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Hope and happiness: We’re beginning to heal, but are we thriving?

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“How are you?” When asked this question, most of us respond on autopilot: “I’m fine.” “I’m doing well.” But how many of us have said these words when they were anything but true? How we are really doing, both inside and out, is one of the most important self-assessments we can make each day.

For 18 months, we as a collective group were not doing well, physically or mentally. Depression and anxiety increased, loneliness and isolation became commonplace, and fear was a constant companion.

According to a June 2020 survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), nearly 41% of respondents reported “an adverse mental health or behavioral health condition” after only the first few months of the pandemic. The study found that compared to the second quarter of 2019, the prevalence of depressive disorder was approximately four times greater. Most, if not all, of us seemed to be on the same page. Few of us were likely to respond: “I’m doing well.”

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Now as vaccination rates continue to increase, schools reopen, unemployment levels decrease, and we once again gather in groups, it seems we are feeling more hopeful. A June Gallup poll found that 59% of Americans say they are thriving — the highest percentage since they first started polling this data 13 years ago.

The latest Axios/Ipsos poll shows that only 9% of people say their mental health has worsened in the last week — far down from the 35% reported in March 2020. The research also shows that only 28% of people are concerned with life getting back to normal post-pandemic, compared to 72% in April 2020 and 55% as recently as May 2021.

It’s not surprising that now that life is beginning to open up once again, we’re finding a renewed sense of optimism and appreciation. We don’t want to take for granted what we have, and we can better appreciate things we formerly overlooked: ice cream with a friend, a walk through a museum, kicking a soccer ball around with friends.

We are beginning to recover. But, if we are being honest with ourselves, are we really thriving?

Everyday Health and The Ohio State University put together an online resilience survey, and it seems that most Americans overestimate their own resilience by quite a bit: 83% thought they had high levels of mental and emotional resilience, when in fact only 57% scored as resilient from a physician’s assessment. It’s important to do an honest check-in with ourselves and to acknowledge what still feels dark and hard to be able to embark on a healing journey. 

The thing about healing is that it rarely happens all at once. Like the grieving process, it takes time and requires honesty and intentionality. We need to be gentle with ourselves and not expect things to go back to the way they were. Trauma like what we have experienced during the pandemic will take time to heal — in our relationships, our bodies, our thoughts, our emotions and our faith.

Human flourishing isn’t intended to be a fleeting state. True flourishing involves more than just happiness today. It is rooted in a present hope for today and tomorrow. How can we build the kind of flourishing in our lives that is sustained and able to weather the storms that will inevitably keep coming? Here are three things we can do, even when life is hard and not as we expected it to be.

Acknowledge our wounds

Although we may not feel like every difficulty leads to personal growth, what we do know is that every challenge we face allows us an opportunity to learn something new. Many of us are excited to get back to activities and people we have been away from for so long.

We’ve longed for true laughter and joy. In our excitement, however, we must not pass over the scars of the past year. We do a disservice to both ourselves and others when we don’t allow space to name the wounds we have carried. Take time to acknowledge the difficult parts of this past year. Like the psalmists, cry out about what has been lost and raise your questions and complaints as you seek God’s healing presence.

Recall what God has done

Throughout the history of the people of God, storytelling has been a powerful tool to find hope and healing during and after times of trauma. Much of what is recorded in the Bible are the stories of how God brought individuals and communities through difficult times. You can’t possibly read the story of the crossing of the Red Sea, Joseph’s enslavement to becoming a leader, Gideon’s victory with a small army, David and Goliath, or the healings throughout the Gospels without participating in the retelling of God’s care and healing presence.

When we pull from our collective and individual memory the goodness of God during times of suffering, we find an endless array of people who have become stronger through the storm and those who — through their wounds — have become richer and deeper and more vibrant.

Find our community

True flourishing happens in community. Over and over in Scripture we are called “the Body of Christ.” We are one, united in glad times and sad. Dutch professor and theologian Henri Nouwen once wrote, “Christian community is the place where we keep the flame of hope alive among us and take it seriously so that it can grow and become stronger in us.” We all need to feel validated and affirmed and have places of safety. When we do, we can withstand obstacles in ways we couldn’t have alone.

Honestly acknowledging our wounds, remembering the goodness of God, and walking together in community doesn’t solve every problem. But it is the beginning of true flourishing. As we look into a rearview mirror that will continue to put a distance between us and the worst of COVID-19, my prayer is that we would all find a path that doesn’t just bring us happiness for today, but a lasting, active hope that endures for years to come.

Dr. Philip G. Monroe is a licensed psychologist and is currently serving as Director of Trauma Healing Training at American Bible Society in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His areas of specialty include church leader mental and spiritual health, trauma, global mental health, and sexual addictions.

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