It’s Possible to Find Happiness in Times of Social Isolation

Research on happiness shows how to overcome the challenges of social distancing.

Posted Mar 28, 2020

With the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, and its potentially terrifying consequences for your life and the lives of others close to you, it may seem impossible to find a path toward happiness, if only for a few moments at a time.

Although the news continues to focus on the grim progression of the virus, there are occasional bright spots in the reporting, such as residents of several Italian cities coming out on their balconies to sing or Americans cheering healthcare workers from their windows and front porches. You may be on FaceTime or Zoom with friends and family, helping to maintain some type of interaction between now and the day you can be physically back together. Are these enough to keep your spirits up during these difficult times?

Insight into the role of social interaction and happiness comes from a large-scale 2019 study of happiness and social behavior by Ramon Llull University’s (Spain) Jordi Quoidbach along with Maxime Taquet of Boston Children’s Hospital (2019) and others. Although conducted before the 2020 pandemic, with the widespread adoption of social distancing around the world, its findings contain some suggestions for how your relationships with others can foster positive emotions and reduce negative emotions.

Using data on everyday happiness and social interactions from over 30,000 participants studied for over a month, the international team begin their investigation by questioning the findings of “dozens of studies employing a wide range of methods [that] point to the general conclusion that being with other people makes us happy” (p. 1111).

Indeed, the idea that social interaction is necessary in order to remain happy suggests that quarantining, isolation, and social distancing would condemn millions of people around the world to weeks, if not months, of plummeting happiness levels. However, Quoidbach et al. note that the relationship is not so clear-cut. When you’re happy, you may be more likely to seek out the company of others, flipping the happiness-interaction equation on its head. Furthermore, as the authors note, “decades of research on coping and attachment have demonstrated that people are particularly likely to seek contact with others in times of distress rather than happiness” as “mood-repair strategies” (p. 112).

These findings can be reconciled, the authors suggest, by the “hedonic flexibility principle,” which states that when you’re unhappy, you try to feel better by seeking people out, but when you’re happy, you actually are willing to sacrifice social contact to enable you to spend time on your own in order to pursue long-term goals. In other words, when you're in a good mood, you can give up short-term goals (having fun) for the benefit of a long-term goal that will bring self-improvement such as reading, exercising, or excelling at a hobby.

Based on the hedonic flexibility principle, although it might make you happy to be with the people you care about now, if you can sustain a positive mood, you’ll be more likely to do what’s needed to help yourself and others remain virus-free. Indeed, in a related article, University of Buffalo's Shira Gabriel and colleagues (2020) discuss the role of “collective effervescence” in “creating the sacred from the profane.” According to this concept, if you see your individual efforts as contributing to a better social outcome, you’ll be able to take inspiration from the small sacrifices you make in your own daily life.

Returning now to the data from the Quoidbach et al. study, the authors tested a sample of 30,793 adults consisting of mostly French participants (65% female) averaging 27 years of age (with most between 17 and 37). The research team asked the sample members to download a widely advertised app in France called “58 seconds.” Volunteers who read about the study in the news used the app to record their social interactions throughout the day, when prompted, during which they rated their immediate happiness on a 1-100 scale and whether, and with whom, they were interacting socially.

The findings supported the counterintuitive proposition of hedonic flexibility, showing that it was the happier people at time 1 who spent less time with others at time 2. When people were unhappy, they were more likely to want to spend time with others, but not just any others. During those blue periods, the participants chose to be with friends, other family members, children, and siblings. There was little effect on happiness of spending time with acquaintances, parents, and coworkers.

Interestingly, previous happiness levels didn’t predict spending time with a romantic partner, although being with a romantic partner did increase happiness. There was a tendency for happy people to spend time with acquaintances or strangers (such as going out to neighborhood gathering places), but those interactions actually had a negative effect on happiness once the interaction began. You may feel more sociable when you're happy, but the time you spend with people you don't know that well could potentially bring your mood down a few notches.

Conversely, when it comes to social isolation, the authors conclude that “although solitude can increase loneliness and negative affect, it may also offer opportunities for concentration, renewal, autonomy, and spirituality, which might be adaptive” (p. 1119). However, you might be thinking by now that the problem isn’t what happens when you’re happy. What can you do when you’re unhappy to be willing to give up what the authors call the “short-term hedonic costs” (p. 1119)?

Thus, happiness may lead you to be able to see the value in contributing to the collective good, or “effervescence,” but in order to get to that happy place while in isolation, you’ll need to turn to the mood repair strategies at your disposal. If you’re physically sharing a space with your romantic partner, close friends, or family, you’ll have an advantage because they’ll be there for you when the isolation gets to you. If not, however, and you are feeling alone and isolated, you’ll need to get up the energy and resolve to connect through the online route.

Going beyond the obvious online interaction opportunities of virtual face-to-face communication, also consider dusting off your “Words with Friends” app, and getting involved in some healthy and mood-boosting competition. Intersperse your newsfeed with those uplifting stories and stay away from the rant messages on social media. If you’ve been an active gym member, use online apps to start up some workout challenges. See if your gym is willing to offer a subscription to online workout videos. Social, mental, and physical activities can boost your mood so that you’re willing to make that collective sacrifice of keeping your physical distance from the rest of the world.

To sum up, isolation from others may feel unnatural to your lifestyle but it need not condemn you to prolonged periods of unhappiness and distress. Seeing the long-term social good in your social distancing can help you find the fulfillment you’ll need to get through today’s challenges.

References

Gabriel, S., Naidu, E., Paravati, E., Morrison, C. D., & Gainey, K. (2020). Creating the sacred from the profane: Collective effervescence and everyday activities. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 15(1), 129–154. doi: 10.1080/17439760.2019.1689412

Quoidbach, J., Taquet, M., Desseilles, M., de Montjoye, Y.-A., & Gross, J. J. (2019). Happiness and social behavior. Psychological Science, 30(8), 1111–1122. doi: 10.1177/0956797619849666