The truth is that, although I’m often ashamed to admit it, especially now amid this latest outbreak, I have had an oddly enriching and enjoyable 2020. Despite our family holiday on Pittwater being cancelled, I am so grateful to this year for forcing me to discover my perfect rhythm: walking more, gardening more, talking with neighbours more; doing less, commuting less, travelling less. And now that I’ve been “voluntarily separated” from my job – working less!
I no longer have to feel deeply envious of friends who fly off to Europe every year – an envy that was always accompanied by a profound shame over my unchristian tendency to covet my neighbours’ good fortune and therefore regularly break the tenth commandment – we are all stuck at home now!
And speaking of being stuck at home, as someone who has always worked from a desk in her bedroom surrounded by piles of print-outs in ever-increasing unsteady columns like a Stonehenge of paper cairns – I also got some satisfaction this year (again, perhaps uncharitably) from the fact that other people were finally getting to understand what it feels like to have no boundary between work and home.
And while we’re on the topic of people finally getting to understand, how good was it for educators to feel that parents were possibly beginning to comprehend the hard work that goes into being a good teacher!
There was even an upside, I believe, to the long lockdowns. “Now everyone knows what it feels like,” a friend of mine with schizophrenia commented.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“To be socially isolated. Now everyone is experiencing what I experience every day.”
For thousands of people living with mental illness, the “new normal” forced on us by the pandemic wasn’t new at all. Perhaps the greatest gift of COVID has been the general realisation across the community that social connection, above all other factors, is the essential key to wellbeing. (It may come as a surprise to some that the worst thing about having a severe mental illness like schizophrenia is not the psychotic episodes or the delusions or hallucinations – it’s having no friends.)
Of course, I realise that being able to enjoy 2020 was a privilege. I am privileged to live in Australia, privileged to be socially well-connected, privileged to be in good physical and mental health. I was also fortunate, for the first half of the year, to be researching a book about happiness, inspired by the life and work of a writer who had an extraordinary gift for being happy. This meant that the challenges of 2020 gave me the opportunity to take the nine principles of happiness that I had extracted – in theory – from my study, and see how they worked in practice.
Like many others, I have piled on some COVID kilos and my drinking habits have increased, but I am still grateful to 2020 for forcing me prioritise how to spend the precious time I have left on this precious planet. Once the reality of my unemployment sinks in and I’m just one of thousands lining up in that Centrelink queue, I may be singing a different tune. For today, however, even though the virus is still at large, this year has taught me that happiness, too, can be catching.
Gabrielle Carey is an author. Her most recent book is Only Happiness Here.
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