In this article, I discuss how it is possible to experience positive mood in a stressful situation like the COVID-19 pandemic and the steps you can take to facilitate this.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes.

One of the most fascinating phenomena I’ve learned about as a psychologist is hedonic adaptation. As detailed by researcher Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky in The How of Happiness, hedonic adaptation occurs when people who experience events and circumstances which affect their mood positively or negatively eventually return to the level of mood and happiness they experienced prior to the event or circumstances. Research on hedonic adaptation consistently shows that events and circumstances typically have a temporary effect on mood and happiness so that one’s mood and happiness levels revert over time to the levels they were at previously.

The phenomenon occurs with both positive events and circumstances like acquiring new possessions, getting a promotion or an increase in salary, getting married and winning the lottery as well as with negative events like becoming unemployed, experiencing health problems and getting divorced. Hedonic adaptation reinforces a key finding in Dr. Lyubomirsky’s book: That events and circumstances in your life—whether you are rich or poor, healthy or unhealthy, beautiful or plain, married or divorced, etc.–have little lasting effect on your mood and happiness.

So if events and circumstances in your life are poor predictors of your mood and happiness, what factors do make a difference? In the following sections, I will explore these factors and discuss how you can focus on these to improve your mood and happiness during stressful events like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Factors which have the most effect on your mood and happiness

Research consistently shows that the factors which have the most effect on your mood and happiness are ones which you have more control over compared with life events and circumstances. These are the ongoing activities and ways of thinking in which you engage.

People who are happier have more ongoing activities which have a positive effect on their mood including: Spending a lot of time with their family and friends, nurturing and enjoying those relationships; making it a point to help other people; engaging in physical exercise regularly; pursuing goals and ambitions.

Happier people also engage in thinking patterns on an ongoing basis which are good for their mood. These include: Regularly expressing gratitude for the good people, activities and things they have in their lives; practising optimism when imagining their futures; along with savouring life’s pleasures and trying to live in the present moment.

Happier people still experience stressful events, crises and even tragedies which may cause them to experience distress as much as other people. However, they show great poise and strength coping in the face of a challenge as a result of their positive activity and thinking routines.

Drawing of man offering an umbrella in the rain to a sad person.

Is it possible to be happy during a stressful event? Test it for yourself

Stressful events can definitely have a negative effect on one’s mood and happiness. And crises like the pandemic can result in these negative effects persisting for some time. Having said that, I think it would be overstating things to therefore conclude that it is impossible to be happy or to experience positive mood during a stressful event or a crisis. Such a conclusion is not supported by the research on mood and happiness which I’ve cited.

Unfortunately, acting on this erroneous conclusion leads many people to adopt the view that their mood will improve and they will be happy only once the stressful event or crisis ends or once they’ve experienced a turn for the better in their life circumstances such as by getting a better job, having an increase in income, getting into a dating relationship or a marriage, or having a baby, to name a few such life changes.

The reality is that once one stressful event passes, another will replace it. So if you’re waiting to be happy until you’re free from stressful events you will be waiting in vain. Further, the research on hedonic adaptation indicates that improving your life circumstances is likely to have only a temporary positive effect on your mood and happiness.

A better strategy is to do your best to improve your circumstances and, while you’re doing so, focus on the steps which have a proven track record of leading to positive mood and happiness. That is, begin to schedule activities into your routine and practice ways of thinking which are good for your mood and happiness regardless of your circumstances.

Once you have incorporated these mood-enhancing activities and thinking patterns into your routine, I invite you to test whether you can be happy despite experiencing stressful events and even crises. To do so, conduct an experiment each day for a week or two of the following manner: At the end of each day, assess whether there were times during the day when you experienced positive moods including happiness.

I think you will be pleasantly surprised by the data you collect from such experiments. You will discover that happiness is not something you need to wait for until stressful events subside or you experience an improvement in your circumstances. Instead, you will realize that happiness is a state you can enjoy on an ongoing basis by engaging in activities and thinking patterns which foster it.

May you make habits of activities and thinking patterns which help you to be happy,

Dr. Pat