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Learning to Be Happy Again as the Pandemic's End Becomes a Possibility

illustration of woman inside while friends are gathering outside

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

Key Takeaways

  • After spending over a year in a near-constant state of fear and sadness, the idea of discovering happiness post-pandemic can be both difficult to fathom and scary to chase.
  • Mental illness has increased during the pandemic, including post-traumatic stress disorder. In a recent study of healthcare workers, researchers found that 22.8% of participants had probable PTSD.
  • Slowly explore what makes you happy now, such as certain people, restaurants, and music. By easing into joy, the process may not feel so overwhelming.

It has been over a year since the world went into lockdown and the COVID-19 pandemic upended life as we knew it. In that time, everyday routines, sources of joy, and relationships have changed, often leaving little room for happiness. In its place, fear and sadness have become constant companions for many people, felt so often that they become base emotions.

Throughout the pandemic, a common refrain became “when this is all over.” Used to discuss everything from when you’ll see loved ones to when life will be better, it firmly declares that everything will improve post-pandemic.

While danger levels will subside and people will have greater control over their lives, the pandemic’s end will not flip a mental switch, telling fear and sadness it’s time to go. Even as we so desperately seek out happiness and a greater future, these emotions have become comfortable. Leaving them behind can not only be scary, but hard to navigate.

Let’s start with the trepidation aspect. With the pandemic’s uncertainty and continual disappointment, it’s natural to feel apprehensive about the future—even with a vaccine in your arm.

“Sometimes people stop seeking happiness after a while because staying in a state of fear and sadness is easier than having your emotions bounced around every time something happens,” says Aimee Daramus, PsyD, author of Understanding Bipolar Disorder.

After being denied the happiness you’ve sought for so long, going out in search of it can feel like a risk or too good to be true.

Aimee Daramus, PsyD

If it feels scary, start with things that are always going to be there, like a favorite piece of artwork or a favorite album. Go back to familiar spaces that you missed, like a favorite museum or restaurant. Let yourself be fully present for all of the pleasure that you get out of it.

— Aimee Daramus, PsyD

As for navigating the journey towards happiness, you may notice some of your previous guideposts are gone. People, places, and experiences you derived joy from may no longer be around. Your old routines are no longer familiar, and they can be intimidating after isolating for so long.

Folks adapted to their new lives of less stimulation, less social contact, and more personal time. This became the baseline for daily life,” says Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “The idea of transitioning to a more chaotic or stimulating style of life is a harder transition to make. Many social skills have atrophied as folks’ threshold for stimulation has lowered significantly.”

Why Happiness May Be Difficult to Find

Before delving further into the barriers to happiness, it’s critical to acknowledge that there is nothing wrong with you if you are not finding immediate happiness as things improve.

“I advise my patients to welcome feelings of all kinds with an open mind and compassion,” says Leela R. Magavi, MD, an adult, adolescent, and child psychiatrist and regional medical director for Community Psychiatry, California's largest outpatient mental health organization.

“Individuals tend to experience a large amount of shame and guilt and blame themselves for each and every emotion they experience,” she says. Instead of becoming more distressed over why you’re not overwhelmed with happiness, explore what the root cause may be. 

You’re Recovering From Trauma

Remember: You feel fear and sadness for a reason. The world has collectively gone through an elongated trauma and the second it begins to recede is not the day its effects stop radiating. After being in fight or flight mode for so long, your body may be working to stay anxious as a way of keeping you safe, says Daramus.

Think about it: If you broke your leg, would you feel better the day you go to the doctor? No, you need to care for it, wear a cast, maybe attend physical therapy, and learn to bear weight again. Your mental health is injured. Give it time to adjust and handle the weight of happiness again.

Leela Magavi, MD

Some individuals have adopted new interests and hobbies during the pandemic. Many people have prioritized different areas of life and may experience disinterest in things they once enjoyed prior to the pandemic.

— Leela Magavi, MD

Your Interests Have Changed

Over the course of a typical year-plus, you might explore new interests and leave others behind. The pandemic has forced priorities and methods of entertainment to change even more rapidly. What you used to enjoy may not do it for you anymore.

“Some individuals have adopted new interests and hobbies during the pandemic. Many people have prioritized different areas of life and may experience disinterest in things they once enjoyed prior to the pandemic,” says Magavi.

For example, you may have eagerly waited for bars to reopen, only to step in one and realize you would rather be back at home. Or maybe you were eager to travel again, only to find planes overwhelming. These changes are normal after such a long period and, while some interests may return, others you developed during the pandemic may take their place.

As Romanoff explains, “Folks have changed tremendously during the last 12 months. For many, the pandemic allowed a recalibration of lifestyle and values that will likely extend to life post-pandemic.”

Sadness Keeps You Connected to Those Lost

Being happy can feel like a betrayal of loved ones who passed and the collective loss experienced. “It’s a way to hold on to memories,” says Daramus. “If you’ve lost someone, staying down can be a way of staying connected to that person while you grieve.” Moving on without them is a challenging process.

You May Have a Mental Health Condition

The difficult emotions you feel may be indicative of a mental health condition, such as anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Reported cases of mental illness have increased during the pandemic.

In a December 2020 study, 42% of U.S. adults reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression, compared to 11% between January and June 2019. In a February 2021 study, 22.8% of U.S. healthcare workers had probable PTSD.

“If individuals are significantly depressed, they may experience anhedonia or loss of interest in partaking in once-preferred activities,” says Magavi. “Individuals with significant mood and anxiety concerns and feelings of sadness and demoralization, which affect their functionality, should consider scheduling an appointment with a psychiatrist or therapist.”

Exploring Happiness Again

It may take time to learn where happiness now exists for you. As you leave the state of constant fear and sadness behind and enter the unknown journey to joy, start small. You don’t need to go to a party immediately or plan a vacation. Instead, Daramus suggests focusing on your sensory experiences, such as petting an animal or listening to your favorite music. Magavi recommends taking a mindful walk or another physical activity that boosts endorphins.

“If it feels scary, start with things that are always going to be there, like a favorite piece of artwork or a favorite album. Go back to familiar spaces that you missed, like a favorite museum or restaurant. Let yourself be fully present for all of the pleasure that you get out of it,” says Daramus. “Mindfulness isn’t just a health practice, it allows you to truly savor life. Then, as you start to believe in happiness again, take more chances.”

Journaling about experiences you’ve enjoyed and practicing gratitude for yourself, loved ones, and opportunities you have can help you get there, says Magavi. 

Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD

Folks adapted to their new lives of less stimulation, less social contact, and more personal time. This became the baseline for daily life. The idea of transitioning to a more chaotic or stimulating style of life is a harder transition to make. Many social skills have atrophied as folks’ threshold for stimulation has lowered significantly.

— Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD

As you explore your happiness, remember that each feeling you have is valid. Try not to compare yourself to others or how you think you should feel, says Romanoff. Each person will recover from the pandemic’s trauma and readjust at their own pace.

“You can learn to let the grayness of pandemic life provide a contrast that lets you take more joy in things that provide color to your life again.” Daramus.

What This Means For You

It’s not wrong to feel sad or not feel happiness as quickly as you expected. “We aren’t meant to always be happy. Often the emotions that occur beyond happiness are just as important and allow us to experience vital processes like processing the loss of life during the pandemic,” says Romanoff. Just like before the pandemic, you will have happy and sad moments as you move throughout the trials and joys of life.

Get Advice From The Verywell Mind Podcast

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares how you can build mental strength after the pandemic.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Hennein R, Mew EJ, Lowe SR. Socio-ecological predictors of mental health outcomes among healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. PLOS ONE. 2021;16(2). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0246602