You made the sourdough, you built the LEGO castle, you grew the vegetables. Now what?
To help you find your next moment of joy, we asked our readers what creative ideas they’ve come up with to cultivate happiness, two years into pandemic life. Your answers were unexpected, exciting and showed there’s always a way to tap into your curious side and try something new.
Curiosity is one of the main ingredients you need to cultivate happiness, says Tal Ben-Shahar, former professor of happiness studies and founder of the Happiness Studies Academy.
“We are all by our nature curious … There is research that shows that people who are curious, ask questions, are constantly learning, actually live longer.” Trying new things builds confidence and feeds into the resilience we need to get through tough times, he says.
The pandemic has knocked people off the straight and narrow path to success (the promotion, the big house, the fancy car) and has them thinking about what really matters to them, says Ben-Shahar.
“People are stopping and asking: Am I where I want to be? Am I doing what I want to be doing with my life? The pandemic has taken us off autopilot and is helping people live more deliberate lives.”
So while you should definitely “give yourself the permission to be human,” says Ben-Shahar” and remember “it’s OK not to be ok,” during these difficult times, maybe now is a good time to embrace having a little fun.
Get moving, learn new things, experiment. And, as much as possible, interact with people and allow yourself to be playful — “we are a play-deprived culture,” he says.
NPR’s readers’ share how they’ve used their time in the pandemic to explore new ways of bringing meaning and pleasure into their lives — and advice for how you can too. If you’re ready to tiptoe out of your pandemic mindset and into being present and hopefully finding more happiness, here are a few ideas. Thank you to all the readers who submitted. We wish we could include them all.
Reader submissions have been edited for clarity and length.
She used her love of poetry to connect with a literary family.
“I joined a poetry writing community out of South Los Angeles called the Community Literature Initiative (CLI). We started meeting virtually in August of 2020 and kept meeting until mid-June of 2021. We became a literary family celebrating the highs of our lives and the lows. It was a beautiful landing place for me because it was dedicated time to write and gave me an opportunity to connect with other writers from the far reaches of Los Angeles County all the way to Austin, Texas.
Her advice: Spend time with your people.
“Find a group of like-minded individuals to connect with in-person or online to do activities.”
–Benin Lemus, Los Angeles, Calif.
She regained a lost skill after a stroke.
“In late 2019, I taught myself to crochet again, following a massive stroke at the age of 37 – using my nondominant hand and knee. Learning to crochet again took joy to another level. So when the pandemic put the world on pause, I was grateful to be content with what I had left rather than what I had lost.
My mom and I crochet every night. That time is the most joyful part of the evening. We laugh a lot about the mistakes we make or what’s on TV. We challenge each other a lot, particularly when we are designing. It’s rewarding and I get that feeling of accomplishment when I finish a project.”
Her advice: Practice being grateful before things go wrong
“Don’t wait until something catastrophic happens to learn to be grateful. If you are still here, you have something to be grateful for. Start small and add to your gratitude list each day.”
-Mia Russell, Jackson, Tenn.
She took to the water, leaving her fears on land.
“I tried open-water swimming for the first time. I signed up for a 5k event and now am preparing for a 10k ocean crossing. The time in the water allowed me to surrender my fears and sadness to the sea. Having my head, literally, underwater transformed a hectic world into a peaceful place where the chatter in my mind slowed. Each day I left the water, I felt more confident in myself and joy had the space to creep in!”
Her advice: Try something new, even if it scares you.
“Try something new that you have always wanted to try. Even if it scares you to try it! I mean, does it get any scarier than navigating a pandemic?”
-Jennifer Farrell, Pacific Coast of Mexico
He biked from San Diego to St. Augustine, Fla., and blogged about it
“I love to travel and see new sights and expected the primary source of joy to be the sites along the way. What I found was that the kindness of strangers was a continuous source of support, encouragement and joy. On a scorching road in southwestern California a man pulled his car over in front of us. My first thought was, ‘He is going to scream at us for riding on the road.’ The surprise was he came out with two cold bottles of water and asked if we wanted them and then talked to us about our ride. Knowing the majority of people are kind to travelers gives me great joy. ”
His advice: To feel your best you, go outdoors.
“Get outside, walk, bike, swim,, ski, kayak or anything that gets you physically active. It is the best thing for both body and mind.”
-Bill Debs, Novi, Mich.
He took listening to a new level.
“I have been really listening to music, analyzing it, really trying to find out what the artist is saying. I used to just find a song I liked and listen to it over and over again, but when I first listened to Kendrick Lamar’s “To pimp a Butterfly” I felt like I had really absorbed what he meant.
His advice: Use your time to delve into what you love.
“The more that I look deeper into things, the more enjoyment I derive from them. Instead of just listening to some of the songs from your favorite artist’s new album, listen to it front to back, observe the musical patterns they use, different instruments to convey different themes, the lyrical patterns, the way the artist talks.”
-Evan Bauer, Springfield, Va.
He played his heart out.
“The onset of the pandemic coincided with my dog passing away at the end of 2020. At 38 years old, I was as low as I’d ever been I was as low as I’d ever been when I walked into a secondhand shop and found the instrument that I have since dubbed ‘Vio-Lin Manuel Miranda.’ At the time, I didn’t have a clue how to even take it out of the case, or inspect it to know if it played. But I felt sure that this was what I needed to pour my grief into. I stunned myself with how much I wanted to practice. Hours a day, in between emails and calls, while working from home. So much unexpected joy in the midst of unprecedented pain.”
His advice: Gravitate toward the things that pull at your heart.
I almost didn’t buy my violin. I almost talked myself out of it. Without the pandemic, without the impending loss of my beloved dog, I certainly wouldn’t have taken this leap. As far as advice: Let yourself gravitate toward the things that pull at your heart. Try every new thing you want. Learn constantly.
-Luke Hogan, New York, N.Y.
She got her “squad” together – 80s style.
“I coordinated weekly, outdoor roller skating sessions with my “quad squad” of girlfriends. We all used to take dance fitness classes at the gym together but took up roller skating outdoors during the pandemic since the gyms were closed. It was fun to learn new dance steps and tricks on skates and share them with friends! We also made a lot of new friends in the San Diego skating community along the way.”
Her advice: Embrace your curiosity and explore new passions.
“Don’t be afraid to try something new. You are never too old, but always wear your wrist guards, and don’t be afraid to ask for help or express sincere curiosity. People love sharing their passion with others – at least when it comes to roller skating!”
-Reesa Fickett, San Diego, Calif.
She totally bugged out.
“[Last] year, the emergence of the periodical cicadas was a wonderful reminder that life goes on (and on and on). Brood X cicadas didn’t emerge where I live, so I drove north a few hours to experience them. I kept opening the car window, hoping to hear their eerie song, but didn’t until I crossed the Bohemia River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Once I got to the north shore, they were everywhere. It was wonderful!”
Her advice: Tune into wildlife for moments of beauty.
“The world is full of beauty — even a dandelion growing up through a crack in the sidewalk is a small miracle. So I’d say walk if you can or, at least, spend time in front of a window to look for birds and insects. Spending a few minutes watching how they negotiate their habitat can provide some small joys.”
-Pat Valdata, Crisfield, Md.
She made growing beautiful flowers her day job.
“I took a giant leap of faith in myself, packed up my MINI and drove solo from Southern California to the Finger Lakes Region of New York for a seasonal job on a flower farm. I cultivated joy by growing flowers, pulling more than my body weight in weeds, marveling at bumble bees and cursing the voracious appetites of Japanese beetles. I learned new skills, increased my plant vocabulary and I now know how to operate a tractor! I’m 59.
Her advice: Follow your dreams – even if not everyone approves.
“Pursue one dream, small or large, that is yours. Not an experience that well-meaning friends, family or a significant other may think is best for you, but one that makes your heart and soul sing. Throw your excuses for not doing this something out the window. We all make are own joy. Choose yours.”
-Andrea Jones, La Verne, Calif.
They gathered volunteers and made public art together.
“The pandemic turned our whole world upside down. All our workshops, concerts, gallery shows canceled in the blink of an eye. But what’s the one thing a pandemic CANNOT take away from a pair of traveling artists? Murals. We could still space people six feet apart, put a brush in their hands, and splash a little joyful color together.
In 2021, we painted six community murals, from Baja Mexico to Upstate New York. Each one brought together a small army of volunteers, who mustered for no other purpose but to beautify their communities. From project to project, we could see a catharsis brought on by the simple joy of just being around other people, laughing in the sunshine, getting lost together in the slow rhythm of painting.”
Her advice: Look for ways to bring people together.
“In every limiting situation, there are cracks where creative thinking can plant a seed and grow amazing things. The incredibly constraining crisis we have been living through is no different. This year, find some way to help someone ELSE feel less alone, less afraid, less anxious.”
-Cora Rose, Wherever the “Art We There Yet” bus is parked, United States
He looked for ways to help.
“I volunteered at the Worcester Senior Center to help vaccinate older folks when the vaccine first rolled out last February. I also volunteered at more general mass vaccination sites, and just today at a K-6 school. It was unbelievably rewarding for me to see the gratefulness of people. It made me feel like I was able to do something tangible about this pandemic.”
His advice: Look for the gaps in your community and fill them.
“Focus on positive things you can do to help your community, family, friends. Volunteer at a vaccine clinic, help out at a food bank, encourage a friend or neighbor to join you for some outdoor activities, or just sit around a fire pit.”
-Chris Murphy, Upton, Mass.
When his mom got sick, he found meaning in the tough moments.
“When my sister called in early October to let me know my mom’s cancer had progressed, I told my wife as I left home to travel two states away and take care of my mom, ‘I don’t know what is going to happen but I do know this will change my life.’
I was completely consumed in each moment I was there – whether it was cleaning up vomit, talking with my mom about her high school days, going to doctor’s appointments, eventually making funeral arrangements.
Was this joy for any of us? No, but it was special, meaningful, powerful and a gift in so many ways. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever been through, and I wouldn’t change any of it.”
His advice: Be present.
“Ask the question, ‘Had this (situation, pandemic, etc.) not happened, I would not be the person I am today because ____’ This is the question that is the direct line to insight and meaning. You can always find meaning, always! And when you do, life is put into perspective, you find purpose, a connection to something greater than the moment.”
-Todd Fonseca, Andover, Minn.