“THIS brings hope,” Micheál Martin remarked, as he marked the milestone of half a million shots in arms.
His visits to Covid-19 vaccination centres had inspired him, he said. And we have seen for ourselves the joy and happiness on our TV screens as people get the jab.
The government has told us that vaccines are the way out of the prison of uncertainty and anxiety we are all in. No wonder we are euphoric when we take those first steps out. And we should celebrate. It is a great stride forward for the country.
And we need to hang on to this joy. Happiness can increase our resistance to infection, and so it can work to boost the vaccine.
At Carnegie Mellon University, a private research university based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Sheldon Cohen exposed healthy people to either the common cold or flu virus in his lab. The happiest showed fewer signs of illness or symptoms for either virus in the days after.
But, hanging on to that happiness can be challenging. Researchers investigated the happiness levels of lottery winners and accident victims. The winners did end up happier, while after an accident people were sadder. But over time the mood of both groups reverted back to where they were before. This has led to the idea that we have a happiness set point, which we return to over time.
This process can protect us from the long-term impact of negative events. Curtailing the duration of feeling low is a good thing. But boomeranging back from a shot of happiness is not fun. In fact, it deflates us.
So, is there anything we can do to hold on to and strengthen that injection of happiness?
Kennon Sheldon and Sonja Lyubomirsky have worked out what determines our happiness. Our genetic inheritance makes up about 50%. Some people are naturally happier than others, and there is not much you can do about that.
About 10% is due to our life circumstances. This is the part that the jab hits — something good happening to us. But, 40% is down to our daily routines. This pretty sizeable chunk is under our direct control. And Positive Psychology has discovered a series of booster habits that work.
In 2005, Martin Seligman tested the impact of some Positive Psychology exercises. He identified the two most successful. These are using your character strengths in new ways and three good things, a gratitude exercise.
Seligman asked people to identify their top five character strengths. (Complete the VIA Character Strengths Survey https://www.viacharacter.org/ — the free one). He then told them to use one of these top strengths in a new and different way every day for one week.
A week after they finished, their levels of happiness had increased. Six months later these levels were still elevated.
Another group wrote down three things that went well each day and why every night for one week. One month later their happiness levels were higher. Six months afterwards these levels were still up.
In the short-term, using your strengths kicks in faster. But over the longer term they are both effective. These exercises have stood the test of time. So start with the exercise that strikes the stronger cord with you.
Most people continued doing the exercises afterward the experiment. Seligman found that these were benefiting the most. Both involve skills that get better as we use them. He reckoned that as we get more practice, the impact gets stronger. Also, people like doing them, so they are self-reinforcing.
Most of our attempts to improve are non-self-reinforcing, and so peter out. Think of trying to lose weight, after a while most of us give up, the process is far from enjoyable. But these simple exercises pack a punch.
If you notice that the exercise is becoming routine, switch to the other one. Even taking a break can work — but do return. The secret sauce is to use the exercises to shake things up, to keep things fresh. This will give oomph to your happiness.
We can expect the surge of joy from the vaccine to fade, but we can do these exercises to continue to build our up our levels of well-being.
A bonus side effect is an increase in our sense of social connection. For example, our gratitude is often directed towards other people. And lots of our strengths are people- focused. We use strengths like humour, kindness or honesty with others. And so they strengthen our relationships. In a time when we are apart from each other, this can help us build back our social networks.
Joining together with others multiplies the impact. A great group is Action for Happiness, the patron is the Dalai Lama. They have a daily calendar which is a great prompt for trying out new activities. This will help you keep things fresh. This month’s theme is Mindful March (https://www.actionforhappiness.org/mindful-march).
And recent research suggests our happiness set point is not so fixed. Over time we can move it upwards. The vaccine can give us a happiness boost, and this supports our immune system. These exercises can pump up the vaccine bonus, and move our set point. Then, as we move beyond the pandemic, we will be able to check in to new and brighter lives.