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How to Find Joy During the Pandemic without Feeling Guilty

A few months back, I turned 60 and my son, Nick, turned 30. We had been planning a joint party with lots of family and friends, but that idea went by the wayside due to COVID-19. Instead, we hosted two, 16-person gatherings at home — one for me and one for Nick, two weeks apart. Like so many other families, we’ve had a rough year. Just before the pandemic, we tragically lost a young friend; Nick lost his job in a round of COVID-related lay-offs; my elderly in-laws have struggled with isolation; and we’ve been terrified by the White House. A couple of festive nights felt like a good idea. It also felt totally wrong. 

Allowing myself to experience joy is especially challenging right now. Fun can feel inappropriate. How can we celebrate anything when so many people are sick, grieving, on the brink of financial or emotional collapse? I thought long and hard about doing nothing to commemorate my milestone birthday, as did Nick. But letting those days pass just like any other seemed wrong, too. It wasn’t just Nick and I who needed a boost — our friends and families also craved a reason to cut loose after so many months of gloom. So the parties proceeded outdoors under rented tents. On my night, I wore the hot pink ruffly dress I’d bought months ago for a subsequently COVID-canceled wedding. For Nick’s, the ladies glammed it up and the men wore tuxedos. Overkill? Perhaps. But it was all part of a conscious effort to make our evenings feel normal — and special. 

The truth is that despite the enormous tragedy that is coronavirus, people still have birthdays, they get new jobs (a better one for Nick!), they get married or accepted to college; they have babies. These are happy moments and most of the expert advice I’ve read lately asserts that searching for joy during dark times isn’t just okay, it’s essential. New Jersey-based psychologist Dan Gottlieb says taking care of our bodies and minds is one way to acknowledge and push back against the emotional toll of the pandemic. “Look what we’re going through; it’s a sense of loss. Most of us are in some form of mourning, longing for yesterday and fearing tomorrow,” says Gottlieb. One antidote to those feelings is finding joy. 

A couple of festive nights felt like a good idea. It also felt totally wrong.

Dr. Pamela Ebstyne King, a professor at Fuller Graduate School of Psychology, agrees. Seeking and sharing joy is crucial, even when it sometimes feels callous to do so. “Joy is natural, but it does not always come naturally — especially in the middle of a global pandemic and national unrest,” she says. “But joy can be a great resource if you allow deep, positive emotions to fuel and direct you.” 

Sharing joy often means sharing it on social media, but that can be tricky. Having fun during dark times is one thing, but posting about it can compound the guilt you may be feeling about enjoying life when others are suffering. That’s why I hesitated over posting photos of my birthday dinner but ultimately, did it anyway. Yes, the impulse to show off my pretty dress and beautiful tablescape was compelling, but the urge to memorialize the evening’s sense of love and gaiety was just as powerful. I don’t know if anyone was troubled by my posts. If they were, they kept it to themselves. 

Party pics aside, I’ve been censoring myself on social media these days. Last month, I played a round of golf with Nick, who snapped a selfie of us smiling on the fairway. The weather was spectacular and I felt especially grateful to be out on the course after suffering a broken wrist last spring. Later, when I went to post it, I stopped. I simply felt too lucky and privileged in that moment and decided to keep the image to myself.  

It seems lots of people are struggling with the same issue. My friend Steven consciously posts fewer pictures of his bucolic North Carolina home. “Now, I ask myself if an image I’m considering posting might trigger envy or even despair in someone who’s feeling fragile. That’s the last thing I want to do,” he says.

It’s not just pictures of golf outings, sunsets and newly acquired puppies that feel taboo right now. Even produce can elicit emotional turmoil, at least for me. A Facebook acquaintance recently posted a photo of a perfect summer tomato with a caption that read “Lunch!” Sandwiched between posts about George Floyd and the coronavirus death toll, there seemed something silly and shameful about a tomato in comparison to the seriousness of what surrounded it. In fact, someone posted a snarky comment saying just that. But that tomato reminded me that the world can still be delicious, that things grow and that there is normalcy in the face of chaos. To me, that tomato symbolized hope. 

As I scrolled through my Instagram feed last night, I laughed at videos of drunk people doing stupid stuff. I clicked on an eggplant recipe that sounded tasty and watched clips of Ellen DeGeneres scaring her guests. Those things might seem even more irreverent (or irrelevant) in our pandemic times, but they make me feel a little lighter. I need that feeling so I’ll keep seeking joy and sometimes even share it. I encourage everyone to do the same.

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Filed under: Culture

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Amy Barr

Amy Barr is a veteran magazine editor. She started her career as an editorial assistant at Working Mother magazine and rose through the ranks to become Executive Editor before joining Time Inc. to launch the online edition of Parenting, where she served as managing editor. Amy was also part of the online launch teams for Worth.com, What to Expect When You're Expecting, The South Beach Diet and Everyday Health. You can find Amy on Twitter at @amylbarr.

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