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Happiness during coronavirus: 'Less about pleasure and more about wisdom'

Happiness during the stress and uncertainty of COVID-19 can seem elusive. Here's how scientists, writers, comedians, a yoga teacher and others are finding glimmers of it.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
  • Third place film critic, 2021 LA Press Club National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards
Leslie Katz
8 min read

A few months ago, tired of staring out of my home office window at a neglected garden, I showed the weeds who's boss, planted colorful new perennials and pruned back older, dying plants in the hope they might spring back to life with renewed attention. And they have. They grow fuller every day, an uplifting sight during these not-so-uplifting and highly uncertain times. 

Brett Pearce/CNET

I now have a daily ritual of heading into the garden to tend to and admire what's growing there (I don't talk to my flowers yet, but give me a couple more months). These outdoor laps are some of the happiest, most hopeful moments of days spent mostly at home. Sometimes, a tiny sprig of new greenery can make a dark world seem lighter, if only fleetingly. 

As part of our CNET special report on the science of happiness, I asked scientists, authors, actors, comedians and a yoga teacher, to name a few, to share how they're finding ways to make the days a little easier in a time when so many are dealing with life-altering challenges that can put thoughts of personal contentment far out of reach. Here are their answers -- many of which also center on appreciating the small things. 

Alan Duffy, astrophysicist 

Seeing hope in the stars 

"A particular source of delight I find in the stars has been knowing that activities to peacefully explore space continue even as we feel afraid and alone with no end in sight for the pandemic. While COVID-19 rages worldwide, we managed still to launch three missions to the red planet with China's Tianwen-1 and NASA's Perseverance rover joined by the UAE's Hope mission

The world still builds and plans for a future, seeking signs of life beyond Earth with expeditions into the unknown. That gives me hope we will persevere through the dark present toward a brighter future."

Steve Leialoha, artist for Marvel, DC and others 


Artist Steve Leialoha likes drawing dogs -- and living vicariously through them, especially during the pandemic. 

Steve Leialoha

Living through dogs

"We've found that a simple lunch at our local dog park can become a relaxing, stress-free activity. Even the weather has been pretty cooperative. 

We enjoy the company of all manner of dogs that aren't ours (as we have cats). We've even come to know the names of lots of them, if not their people: Bennie, Buddy, Buckley, Itsy and Gypsy, Mojo and Stella ... We live vicariously in their total lack of social distancing, constantly chasing that ball and checking us out for doggy treats. Happiness all around."       

Sonja Lyubomirsky, happiness researcher 

Cuddling with the kids

"The hallmark of happiness is frequently experiencing bursts of positive emotion -- such feelings as joy, tranquility, curiosity, pride and awe. In circumstances when much is out of our control, focusing on creating more such happy moments is more important than ever. 

Recently, for me, these have included feeling a deep connection with fellow parents as we share complaints about Zoom school; cuddling with my 7- and 9-year old girls as they read and play Minecraft next to me; and crafting the (almost) perfect sentence for a paper I am writing."

Octavio Solis, playwright and director 

Trading the world for the World 


Octavio Solis, playwright

"My wife and I find solace in the company of our animals. We keep a farm gently populated with nine goats of various ages which we keep for milk, six chickens from which we harvest eggs, and three dogs who provide us with a bounty of love. 

All around us are birds of every type: quail, scrub jays, bluebirds, grosbeaks, towees, hummingbirds and hawks, and in the evening we have deer browsing on our lawn. In the hush of the starry night, we hear the calls of hoot owls and coyotes, and sometimes the quiet snorts of dozing horses echo from the neighbor's pasture. 

When the world is too much, we go to the World, the real World that depends on us to live, and there we remember to breathe."

Todd Levin, comedy writer for Conan, elsewhere

Laughing like an idiot 

"As this pandemic drags on, a lot of things that typically make me feel happy have been drained of their potency. Cooking -- something I love and did a ton of during the spring, now feels like a life sentence, and most days I'm resigned to just tear open a bag of Trader Joe's pasta and watch the little Alfredo sauce chips slowly melt away like polar ice caps. 


Todd Levin, comedy writer

Lisa Whiteman

Even my kids, who make me laugh more than just about anyone, have started to fill me with guilt and pity, knowing how much fun is being denied them right now. 

So, I've found my happiness in its purest and dumbest form, in the Instagram account of Tony Baker. He does a lot of funny things, but his re-dubs of animal videos are god-level hilarious. Nearly every one of them makes me laugh like an idiot. I will never see a poor seal sliding across rocks again without thinking it just got shut down by a woman at the club."

Alina Chan, genetic engineer 

Fighting the pandemic 


Alina Chan, genetic engineer at Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, is finding happiness during the pandemic by working to combat the illness. 

"I've been very blessed to be trapped in an apartment with the best spouse I could ever ask for. It helps that both of us are workaholic scientists driving COVID-19 projects -- I'm working on several SARS-CoV-2 origins preprints, and Matt is spearheading an initiative that makes it easier for geneticists worldwide to share their COVID-19 data in a way that generates deeper insights into the disease.  

Even though there are times we feel burned out or that some challenges are insurmountable, there are happy moments in between. Being able to pursue COVID-19 research, working extremely hard with an incredible mentor and superhuman team of colleagues because we're passionate about fighting the pandemic -- these are happy memories in 2020."

Eric Weiner, author of The Socrates Express

Finding hidden beauty in the ordinary


Eric Weiner, author

Bill O'Leary

"I am finding moments of happiness by not looking for moments of happiness. Happiness is not an objective, but rather a byproduct of a life lived well. These days, I care less about pleasure and more about wisdom. Reading some of the great philosophers, and recalling my pre-pandemic journeys to their homelands, I've come to appreciate one skill they all possessed: finding hidden beauty in the quotidian. The way steam from a fresh cup of coffee dances in the air. The way a puddle glistens after a late-summer storm.

We see as much beauty as we're prepared to see. And something need not be perfect to be beautiful. A cracked smartphone screen, viewed from the right angle and with the right attitude, is a work of art. I try to keep this in mind, even during the darkest of days."

Sean Carroll, theoretical physicist

Expanding the reach of physics

"Being a theoretical physicist doesn't equip me to actively help cure or contain the virus, but at least I can help other people learn about physics. So I launched a YouTube series, The Biggest Ideas in the Universe, where I try to do just that. It's been a pretty big effort -- I just wrapped the last installment, giving 48 videos total of about one hour each. But I've learned a lot and had fun.

I've also restarted learning the bass guitar. It's something I've been wanting to do for years, and what better time?"

Katherine McNamara, actor (Arrow, Shadowhunters) 


Katherine McNamara, actor

Finding renewal in nature

"In a pandemic-free world, I am very social -- traveling, spending time with friends and family, socializing and working are all parts of my regular calendar. Having most if not all of these limited or taken away altogether, I have had to find new ways to fulfill those needs. 

I have taken up hiking, running outside and exploring the nature around where I live to find those pockets that feel like a getaway, a change of scenery from the walls of my apartment. I find such fulfillment in time spent alone in nature. There is an energy that renews my body, mind and soul when I take a reclusive detour -- if only for an hour."

Samaira Mehta, 12-year-old CEO of CoderBunnyz

Helping other kids learn to code

Samaira Mehta

"There has been a lot of uncertainty, yet happiness is something nothing should put a hold to. I am grateful my family is safe and healthy. I am grateful to have clean water, good food, clothes to wear and a roof over my head. And I am very grateful I am still able to make leaps and bounds toward my goal: Yes, One Billion Kids Can Code. During quarantine, I created free coding and AI curriculums to help kids learn to code; I hosted tons of virtual conferences, workshops and hackathons; and I am about to launch my third board game, CoderMarz. 

I am grateful I was able to be more productive, the best version of myself. These things all strung together bring me moments of happiness."

Gerald Isaac Waters, actor and model


Gerald Isaac Waters plays Chad in Netflix film All Together Now. After a 2015 accident left Waters paralyzed from the neck down, he's regained most movement in his upper body, defying doctors' predictions.

Vanessa Hondromihalis

Savoring small moments

"Moments of happiness in this current climate have shown up in the smallest way, whether that's a simple FaceTime with my sisters or finally beating my roommate in cards. I have tried to hold on to those moments of happiness and reflect on the memories when feeling alone and isolated."

Houston Kraft, author of Deep Kindness

Practicing everyday kindness 

"Creating opportunities for others to practice service and kindness helps encourage me to live them out, too. 

At the start of quarantine, I put together a 30 Day Kindness Journal. Ten thousand people signed up to participate, and suddenly, I was on the hook to practice alongside them. 

Purposeful work + thoughtful accountability + shared experiences = amplified, meaningful joy."

Peter Walters, yoga teacher 

Staying in the present


Peter Walters, yoga teacher

Peter Walters

"These days, I've let go of my quest for happiness; instead, I'm after joy. Joy is lasting, and really always here, ripe for the picking. Joy is just a layer underneath fear, guilt, shame, anger, longings and aversions. Happiness tends to pass like a storm -- a really great storm, but it's fleeting. Joy is our natural state, and yet we forget it. We get caught up in infinite dramas and stories that prevent us from remembering who we are, what we are.

I'm finding my natural state of joy through being in nature -- running, biking, getting my heart rate up and sweat moving through my pores. I'm practicing and teaching yoga online, and sharing the sweet nectar of breath, play, song and present-moment awareness with just about anyone who will listen."

Rob Kutner, comedy writer for Conan, The Daily Show, Gander on Tubi 

Father-daughter comfort food

"I've found happiness during the pandemic by cooking with my 12-year-old daughter.


Pandemic peanut butter cups from the Kutner household. 

Rob Kutner

I like to cook anyway, so I found it a little hilarious when we all got trapped at home and people on social media were like, "LOOK! I COOKED A BREAD!" or "HELP! HOW DOES ONE BOIL AN EGG?" 

But my daughter found an app called Cozi where you can compile recipes and it breaks them into shopping lists, and she set forth a series of "challenges" that we spent the summer doing. Not Iron Chef-style stuff, but essentially trying to replicate comfort-food goodies we might have normally gotten outside the home: corndogs, peanut butter cups that kick Reese's butt, cinnabuns that took more steps than assembling a Saturn V rocket.

One week suddenly became "Mug Cake Week," with seven distinct mug/microwaved confections, which did no favors for my waistline. Sometimes I wish every week was Mug Cake Week..."

Editors' note: This story is part of a CNET special report on the science of happiness. For more, read about what science teaches us about happinesshow to boost your happiness hormones and why pursuing happiness has a dark side.