My home state of California entered lockdown on March 19, 2020, just one day before the International Day of Happiness. Soon after, my two young daughters ran wild through our house, desperate—like their parents—to leave it. Meanwhile, my partner and I toggled back and forth between reading terrifying stories on Twitter and watching case numbers rise on the news, wondering, How can this situation possibly get worse? At the time, despite the supposed global celebration of happiness, I wasn’t feeling joyful. Like the rest of America, I wondered how long it would be before I felt anything other than fear.
We all know what happened next: The situation did get worse—a lot worse. Hospital beds filled up. Our country’s supply of personal protective equipment ran dangerously low. We learned something no one should ever know: what a mobile morgue looks like.
In April, the U.S. hit historic unemployment rates. In May, yet another Black man, George Floyd, was killed by police. In August, more than a million acres of California burned, setting 2,000 homes and structures ablaze. All the while, an authoritarian science denier clung to power in Washington, famously incompetent and all the more dangerous for it. The year seemed determined to squeeze every ounce of joy out of us before the calendar’s end.
And yet, here we are. It is December 2020, and what was once a flicker of light at the end of the long tunnel has become something brighter.
Thanks to voters who came out in record numbers, Joe Biden, a man who listens to experts, believes in science, and governs with decency, will be our next president. Kamala Harris, my aunt and role model, a public servant who has dedicated her life to helping our country live up to its ideals, will be our next vice president, making history as the first Black person, first South Asian person, and first woman ever elected to the office. COVID-19 vaccine trials have gone better than expected; health-care workers may get their doses before January. And though many of us were not able to spend this Thanksgiving with our loved ones, next November, crammed around our dining-room tables, we will certainly feel a deeper gratitude for one another than we ever have.
So, despite everything 2020 has thrown our way, when I think about the future, I feel a burst of joy.
It feels strange after the year we’ve had. But what’s stranger still is that I feel this joy more deeply because of the year we’ve had. Because of this year, I learned more than I ever thought possible about how to build a reservoir of joy and how to access it.
I found joy when my daughters, taking a break from their daily stampeding, would grab a book off the shelf and ask me to read it. I couldn’t take them to playdates, but I could pause my work for 15 minutes and sit on the sofa—or in some cases, dance on it—with them.
I found joy when my partner, Nik, hoping to make me laugh, surprised me with a quarantine mustache—and then, hoping to make me smile, surprised me by shaving it off.
I found joy when one evening at 10 p.m. I stopped doomscrolling and instead roasted a chicken and cooked chili at the same time. For the next couple of hours, the only thing that mattered was pacing between the oven and the stove, then deciding what to do with the leftovers. (Hint: Nik and our kids did their part.)
A friend of mine who’s an entrepreneur once described the joy of “not owing anybody shit.” His declaration made me laugh and stuck with me; it was one of the reasons why I recently decided to step off of the corporate treadmill and start my own venture, Phenomenal. Just before the pandemic hit, I took a leap of faith, leaving my comfortable job for the life of an entrepreneur. It was an immense privilege to be able to afford to do this, and I was determined not to waste the opportunity. But as I suddenly found myself sharing an office with a toddler and a preschooler, my vision of creative hustle and blurry work-life lines didn’t seem so sweet. And yet even though my days didn’t look the way I had imagined, I found joy in the freedom that came with being my own boss by pushing myself to try new things and allowing myself to say no.
I leaned into the chaos of quarantine. Sometimes I let emails go unread. Sometimes I let my house go uncleaned. Slowly, I let go of other people’s expectations of me—as a mother, a partner, a businessperson, an adviser. And then, just as slowly, I let go of my own unrealistic expectations of myself. It wasn’t perfection, but it was liberation.
Over the past two years, I have also found joy in purpose. Ever since I worked on Barack Obama’s presidential election in 2008 to organize the youth vote, I’ve loved the energy of politics. But this presidential campaign had a different kind of energy. Instead of door-knocking or flying coast to coast, I hosted virtual events to get out the vote. I joined Zoom after Zoom with volunteers and campaign staff to thank them for their hard work, to encourage them to keep going no matter how exhausted we all felt.
There were times when I came close to burning out. Sometimes, I’d think I couldn’t muster the energy to go on camera for another video call. But then when I inevitably did, I would come face-to-face with inspiring voters and volunteers and feel the power of the community we were forging on our way to a new administration. Suddenly, I’d feel less tired—because real COVID protocols, better health care, a fairer economy, racial justice, and an end to climate change matter more to me than a few months of good sleep.
These interactions on the campaign trail made me rethink my friend’s statement. We might find personal joy in not owing anybody anything. But maybe the deeper joy is in recognizing how much we do owe one another. Not the bosses or people who hold power over us, but the close friends and family members who keep us grounded. The health-care workers who keep us well. The farmers and grocery-store clerks who keep our shelves stocked. The unapologetically ambitious women who run for office and show little girls everywhere what’s possible. The immigrant-rights organizers who built a grassroots movement in Arizona. The Black organizers who turned Georgia blue. The caretakers who are, and always have been, essential. I spent much of 2020 longing for community. But I also spent much of it discovering a community I already had.
Finding joy, even by accident, can be a radical act for women—especially for women of color. It’s as if stumbling upon happiness distracts us from what we’re “supposed” to be doing: giving, sacrificing, caring for anyone but ourselves. Meanwhile, doggedly pursuing joy (or passionately going after anything at all) is often the surest way to earn yourself the label of “too ambitious” or simply “too much.”
But, lucky for us—and hear me out on this pandemic metaphor—joy is not toilet paper. We don’t have to clean out the grocery aisles when we think the supply is threatened. One person’s stockpile isn’t another person’s shortage.
It’s possible to feel joy when others are sad and when others are happy. It’s possible to feel joy when the heartbreak has just begun, and it’s possible to feel joy when the heartbreak is almost over.
I don’t have the perfect formula for reckoning with it all, for staying hopeful but not insensitive, solemn but not despondent. But I do know that we have to be kind to ourselves. We have to let ourselves feel happiness amid trauma or injustice because that’s how we’ll have the energy to keep fighting it. And we have to let ourselves feel exhausted and scared and angry too because that’s how we’ll remember the fight was worth it.
Next year, what a blessing it will be to end up in a long line at the airport or to stress out about dry brining a turkey for 20 people. What a gift it will be to roll our eyes at screaming hordes of kids breaking free from the classroom at 3 p.m., because they spent the day in one.
But until we reach that point, we can find joy right now. We can find it in midnight chickens and midday book clubs and misshapen mustaches. We can spread it by learning and listening and lending our voices to causes that matter.
And if we can’t feel joy at this moment, that’s okay too. We can just wait a little longer. It’ll be there for us soon enough.
Meena Harris is a lawyer, the founder and CEO of Phenomenal, and the author of Ambitious Girl, out January 19.