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A pandemic perspective: the happiest way to survive COVID-19

This virus sucks, don’t get me wrong, but in many ways it’s made me happier too.

‘Happier!?’ you might be tempted to scream. ‘What sort of sociopath sees death and financial destruction and becomes happier?’

Let me explain.

Speaking to an elder of Olasiti Maasai village in southern Kenya during my stay in 2016.
Filming in a refugee camp in northern Uganda.

Travelling the globe for more than a decade interviewing and observing the happiest (and unhappiest) people, places and ideas on earth, there is one overwhelming secret to achieving our happiest state that many seem to overlook - and that’s perspective.

Perspective, or the lens through which we choose to see and frame our world, is invariably more important to our happiness than the world we actually experience.

A large well-rounded perspective will make you happier. The bigger, the better.

Take my life for instance. I’m unable to work as a result of COVID-19 and I’m livid that millions - including a disproportionate number of the world’s poor - will lose their lives to the virus. Through 95 of 100 lenses there is only misery.

When I look at the statistics for instance, I see that more than a million Australians are in the same ‘unemployment’ boat I am, while worldwide 195 million jobs will be axed between April and June this year according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). On top of this, domestic violence and mental health cases are surging, 1.5 billion children are out of school (with 91% unable to access any education at all) and the global cost of this pandemic could be up to $4.1 trillion (4.8% of global GDP) according to the Asian Development Bank.

I could continue to list out another 88 miserable truths related to my job loss or COVID-19 – and don’t get me wrong, all are valid and have played a part in shaping my current perspective - but where we must learn to focus our attention is on the specks of happiness we can sift out of the rubble. Because that’s what the happiest minds do so effortlessly: they let the crap we can’t or won’t change pass through their mental sieve, without getting rid of the stirring questions or lessons that may drive us to think or act in a way that leads us (and others) to a happier reality.

For example, listening to newsreaders talk about the horrors of coronavirus, I knew there was nothing I could do to undo it, and yet, the puddle of tears in my hands some nights told me I needed to do something.

Initially, I, like many, began with seeing what I could do for my family and immediate community. When the answer was “nothing, we’re fine”, my mind began to expand to those people I’d met in my travels who might be hurting.

How was that Maasai warrior I lived with for a week in 2016 doing? What about the young boy in Afghanistan or the orphaned sisters I met in a refugee camp in Uganda? How were these people coping? Could I help them? And what, if anything, might these interactions teach me, or us, about the happiest way to survive coronavirus?

“Most, I think, are coming to see that they can live with less,” says Benson Meoli, a Maasai warrior living in a traditional semi-nomadic pastoralist village in southern Kenya near Mt Kilimanjaro. “Like I said when we met, this is critical, because human greed - by way of climate change and environmental destruction - will end us if we don’t stop consuming, and coronavirus is a reminder of that.” Whether COVID-19 originated from bats, or the illegal trade of pangolins, Benson says the equation is clear: “we are taking more than we are giving and this is not sustainable, this is not how Mother Nature works and so we are all feeling that now.”

Benson tends to a set of newborn kids.
Benson tends to a set of newborn kids.

“Our cows and our goats and sheep are our life as pastoralists,” Benson explains. “But the government has ordered the fumigation of all the animal markets, so we cannot sell our animals to buy the grains and other foodstuffs we need. The milk from our cows is not enough, so we are in peril. My people are starving.”

“This thing does not care who you are, it cannot see your money or tribe, but still the poor will suffer most, more of us will die,” says Nisa, a wise young South Sudanese woman I met in a refugee camp in Uganda in 2017. “If a virus can see us as the same, then why can’t we? Why must we war? War took my mother, my brother and my home. Now my sister and I suffer here in this place, with no education because our schools are closed, and no food because the virus means our rations have been cut to just 8% of our normal food rations.”

“Hunger and poverty will kill most people here long before coronavirus,” warns Murtaza, a university student living in Kabul, Afghanistan. “Half of my country lives below the poverty line, and most work just so they can feed their family that day. These people now face an impossible choice: to risk going outside to work in order to eat, or to stay safe inside and go hungry?”

A street vendor in Kabul who will be forced to make an impossible decision.
One of thousands of street vendors in Kabul being forced to make an impossible choice.

“The thing that terrifies me and my family,” says Murtaza, “is that if this virus does come here we do not have a health system to deal with it.”

What made me fret even more when I read up on how Afghanistan was coping, was that just weeks before the global outbreak of COVID-19 the Taliban had finally committed to peace talks with the Afghan/US government. Since the lockdown however, the Taliban have used the unprecedented circumstance to invade and murder and strengthen their position within the country, in order to get a better deal at the ‘peace’ table.

It might sound odd, but what Benson, Nisa and Murtaza just handed you is a gift. The gift of perspective.

Because at the end of the day what these stories should tell you is: if you’re not running from the Taliban, if you’re not living on 8% rations or being forced to choose between safety and starvation, be happy. In addition, if you do have access to unemployment benefits, a robust healthcare system and your internet connection is fast enough to support your children to homeschool (and let you binge Netflix), be even happier.

If chatting to Benson, Nisa and Murtaza (and sending them each some money) over the past month has taught me anything, it’s that while we don’t have control over much, we do have control over how we respond to this pandemic.

We determine our lens.

We decide what we let in and what we let slide right through.

We decide how, who and what we listen to.

We decide how we wake up. How we see our privilege. How we see those with nothing.

We dictate whether we see COVID as a curse or an opportunity to be grateful, to find purpose and to give to those with less.

We choose how we respond.

And I choose to use coronavirus to make me a happier human being. Will you join me?

Read more about My Great Big Pandemic Dream or watch the stunning story I filmed with Benson in 2016.

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