How to Hold on to Happiness When Your World Collapses
Tips for four weeks of self-isolation: An evidence-based guide.
Posted Mar 26, 2020
During the past two decades, psychological research has revealed that the key to a happy life is to experience bursts of positive emotion throughout the day.
Positive emotions don’t just make us feel good, they broaden our horizons and build our social, physical, and intellectual skills. An avalanche of studies has shown that happy moments and uplifts—no matter what their source—lead us to be more sociable and likable, more productive and energetic, more active and resourceful, more healthy and resilient, and more helpful, friendly and creative.
Now that the whole world is self-isolating and social distancing, with perpetual worries, uncertainties, and disruptions in our daily lives, it is even more important that we generate a stream of positive emotion boosts throughout the day. But how do we do it?
I considered describing in detail dozens of empirical studies that hold implications for how to weather these trying times and maintain and even increase our happiness. Instead, I offer a simple evidence-based four-week guide, which suggests three activities that we can try every week that will leave us feeling happier, healthier, and more uplifted during these trying, crisis-filled times.
If you enjoy and benefit from these suggestions, share your favorites via video chat, phone, text, or social media or create your own variations and tell me about them.
Step 1: Practice gratitude.
It’s not easy to be grateful during challenging times, but gratitude is one of the best antidotes to negative emotions like fear and dismay. One step you can take is to keep a gratitude log or journal: When you wake up in the morning, jot down a few things that you’re grateful for that day. It could be anything—from the mundane (your flowers are finally in bloom) to the magnificent (your child’s first steps). And if there’s a particular individual who has been supportive or helpful to you during the COVID-19 outbreak, don’t wait to express your appreciation. Call them today and thank them. You will feel not only happier and more connected, but also inspired to be a better person.
Step 2: Be optimistic.
This is not easy, but whenever possible during the day, consider the bright side of a situation, look for the silver lining in the adversity today, and notice what’s right rather than what’s wrong. Once a week, you might also like to jot down in a journal your dreams for the best possible future for yourself—whether in one year or in 10 years. You’ll be surprised how uplifted you feel.
Step 3: Appreciate your senses.
Once every day, make a special effort to pay close attention to your senses. You can do this in any number of ways—appreciating the sweetness of a piece of ripe fruit, enjoying the smell of freshly cut grass, or really listening to every note in your favorite piece of music—whatever is right for you. To sharpen your perceptions, you might want to try to block out some of your other senses once in a while—perhaps once this week you could close your eyes while eating your lunch and get a lift from really experiencing the flavors.
Step 4: Simply make a move.
Exercise is really important for improving your mood but you don’t have to go for a run or hit the home gym to feel the benefits. Try jumping up and down on your bed, sprinting up the stairs or dancing when you have a moment to yourself—anything that gets you moving will give you a little lift.
Step 5: Do acts of kindness.
This week, do good things for others—big and small. It will lift your mood and spirits—and could even boost your immune system—when you come through for someone or make their day. Your kind acts could be for both strangers (e.g., let the worn-out dad in front of you at the check-out line) and people you know (read a newspaper to an elderly neighbor over phone or video).
Step 6: Become absorbed in what you do.
When you're so fully engaged in what you're doing that you don’t notice the passage of time, you are in a state called "flow.” Try to have at least two “flow" experiences during the course of the week, “lose” yourself if only for a couple of minutes and feel the benefits to your mood—whether it's completing a project at work, playing with your kids, or enjoying a hobby.
Step 7: Laugh and smile.
Every single day, ensure that you laugh and smile once. It’s that simple. Watch a funny movie, share a hilarious meme with a friend, remember an embarrassing story—just laugh and smile.
Step 8: Show genuine interest in others.
Research shows that having rewarding personal relationships provides one of the strongest boosts to mood and happiness. One way to nurture your relationships is to take a sincere interest in what people are going through in their lives. Once a day, when you are talking on the phone or via video conference, ask the person what they’re up to and share some things that are meaningful to you as well. Or, before rushing to begin a work meeting, ask the person or the group something about themselves. You may be pleasantly surprised by what you find.
Step 9: Reminisce.
It is easy to forget how to be happy in our ever more stressful lives, especially today. Once this week, take a moment to think about one of the happiest days you ever had—perhaps your favorite birthday, the day you got a puppy, your wedding day—and replay it in your mind as though you were rewinding a videotape and watching it back. Think about the events of the day, remember what happened in as much detail as you can and recapture the way it uplifted your spirits. Don’t analyze this happy moment—just replay and enjoy it.
Step 10: Transport yourself with your senses.
The senses have the power to transport us to a different place and time, and to the happy moments we want to remember. The sense of smell, in particular, is closely linked to nostalgia and can take you to a happy memory instantly. On at least one occasion this week, use your senses and your imagination to transport yourself to somewhere happy. Don’t just stand in line at the grocery—breathe in the fresh scent of the flower display and be transported into the great outdoors, or think about the best ice cream you ever tasted until it’s almost like you are eating it.
Step 11: Connect with someone.
This week, put aside as much time as you can—it needn’t be a lot—for enjoying one of your personal relationships. Whether you spend some quality time with your partner, play a game with your kids, take lunch with your boss over video chat, or track down an old friend over social media—this is a powerful way to increase your happiness.
Step 12: Celebrate your successes.
Your final step is to celebrate your experiences over the past four weeks. It was likely challenging and stressful for many reasons, and you made it. At the end of the final week, think about which of the new things you have done over the past month had the biggest effect on your overall mood and spirits. What were your favorite positive emotion boosts or the moments when you felt happy, healthy, and uplifted?
Armenta, C. N., Fritz, M., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2017). Functions of positive emotions: Gratitude as a motivator of self-improvement and positive change. Emotion Review, 9, 183-190.
Bolier, L., Haverman, M., Westerhof, G. J., Riper, H., Smit, F., & Bohlmeijer, E. (2013). Positive psychology interventions: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled studies. BMC Public Health, 13, 119.
Diener, E., Sandvik, E., & Pavot, W. (2009). Happiness is the frequency, not the intensity, of positive versus negative affect. In E. Diener (Ed.), Social indicators research series: Vol. 39. Assessing well-being: The collected works of Ed Diener (p. 213–231). Springer Science + Business Media.
Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B., & Norton, M. I. (2008). Spending money on others promotes happiness. Science, 319, 1687-1688.
Fredrickson , B. L. (2013). Positive emotions broaden and build. In E. A. Plant & P. G. Devine (Eds.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (pp. 1-53; Vol. 47). New York: Elsevier.
Layous, K., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2014). The how, why, what, when, and who of happiness: Mechanisms underlying the success of positive interventions. In J. Gruber & J. T. Moscowitz (Eds.), Positive emotion: Integrating the light sides and dark sides (pp. 473-495). New York: Oxford University Press.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The how of happiness: A scientific approach to getting the life you want. New York: Penguin Press.
Lyubomirsky, S., King, L. A., & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect. Psychological Bulletin, 131, 803-855.
Margolis, S., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2020). Experimental manipulation of extraverted and introverted behavior and its effects on well-being. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 149(4), 719-731.
Nelson-Coffey, S. K., Fritz, M. M., Lyubomirsky, S., & Cole, S. (2017). Kindness in the blood: A randomized controlled trial of the gene regulatory impact of prosocial behavior. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 81, 8-13.
Nelson, S. K., Layous, K., Cole, S., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2016). Do unto others or treat yourself?: The effects of prosocial and self-focused behavior on psychological flourishing. Emotion, 16, 850-861.