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Helping Students Thrive Now

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Student Well-Being Opinion

New Pandemic Research Explains How to Flourish in Difficult Times

By Matthew Lee — March 17, 2021 1 min read
Is it possible to be happy during the pandemic?
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Is it possible to be happy during the pandemic?
A student posed the same question in my undergraduate course last fall, and it’s one that many of us have asked ourselves during the COVID-19 pandemic as we catalog our losses—of loved ones, jobs, the ability to travel freely or visit friends, and more.
Recent research suggests that in the first half of 2020, adults in the United States experienced significant declines in life satisfaction, physical health, and financial stability. Over the same period, however, responses to survey items about character remained strong. In particular, there was no difference on these two items: “I always act to promote good in all circumstances, even in difficult and challenging situations” and “I am always able to give up some happiness now for greater happiness later.”
Now, more than ever, you can appreciate and develop your character to help you flourish—a term researchers use to indicate thriving in the most important aspects of life. Let’s take, for example, Abraham Lincoln, whose emphasis on honesty and other character strengths has helped him remain universally admired to this day. His commitment to doing the right thing included walking more than two miles to return six cents to a customer he had overcharged, even though nobody else was aware of the error. As “Honest Abe” knew, it’s the small things, the mundane daily practices, that build up to form your disposition.
Over the course of his life, Lincoln experienced profound losses and depression, yet he was able to shift his focus from narrow personal happiness to the broader good of the nation. You can do the same. Rather than fixate on your happiness level during the pandemic, you might consider developing kindness and other character strengths to imagine and actualize your best possible self. You can access a free app from the Human Flourishing Program, which not only provides self-assessment tools to track your domains of well-being over time but also offers research-backed activities to help improve them. Even when we are not completely “happy,” we can flourish.

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