On a recent pre-quarantine drive from Toronto to New York, my husband and I made a tacit agreement to treat our rental car as a sealed escape hatch from coronavirus anxiety. We binged on podcasts, discovering one that was particularly brilliant and uplifting, a This American Life episode on delight that first aired in January. The producers’ goal: to provide some counterprogramming to the dark news that month.
Several weeks later, the podcast’s raison d’etre was even more relevant in parts of the world, especially the US, where a full understanding of the pandemic’s consequences was still emerging. For us, the counter-balancing worked. Listening to host and co-producer Bim Adewunmi as we drove rural highways past leafless forests, I felt my blood pressure and shoulders drop.
I was transported to a different road trip, one Adewunmi made as a teenager obsessed with American culture and visiting the US for the first time from her home in East London. In the episode, she recalled the pleasure of cruising in an El Camino that belonged to a friend. The windows were down, the music was loud, and they wore cutoff jeans: “’I was like, oh my god! This is America! I’m in a truck! We’re on the road! The wind is in our hair! This is perfect! We’re a bunch of girls laughing about whatever, and it’s great. Like it was a performance, but I knew all the words.”
In defiance of her British sensibilities, Adewunmi decided that summer that seeking delight—“to find it and replicate it forever”—would become her life’s organizing principle.
It feels a bit subversive to suggest we now make a similar commitment to levity, given the epic catastrophe that’s unfolding in many countries and knowing that some people—particularly frontline healthcare workers—are working through unimaginable trauma. At the same time, there’s one thing we know about delight, or humor, or kindness: Even in a crisis, resistance is futile. “I guess one of the complicated things about delight is that it can exist, like a kernel, at the center of misfortune,” remarks co-producer Dana Chivvis on the show.
We also know that medical authorities around the world are recommending we reduce our stress levels, if we can, to protect our mental health and take some pressure off our immune systems. Finding delight now isn’t indulgent, nor is it a part of denial; it has arguably become part of self-care.
For some, the ideal substitution for nightly news is a stylish Japanese detective show on Netflix. In my circles, cooking shows, reruns of basketball games, and resurfaced episodes of Glee and Cheers are in heavy circulation. However, there’s a difference between comfort or distraction—necessary as they are in tough times—and delight.
The word is derived from Middle English deliten, which came from the Latin delectare, and relates to “delicere, to allure,” says the Merriam-Webster dictionary. You could say that to be delighted is to be charmed by the pleasurable and unlikely, or intolerably cute, or awe-inspiring—or any combination thereof. There can be a spiritual element to delight. Your awareness is heightened by it.
In the trying days of quarantine, you might want to jot down “seek delight” on your to-do list. I’ve gathered some potential sources as starting points, with the help of my colleagues at Quartz.
The poet Ross Gay, whose work, The Book of Delights (Algonquin Books, 2019), inspired the aforementioned This American Life episode, began keeping a delight diary a few years ago. “I came up with a handful of rules: write a delight every day for a year; begin and end on my birthday, Aug. 1; draft them quickly; and write them by hand,” he explains in the introduction to his book.
Gay’s short meditations, with titles like “Kombucha in a Mid-Century glass,” “Inefficiency,” and “The Sanctity of Trains,” are enchanting and layered with complexities. The practice allowed him to develop a delight radar, he explains. For that alone, it seems worth emulating, even for non-literary types.
My colleague Katherine Foley, a Quartz health and science reporter, dropped this tweet featuring a yellow lab named Stella into the dogs-focused Slack channel at the office, unleashing delight. She finds it joyful “watching such an earnest animal experience such unabashed joy over and over again,” she says. Hannah Jane Parkinson, a British journalist, called the clip “possibly the best short film ever made.”
Here are some additional reports on delight-finding from Quartz reporters in the US, the UK, France, and India:
My mom’s out in Baltimore and pretty fear stricken, so we’ve been doing a lot of video chats (I’ve been bringing her to video happy hours with friends). But this weekend, we set out to make banh bao, a notoriously difficult Vietnamese take on a bao bun. We chatted during the two and a half hours making it together.
I discovered that my mom first learned how to make bao when she was 16 from her mother when they had just immigrated to the US from Vietnam. Sequestered and homesick, she shared how to make it, and we did the same some forty-plus years later. —Daniel Wolfe, Quartz Things reporter, Oakland, CA
Mohamed Salah is not a typical soccer superstar. He has a low-maintenance haircut and no tattoos. He is small and slight, and is a devout Muslim who bows towards Mecca after scoring a goal.
But he scores many, many goals. He is fast, graceful, and agile, with deceptive strength. He rarely strikes the ball hard; rather, he calmly caresses the ball into the net, surrounded by a storm of opponents. It’s a sight of extraordinary beauty. —Hasit Shah, Quartz deputy news editor, London
Yes, I could listen to The Daily while I walk my dog, or let an algorithm feed me new music. Instead, I keep queuing up Girl Talk’s 2008 insta-party album Feed the Animals—a mash-up masterpiece that seamlessly layers hits from the likes of David Bowie, Ludacris, Rihanna, Busta Rhymes, and the Flashdance soundtrack. From the first beats on the snare, this relentless string of bangers turns our sleepy walk into a sweaty dance-run. If you’re partying with kids, be warned: It is full of raunch and profanity. But it will make you smile, and it will make you move. —Jenni Avins, Quartz lifestyle correspondent, Los Angeles
I’ve kind of rediscovered video games during this whole thing and have been enjoying that. I used to play them a lot when I was younger but pretty much haven’t at all since college until a few weeks ago. It’s also helped me stay connected to a good friend who’s basically all alone in the UK right now.
Beyond gaming being an amusing distraction, there’s something about the idea of control—the simple act of manipulating a controller with your hands which directly corresponds to actions/movements in the game—that gives me a strangely powerful (though fleeting) feeling of peace at a moment when everything else around us feels totally out of our control —Adam Epstein, Quartz entertainment reporter, New York
I’ve been reading a physical book for the first time in a while—Love In the Time of Cholera, if that isn’t clichéd enough for you. But I’ve had to sort of abandon most physical books because I do a lot of my reading during my subway commute. The train is usually so crowded it’s hard to hold up a physical book and then flip pages. It’s much easier to just swipe on my phone. (I use Libby a lot, the app from NY Public Library, fwiw.) Now that I’m not commuting, I’ve been sitting on the couch and reading. I’d forgotten how nice it is to read on paper. Also, paper books smell wonderful. There are a lot of other little things: I can tell how far I am from the end. There’s the weight of the book, the smell, the feeling of the paper. It’s silly but I’d forgotten those things a bit from reading on my phone. —Marc Bain, Quartz lifestyle reporter, New York
I’ve found it absolutely delightful to go outside every day at 8 pm in Paris and clap for healthcare workers with all my neighbors. It’s a form of solidarity I’ve never experienced with other French people. (My family has lived in this building for 23 years, and I don’t know a single one of my neighbors.) Also, someone has been leaving messages in chalk around my neighborhood on the sidewalks and every time I come across one it’s just lovely. —Annabelle Timsit, Quartz geopolitics reporter, Paris
Last week I walked to the foot of the Camperdown Elm. Seeing the scarred, muscular branches of Prospect Park’s 148-year old “crowning curio” gave me a gush of reassurance. Once on the brink of death after a fierce rodent infestation, a poet who recognized its beauty saved it from peril. This old weeping elm has seen and survived so much, maybe we will too. —Anne Quito, Quartz design reporter, New York
A few weeks ago I took advantage of my abnormally clear schedule to go birdwatching in Jamaica Bay, Queens, with my boyfriend and a knowledgable friend (who stayed six feet away throughout). We saw 17 species, including hundreds of migratory snow geese, a northern harrier (hawk), and two hairy woodpeckers, along with more common species like warblers, sparrows, and cardinals.
Birdwatching isn’t so hard: Listen for calls or rustling from trees or bushes, and look for movement. If you have binoculars, you can get a closer look and watch the bird in action. Experienced birders can easily identify a bird species by its call or appearance, but if you’re new to birding, a guide book with photos can help you learn.
You enter a different headspace when you’re birding—calm but also alert, more attentive to your surroundings. It’s meditative but can also be exciting. Delight comes from glimpsing a new species or watching a bird do something wonderful or strange. And though I enjoy all of these aspects of bird watching, right now I especially appreciate a good excuse to stand outside.—Alexandra Ossola, Quartz special projects editor, New York
With a few friends, we set up a distributed film club. We all have proposed some of our favorite films, and watch one pretty much every night, commenting on it on a WhatsApp group. It’s delightful in more ways than one, but my favorite aspect is that we set it up by sharing our favorite films—so it’s a lot of classics. It’s unusual to watch a film with a group of friends—watch parties are more for TV shows, or broadcast events. We are really taking the time to watch (and comment on) old and new masterpieces without the worry of being caught up with the latest release. —Annalisa Merelli, Quartz geopolitics reporter, New York
Like everyone else, I am stressed right now. But taking a morning last week to go look at Washington, DC’s cherry blossoms (before the mayor begged everyone to stop on Sunday) was a great pleasure. It may seem like flowers are the last thing to consider during a global health and economic crisis, but the blooms hold so many lessons that are especially relevant now—most notably about the interconnectedness of all life on Earth. —Ephrat Livni, Quartz senior reporter, law and politics, Washington DC
I spend a lot of time in the sun now and am finally enjoying Delhi spring. It had become so hard in the last couple of years because of high pollution levels. But with the lockdown, the air seems so much cleaner and it is a delight to see butterflies again.—Diksha Madhok, editor and director, Quartz India platform, Delhi
A friend and I have been doing virtual yoga sessions every evening. She’s in her balcony and I’m in mine, and every 10 minutes or so we’re interrupted by our respective dogs who seem quite intrigued by all the movement and sounds coming from the laptop.
Between stretches and poses, we take time to greet each other’s dogs and just laugh about how absolutely adorable they are (and how happy they are to have their humans around at all times). This is a delightful activity for me right now.—Amanat Khullar, Quartz India news curator and writer, New Delhi
Saturday night we were in our “hotel” that my daughter set up. She put a mattress across two beds and laid down blankets to create a nook, and put stuffed animals all around. There’s a “tailor” (the sewing machine) and a check in desk to check the animals into.
I turned on the radio because one of my favorite programs was on. After it ended the next program was a live broadcast of Irish music, and my daughter, who’s six, started doing an Irish jig and my two-year-old son tried to copy her. —Whet Moser, Quartz Daily Obsession deputy editor, Chicago
My ridiculous sprite of a 2-year-old daughter creeping up to my bed, grabbing my face in both her hands and yelling, “Mom, I awake!” this morning was a delight. And there was this moment a few weeks ago, before all this, when my husband and I were driving home from a family dinner at my mom’s house. He had been rhapsodizing about Phil Collins, as a middle aged dad does, and I promised to play him this amazing This American Life piece where Starlee Kine writes a break-up song, with advice from Phil Collins. The kids fell asleep and we were listening to it and he was so delighted by it, and I was delighted to have shared this weird piece of real estate in my brain with him. —Annaliese Griffin, Quartz Daily Obsession editor, Vermont
I’m getting a lot of joy from classical music Twitter and Instagram. People are doing #practicesaveslives challenge, showing themselves staying home and practicing their instruments. Lots of world class soloists are livestreaming from home too. —Isabelle Niu, Quartz video journalist, New York
While aquariums are currently closed to the public, I was delighted to know that some have kept their doors virtually open. At the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Northern California, you’ll find live streams of sea otters rafting or chomping down on shellfish. In Chicago, the penguins at Shedd Aquarium can be found waddling across the exhibit floors now that we’re out of sight. It’s nice to take a break and check in with these sea creatures when you’re cooped up all day. And while the rest of the world has seemed to have paused, it’s comforting to see these animals continue to live out their own humble lives. —Michelle Cheng, Quartz at Work reporter, New York