Redefining happiness: Welcome to the era of quiet joy

When the Covid-19 pandemic began, life as we knew it fell away. It was an unsettling, sometimes frightening time – and yet it had unexpected consolations. For many, it provoked a reassessment of what’s important in life, and ushered in a new appreciation of a quieter kind of joy.


That’s because for those of us not on the frontline, many things got simpler. We were told to stay at home, and so our worlds became smaller and more manageable. Some of the everyday goals on which we might have focused before – the desire for new purchases or glamorous nights out – became irrelevant. What we were left with, without any choice in the matter, was a more homely way of life.  


There was no point in buying new shoes, because we were in slippers all day; instead, we bought jigsaws. Freed from commuting, we found time to cook from scratch, and when the gyms closed, we took up running in the park. Surprising pleasure came from those small, simple changes: on social media, people shared happy updates as they discovered baking, gardening and craft. 


Many of us had more time to think and reflect, more space to be authentic, and a new gratitude for good health and relationships. The endless work that we’d put into being successful before, with all its early mornings and late nights, started to seem so exhausting that we wondered how we’d managed it for so long. 


“Lockdown showed what happiness studies had already suggested pre-pandemic, which was that some of the ways in which we live our lives might be detrimental to our wellbeing – particularly issues like commuting and work-life balance,” says Dr David Tross, an associate lecturer at Birkbeck, University of London, whose research focuses on happiness. ‘I think there certainly is a sense in which people were re-evaluating their lives.’ In fact, one survey found that three in five UK employees made plans to change career or retrain in the first year of the pandemic. Something Rituals wrote about in our article How to turn the Great Resignation into the Great Reflection - you can read it here.


It was the reset that many of us needed. “I think we had been hurtling towards a very dangerous place where “now” no longer mattered,” says Linda Blair, clinical psychologist and author of The Key to Calm. “We were focused on online avatars of ourselves, and we were doing future planning – it wasn’t about now. So, I wouldn’t wish this pandemic on anyone, but what was good was the opportunity to restore balance.”


Lockdown is now becoming a distant memory, and many of the old demands on our time and attention have returned. So, as we move into this new version of normal, how can we keep hold of what lockdown taught us – and the era of quiet joy that we found when the world drifted away? 

Prioritise quality time 

“Relationships and social connections are paramount to happiness,” explains Tross. It makes sense then that many of us benefited from lockdown’s push to spend more time with loved ones, whether we were sitting down for evening meals, meeting for regular walks or video calls, or making time for movies and board games. Though childcare during lockdown was particularly demanding, parents also reported that their bonds with their children were better by 2021 than they had been at the beginning of 2020, according to a University of Essex study. 


Get into nature 

Unable to mix indoors, we took to using outdoor space more for exercise, leisure and mental health. As it happens, time outside is closely linked to happiness: “My research shows that you get elevating moments in nature,” says Tross. “For example, if you see a fantastic view, or you’re by the sea, you can have a sense of awe at being connected to the natural world. People describe really strong physical and emotional reactions, and that’s quite important.” 


But you don’t need a spectacular landscape to get some benefit – any outdoor patch will help. “People often mention very simple pleasures like looking at flowers,” says Tross. “There’s just something about nature that makes us feel happier, healthier and more connected. And if you look at the happiest jobs, anything to do with nature tends to score more highly – even jobs that are not very well paid, like farming.”


Let go of constant productivity 

Carve out space for quiet joy so that it isn’t pushed out by day-to-day responsibilities. “Make sure that every week you do at least one thing that has no purpose other than that you would like to do it,” says Blair. “And block out at least two hours a week for unstructured time, to just be.” 


This may mean saying no to non-essential demands from other people – and that can be tricky. Keep it simple and don’t over explain, she advises: “If you give them a reason, it’s like saying, ‘Here, let me give you some ammunition to talk me out of it.’ Decline nicely, but just say you’re busy. If it’s someone you really feel might be distressed by that, you can offer them an alternative time when you’re free.” 


Embrace local life 

When our travel was restricted, many of us found new love for where we live. “The [UK] government do a community life survey every year, asking how you feel about your neighbourhood, whether you feel you belong there, and whether you chat to your neighbours,” says Tross. “All of those indices went up strongly during the first part of the pandemic. There was a sense of being more trusting, more interdependent, and more connected locally. And there is something about that appreciation of what’s going on around you and paying more attention to the small and the local, I think, that’s key for happiness.”


If you’re still working from home some of the time, keep up your interactions with neighbours and locals for a wellbeing boost. The pandemic also helped us tap into a more altruistic spirit, with the UN reporting a global surge of people signing up for charity work, often locally. “People who volunteer tend to report higher wellbeing,” says Tross. Giving your time to continue to do good in a post-lockdown world, then, could be good for you too. 


Get creative 

poll of 2000 adults in March 2021 found that more than a third of us had taken up a new hobby in lockdown – and for many, it was a creative pursuit like baking, photography or writing. This, says Tross, ties in with famous research by the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who argued that the secret to happiness was filling your life with ‘flow activities’.  


“Flow means being in the zone or in the moment, but there are some conditions,” explains Tross. “It’s not passive – it happens when you have to put some effort into the activity. There’s also something about extending your skills which is seen as intrinsically satisfying. When people talk about enjoying art, poetry or cooking, that can all be broadly absorbed into this idea of flow.” 


To add creative flow to your life, look for activities that stretch your skills, hold your attention and allow you to lose track of time. 


Work together on quiet joy 

If you’re worried that life is drifting back to being too hectic, try buddying up with a friend or partner, suggests Blair: “Check in once a week and ask each other, ‘What did you do this week to slow down? What did you do this week that wasn’t with an aim in mind?’” You could also agree on a regular date to do something joyful together, whether that’s a swim, a walk or a phone chat. 


Spend on experiences, not stuff 

Many of the purchases we think of as desirable lost their value during lockdown; there’s no point in buying a new car to sit in the driveway, or a new handbag to carry around the house. Tross says that items like these are not the most life-enhancing use of our cash anyway: “If you buy something like a pair of jeans, it might give you a short-term boost, which is why we talk about retail therapy. But that feeling doesn’t last for very long, and the same is true for other status purchases like cars or houses. For a more long-term boost, spend your money on experiences, and things that deepen your connections with other people.” 


A holiday, then, may be worth saving for – but it’s enjoying it in the moment that will give you real wellbeing, not the number of likes your pictures receive on social media. 


Maintain gratitude 

Looking around at the pain caused by the pandemic, many of us felt new appreciation for what we have. This isn’t an unusual response to adversity; researchers found that in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, gratitude was the second most common emotion after sympathy. Gratitude is an important factor in happiness – it boosts our self-esteem, helps us cope with stress, and strengthens social bonds. 


As we cultivate the era of quiet joy, a feeling of thankfulness is crucial. “Last thing every night, as you’re dropping off to sleep, think about what went well today,” says Blair. “Maybe it’s just that the rain stopped during your lunch hour so you got to take a walk. It’s the simple things that can make all the difference.” 

Hattie Crisell

Hattie Crisell

Hattie Crisell is a magazine and newspaper journalist based in London. She hosts the podcast In Writing with Hattie Crisell and writes a newsletter of the same name, exploring all the highs and lows of the writing process, and interviewing successful novelists, screenwriters and more.