Whenever something happens, difficult and challenging as it might be, there are always opportunities. Sometimes those opportunities are scarce and only for a few. This one, however, is one for all of us.
I was so caught up in my fear and panic, it wasn’t obvious to me at first. But in my struggle I had a lot of help in figuring this one out. Eventually I began to see that there were abundant riches staring me right in the face the whole way through.
When it began. . .
When the pandemic hit hard in the UK in March 2020 I had no home and no job. The small amount of paid work I had on the horizon completely dried up. It was a challenging situation, but I did have my health though; and there were a lot of people that showed up who were only too willing to help. I leaned in, I reached out, and I listened. My relationships have blossomed for it. I’ve been in deeper emotionally with people than ever before, and I haven’t shied away from intertwining my life with theirs a little. In all it hasn’t been as unhappy a year as I first dreaded it would be when the rug of reality was first pulled from underneath our feet.
It is social capital not financial capital that brings happiness
I’ve long known it from all the years of academic research I did into understanding happiness. Our relationships are a far more important contributor to happiness than how much we earn. Below a certain level of income, it can be difficult for most people to be meet their basic needs and be happy. However, once we have enough money to cover those basic needs, obtaining ever high amounts of the stuff matters very little. Yet, we’ll readily sacrifice those things that really matter, such as our relationships, in pursuit of more. And some will hoard that money and might call themselves wealthy, even though it’s been shown that money spent on others brings a greater happiness boost than when money is spent only on the self. Humans are hard wired to experience pleasure from being generous.
True wealth is the capacity to give
It was the frustration from not having enough time to spend with the people I cared for that was part of the inspiration to quit my job as a happiness academic and begin an epic journey to Bhutan on a bicycle. Yet, that journey never was about Bhutan, it was about all those people I met in the 18-months it took me to cycle there. All those that taught me that it is ok to lean in and reach out. We all need to do that – and for more than once in a while. Our leaning in to others can be a tremendous gift in itself, because we allow others to give and giving is an important part of being human. I’d often have nothing to give those I met but my complete presence in return.
I was astonished at how readily people who appeared to have very little would give in abundance. But after a while I understood how generous and helpful acts can cement bonds between people and create deep connections. In too many places and on too many occasions we are encouraged to make money from others rather than form lasting relationships. If we make enough, so we have come to believe, we don’t need to care about others.
Not many new faces in my life, but I speak more to those I’ve long known
When the UK lockdown begun I had three offers from complete strangers to help me out with a place to stay. I ended up sharing a small flat with a good friend. Obviously we got closer. We had to – it was just us. And once I had settled in (which wasn’t long), I began reaching out to many of the people in my life. I’d ask friends and family how they were. The type of question that people might ordinarily give an automatic response of “fine” to. Yet, people rarely did say they were just “fine”. How could they? If they did, then they had to be lying. People started telling me how they actually felt and conversations became deeper. I listened and what I heard was sometimes very far from fine, but there was an openness to express in others that I’d not seen before. When we say how we feel doors open – we see the human, we feel compassion. I kept checking in week after week with those same people – people got better at listening to what was happening for me too.
Even now, many months on, I talk to all my family far more often than ever before. I’ve set up regular weekly calls with some people and it feels reassuring to know people really are there in my life. The living set-up that I created after leaving my friends small apartment is perhaps the most nourishing and stable its ever been – my housemate and I take real care of one another and the local community have really welcomed us. There are old friends I’ve connected with online that I certainly wouldn’t have gotten round to visiting even in normal times. Sure, it doesn’t come with a big hug and I miss the random spark of a new connection, but when the random sparks do come, I’m more grateful than ever. In fact, I’m more grateful for everyone I have in my life, how they have helped me, how they have allowed me to help them in my own way in return.
The way forward – building back strong communities
This pandemic has revealed just how important relationships are, and what an opportunity it has been to develop them. I’d say it’s time to take things further. To build back our communities rather than our bank balances. Can we really go back to amassing financial wealth at the expense of those things that really matter? The individual pursuit of bigger, better, faster, shinier, has brought deep social imbalances and seems to come at a cost to someone else down the chain – the oppressed, the overworked, the unborn. It’s been going on that way for far too long now and it hasn’t been a very good recipe for much human happiness. Strengthening our relationships and our communities is certainly a surer way forward.