go back immediately to our normal lives.
  5. My children should love learning at home and never bother me while I’m trying to work.
  6. etc.

It seems to me that when you read that list it becomes clear why reality may not meet expectations. In life you can try to change reality but you will always fail and failure will lead to unhappiness. Better to change your expectations.

The reality is that, as much as I’m sure we’re all sick of hearing it, the scale and pace of this pandemic is likely nothing seen in 100 years. Society has shut down, economies have nose dived and it all happened nearly overnight. The scientific process unfortunately is not nearly as swift. Conclusions can only be drawn from the combined efforts of hundreds of people doing thousands of research projects that need to be coordinated, edited, peer-reviewed, published, combined, and interpreted in aggregate.

For SARS CoV2, the discovery process started when doctors in China noticed people were getting sick with a new and severe infection. They had to then identify the virus and start collecting data. They needed to know how the virus was transmitted so they can prevent the spread. They needed to identify the primary symptoms so they can recognize who is sick. They then need to sequence the viral RNA to develop a diagnostic test. Once they have a test they have to make sure its accurate.

Once the disease started spreading rapidly there needed to be strategies for treatment. Since people were getting sick and dying in real time first line providers needed to guess what treatments work. All the while fast research projects are set up to determine if the treatments are effective. The problem is that fast research projects usually provide less reliable results.

While all this was happening, government and public health agencies were putting together guidelines and recommendations. Because of the preliminary nature of the science these guidelines and recommendations were unavoidably premature requiring changes and updates as more data became available.


Science is not the parade of blockbuster “game changing” discoveries the press often portrays it to be. It’s more of a slow, erratic stumble toward a lesser degree of uncertainty. 


This all sets up a perfect storm of unhappiness based on the equation above. The situation is rapidly evolving, somewhat chaotic, and certainly frightening. The science is preliminary, unconfirmed, and constantly changing. The news media presents research findings as conclusive and definitive which is never the case, even for well designed studies. We, being desperate for any bit of certainty in uncertain times, latch on to the information. The problem is that over time more data is collected, more studies are done and different conclusions are reached. This is then reported by the news media again and it sounds like the scientific community can’t make up their minds. In reality, it was the faulty reporting that misled the public that was the source of the problem. It certainly doesn’t help when governmental leaders give wrong or inaccurate information, downplay key issues, and tout treatments that have not been confirmed to be safe or effective.

Science is not the parade of blockbuster “game changing” discoveries the press often portrays it to be. It’s more of a slow, erratic stumble toward a lesser degree of uncertainty. 

So let’s put this all together. You have an extremely complex virus that has created an international crisis. There is a public who is rightfully frightened and desperate for up-to-date and accurate information. You have a news media industry that is profit driven and thrives on the panic. At the same time, the science moves along as fast as possible but the news media, social media, politicians, and non experts flood our consciousness with information that has not been appropriately vetted. Our expectations are lofty but the reality never lives up. The end result is that we are all unhappy.

We are rightfully frustrated and wish the process could move more quickly. Getting back to the equation for happiness, expending energy trying to change reality is a futile endeavor. We can, however, change our expectations. It is not a reasonable expectation for there to be instantaneous accurate information that does not change with time. It is not a reasonable expectation that something as complex as a global pandemic can be resolved and everything return to normal in a few months time. It is not reasonable to think that we can trust information from Twitter (where false information spreads six times faster than true information) or from politicians who have led us astray in the past.

What’s amazing is that reality is actually exceeding reasonable expectations. The speed with which the scientific community has identified, defined, and characterized SARS-CoV2 is without precedent in history. There will probably be a vaccine in an astonishingly short period of time. Your kids will be back in school eventually.


Expending energy trying to change reality is a futile endeavor


The key to happiness in this time is to ride the wave; don’t fight it. Let the reality take you where it does without expectations. Don’t expect the crisis to end soon or there to be a quick vaccine. Don’t expect a normal summer. Don’t expect your children to learn as much on zoom as in the classroom. Don’t watch the news except for one or two reliable sources (not cable news or partisan political sources). And for goodness sake, do not believe what you read on social media.

We can all hope this will be over soon and if we manage our expectations will be pleasantly surprised when reality is better than expected.

3 thoughts on “How to be happy in the pandemic

  1. Thank you!
    I am teaching writing. You quote makes an excellent prompt for a narrative essay. Please confirm the attribution I should use. Also, typo: news, not ness.
    “Happy is the man who is content with what he has” –pirqe avoth
    This blog:
    Science is not the parade of blockbuster “game changing” discoveries the press often portrays it to be. It’s more of a slow, erratic stumble toward a lesser degree of uncertainty

    Like

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