To maintain feelings of happiness, you need to work on it a bit

When good or bad things happen, people feel an initial surge or dip in their overall happiness levels. PHOTO: NYTIMES

SINGAPORE - The birds are chirping, a warm breeze is blowing and some of your friends are getting vaccinated.

After a year of anxiety and stress, many people are finally rediscovering what optimism feels like. But if you are expecting your happiness to skyrocket the moment the world finishes off this pandemic once and for all, think again.

Yes, receiving your vaccine shot, daydreaming about intimate dinner parties or first hugs with grandchildren may give you a jolt of joy - but euphoria, unfortunately, tends to be fleeting.

Blame "hedonic adaptation", says Dr Rhea Owens, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota Duluth, who conducts research on positive psychology interventions in counselling practices.

When good or bad things happen, people feel an initial surge or dip in their overall happiness levels.

Hedonic adaptation means that, over time, they settle back into wherever they were happiness-wise before that good or bad event happened, even if the good thing - such as getting your dream job - is continuing.

To maintain those positive feelings, you are going to need to work on it a bit. Thank evolution.

"Our brains developed biologically for survival, not happiness," says Dr Sanjay Kumar, director of contemplative practices and well-being at the Fish Interfaith Center at Chapman University in Orange, California.

The human mind, he adds, "prioritises negative experiences to be remembered more strongly than positive ones, as a way for us to anticipate potential threats in our environment".

While that is good for evolution, excessive worry is not anyone's idea of a happy state of mind.

Ultimately, happiness is more of a daily practice than anything else, Dr Kumar says. This is why getting your coronavirus shot may make you happy for a moment, but will not bring long-term happiness.

The good news is that researchers have found steps that will - and no needles are required. These strategies work perfectly in a moment like this - when hope is on the horizon, but the path towards it is not yet clear.

It is okay to not yet be okay

While many are beginning to exhale, others are still buried deep in grief.

If that sounds like you, it is acceptable if this stage of the pandemic does not feel joyous, says psychologist Shannon South, who is based in North Carolina.

If you need to avoid pictures of your friends getting their coronavirus vaccines on social media, that is fine.

Consider this your permission to let yourself feel what you need to feel.

Savour everything

For some, their first time hugging friends in a year is going to be a moment to savour.

But there is joy in everyday things too.

Even mundane things - such as watching yet another youth football game - can feel special if you take a moment to remember the not-so-distant past when so much of life was put on hold.

Dr Owens recommends taking the time whenever something good happens - no matter how small - to really acknowledge it.

Marvel as much as you can

In the past decade, researchers have been investigating the relationship between wonder, happiness and good health.

In 2013, the Social Interaction Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, started Project Awe to study the intersection of awe and happiness.

In one study published in the journal Emotion in 2015, participants who experienced more positive emotions had lower levels of interleukin-6, a marker for inflammation. And participants with the lowest levels of interleukin-6 were those who reported feeling awe most often.

Perhaps this explains why getting the vaccine is such a serotonin boost for so many. Not only do you feel like the future is brighter, but you may also feel awe at the wonders of modern science.

The feeling of awe can also come from a walk around the block, says The Awe Factor author Allen Klein.

One of his favourite strategies for ensuring his daily dose of awe is heading out for an "awe walk".

On these strolls, he switches off his mental list of chores and things to remember, and instead focuses on finding wonder in small things along the way.

Be grateful and kind

Acts of kindness tend to increase people's ratings of their own happiness, Dr Owens says.

You may also get some benefit from simply thinking about good deeds you have done.

A study this year - published in The Journal of Positive Psychology by researchers at the University of California, Riverside - found that reflecting on past kind deeds improved well-being at a rate similar to actually going out and doing new good deeds.

Realise happiness alone is not enough

If you have been struggling with depression throughout the pandemic, working to boost your own happiness may not be a cure.

"The opposite of depression is not happiness," says New York-based psychiatrist Jeff Ditzell. "The opposite of depression is no longer being depressed."

If you have had symptoms of depression these past 12 months, you may feel your depression subside as the pandemic slowly wanes.

But on the other hand, it may not. Clinical depression should be treated by a mental health professional.

Break out your calendar

While it is still uncertain when big parties and other activities people enjoyed before the pandemic will return, scheduling a few safe activities can do wonders for keeping your optimism up.

In fact, just anticipating an event can sometimes be as pleasurable as the activity itself.

Perhaps it is too early to set a date for a 15-person dinner party, but you can crack open a cookbook to start planning the menu.

And when party day arrives, remember to savour every last morsel and belly laugh, as you eat, drink and be more than just fleetingly merry.

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