Four Science-Based Tools for Staying Happy During COVID-19

The COVID19 pandemic has taken a toll on our collective mental health. Many of us have been struggling with increased stress, anxiety, and depression. But for some, quarantine has also provided a chance to recognize the toll that pre-COVID-19 living was having on their well-being. It has provided time to reflect on what actually makes them happy.  

Does this sound familiar?  

“This is all so terrible…”

“And yet… I’ve been able to catch up on old friendships…”

“And yet… I’m finally spending quality time with my family…”

“And yet… I’m eating healthier and exercising more…”

“And yet, I feel rested for the first time in my adult life.”  

This time to reflect was a privilege that many, including essential workers, were not awarded. Whether or not you have been able to take this time, the lessons learned might still be applicable to your life.  

It took a state-mandated quarantine for many of us to feel happier. Maybe it’s time for us to re-examine what we considered and accepted as normal. Now that states are starting to open, you might be worrying that life will return to normal and your previous “normal” was not working. (However, if you’re one of the many experiencing more stress during this time, feel free to reach out to us for teletherapy).  

But what can be done? Research suggests that there are steps we can take to improve our well being. Generally speaking, happiness is not something that just happens to us. It’s something we can work to cultivate. Happily ever after is something that often does not exist outside of fairy tales.

Happiness requires commitment and deliberate practice.

Unfortunately, if you’re like most people, you might be wrong about what will actually make you happy. In fact, working toward what you think might lead to happiness (like more money) could lead you away from what research suggests will increase your overall happiness and well-being. Read on for research-based tips to improve overall well-being and life satisfaction.  

Connection with Others

If COVID-19 has taught us anything about well-being, it might be our need for socialization and the negative effects of loneliness.  A Harvard study that began tracking the health and well-being of individuals in 1938 (and still continues today) has consistently found that strong relationships with family, friends, and community is a strong predictor of mental and physical health. Loneliness can have comparable effects on our physical health as would smoking 15 cigarettes per day!  

During times of stress, humans seek out social support. Because COVID-19 required social distancing, many people got creative. We relied on virtual platforms to connect with friends and family. In fact, many people found that they actually became more social during the quarantine. Many people reconnected with old friends and spoke with family members more than they had pre-quarantine.

So, when seeking that post-quarantine happiness, let’s remember to prioritize social connections. How can we do this in practice? Set aside time each week to connect with a friend or family member. Instead of watching that 30-minute episode on Netflix, call or FaceTime with a friend instead – or Zoom a friend in to watch with you. It might sound silly, but scheduling “social time” into your calendar can be a helpful practice.  

Practice Gratitude

When 7 p.m. hits in NYC, the city breaks out in cheers, whistles, clapping. It’s a daily practice of gratitude where New Yorkers express appreciation for healthcare workers. Neighbors step outside to clap, hang out windows banging pots and pans, and cheer from rooftops. You might even hear the occasional cowbell. As the weeks and months go on, these cheers seem to only be growing louder.  

Many people look forward to these two to three minutes where communities come together in a shared activity. It has easily become the best part of many people’s days. According to the research, this should not be a surprise.  

This daily ritual combines two key components of what science suggests can increase well-being:

  1. Community connection (as discussed above)
  2. Gratitude.

Taking time to notice and appreciate the positives in life can increase overall levels of well-being. It can help buffer against depression in the wake of a crisis. Building a habit of gratitude is also associated with higher positive affect and life satisfaction.

How can you do this? Carve out 5 minutes per day and write down 1-3 things that you are grateful for. Try not to just list generic things that you think you should be grateful for or create a long bulleted list. Instead, spend time really focusing on specific examples.  

Taking time each day to practice gratitude can help foster an abundance mindset. It can increase feelings of happiness and fulfillment and help guard against feelings like envy and resentment.  

Help Others

When COVID-19 hit, the best thing most of us could do to help was just… stay home and do nothing. It was hard for a lot of us. While this was necessary to maintain public safety, this contrasted with what research suggests increases well-being. That is, being other-regarding.  

Even with social-distancing orders, many people found a way to help others during the pandemic. There were countless stories of people helping neighbors by delivering groceries, donating money to struggling businesses, and giving their time to virtually connect with people who were isolated during the pandemic.  

This helping behavior actually helps us feel better too. In fact, research suggests that spending money on other people (prosocial spending) generally leads us feeling happier than if we spent money on ourselves. This is particularly true when there is a strong emotional tie between you and the receiver and when you can see the specific impact of your generosity.  

Practice Self-Care

While spending money and time on other people can increase happiness, it’s important to also care for yourself. Self-care includes activities done to care for our mental, emotional, and physical health. Three evidence-based self-care activities include adequate sleep, regular exercise, and meditation.

SLEEP:  

Most of us have experienced the effects that poor sleep has on our mood (or our childrens’ moods). Inadequate sleep can contribute to the development and maintenance of mental health problems. Poor sleep can make it difficult to cope with stress. Without work commutes and nearly all other activities off-limits, many people were finally able to make sleep a priority. This will no doubt be more difficult once quarantine ends, but will nevertheless be a worthwhile endeavor.  

Here, American Sleep Association recommends a list of actionable steps to build good sleep habits, including keeping a consistent sleep schedule and reducing the use of screens in the bedroom.  

EXERCISE:  

It’s likely not a surprise for most readers to hear that physical exercise can improve your mood. Physical exercise is linked with improved cognitive abilities, improved health, and improved well being. The CDC recommends 150 minutes/week of moderate-intensity exercise for most adults.  

Aerobic exercise can reduce symptoms of burnout and depression. Staying active can help us stave off burnout symptoms. Unfortunately, many people have tried and failed to implement into their daily routine. This very fact is the foundation of many gym business models!  

Interestingly enough, another happiness tool, gratitude practice, can actually increase the likelihood of following through on exercise habits. Other tips include finding an activity that you enjoy and making exercise social. If you’re like Ann Perkins and wonder at the cost of the benefits of jogging, then don’t jog. Find an activity that works for you and that you actually enjoy doing and look forward to.  

Exercise classes streamed over social media have made building exercise habits easier than ever. These classes can also be great outlets for social connection – a two-for-one happiness deal.  

Time spent in nature has also been shown to decrease feelings of stress and increase feelings of happiness. If you have access to a park and enjoy outdoor body movement, this may be a great option for you.  

MINDFULNESS:  

Mindfulness is the practice of purposefully bringing your attention to the present moment without judgment. If you pay attention to your thoughts, you might notice that much of our time is spent thinking (or worrying) about the future or reflecting on the past.  

You might notice you spend little time actually focused on the present moment. This impacts our ability to be truly content and connected with the people around us. Regular mindful meditation practice can lead to mental and physical health benefits.  

There are now countless meditation apps aimed at making mindfulness practice easily accessible. Headspace began offering free meditations for New Yorkers during COVID-19. But the benefits of mindfulness go beyond coping with the stress related to the pandemic. Setting aside 10-20 minutes to practice several times a week using smartphone apps can decrease work-related stress and increase well-being.  

Although it feels like COVID19 will never end, eventually it will. We’ll have to decide if we want to return to the old “normal” or move in a different direction. When we inevitably find this difficult, it might be helpful to consider the two selves discussed by Daniel Kahneman: The Remembering Self and the Experiencing Self.  

From this perspective, there are two types of happiness to consider:

  1. How happy you are in your life
  2. How happy you are with your life.  

It’s important to distinguish between these two types of selves and types of happiness because they are often at odds with each other. For example, the “remembering self” might be more concerned with meeting professional goals. The “experiencing self” might be more concerned with spending time with friends. While both selves are important and contribute to our perception of happiness, it can be helpful to pay attention to which self’s needs are being met.  

Your “experiencing self” might enjoy binge-watching the latest must-watch show, but the remembering self – the story you tell about your life – is probably not getting much out of that. It might be helpful to ask yourself if the activity is contributing to your overall well-being (like exercise and social connection) or if it’s contributing to the story you’ll be able to tell about your life, like working toward a long-term goal.  

The good news is, the above tips can be helpful in satisfying both selves. They can help increase our moment by moment enjoyment while also helping us build a life that can satisfy our remembering selves.

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