Katherine Nelson-Coffey, Ph.D.

Living Life Well

Staying Happy While Social Distancing

Suggestions for maintaining happiness during a crisis.

Posted Mar 16, 2020

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

As COVID-19 spreads around the globe, many people are being encouraged to practice social distancing. As I write this post on March 16, 2020, many K-12 schools have closed; employees are being encouraged to work remotely when possible; many colleges and universities have moved instruction online; dine-in options at restaurants are being limited; and the United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has recommended the cancelation of large events with 50 or more people. For up-to-date information and recommendations on protecting yourself and those around you, please see the CDC website.

When practiced collectively, social distancing efforts can be hugely beneficial to minimizing the spread of illnesses, but they can also take a toll on people’s happiness and mental health. In fact, social relationships are among the strongest predictors of happiness levels (Algoe, 2019). How can you stay happy while minimizing social interactions?  

Although it may seem frivolous to prioritize happiness during a crisis, we will still experience positive moments in our day-to-day lives, and there are several reasons why we should consider embracing those experiences. First, trying to be happy does not necessarily mean that we will become immune to the problems around us. In fact, happy people are more likely to care about society’s problems (Kushlev, Drummond, Heintzelman, & Diener, 2019).

By maintaining some level of happiness right now, we may be better able to draw the energy to combat this pandemic. Likewise, focusing on happiness does not mean denying or avoiding negative emotions. Second, positive experiences increase resilience during crises. In one study following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, people who experienced more positive emotions during this crisis were more resilient, experiencing fewer symptoms of mental illness in the aftermath of those attacks (Fredrickson, Tugade, Waugh, & Larkin, 2003).

Drawing from the science of positive psychology, I’ve gathered a few key recommendations to help you stay happy during this period of social isolation.

1. Establish a Routine. Whether you are working from home for the first time, entertaining children who are home from school, or both, establishing a routine for your days will help you maintain a sense of order amidst the chaos. Indeed, research suggests that people who have more consistent routines feel that their lives are more meaningful (Heintzelman & King, 2019).

Go to bed and wake up on your typical schedule. Eat regular meals at regular intervals. Exercise. Go for a morning walk. If your children are home, establish a routine for what your days will look like, including meals and snack times, time outside, and time for different activities (e.g., reading, creative activities, cleaning).

2. Practice Self-Compassion. Be kind to yourself. This is a time of great challenge around the globe, as people are learning how to do their jobs remotely for the first time, worrying about friends and loved ones, and for many, juggling childcare at the same time.

The next few months may look very different than what any of us anticipated. I had big goals for my own research productivity this spring, plans for family vacations, and ideas for improving my courses. Rather than beating yourself up for what you should be doing or how you should be handling this crisis, try practicing self-compassion by accepting that you may not accomplish what you anticipated and forgiving yourself if you act out of character.

Self-compassion includes three elements: (a) practicing understanding towards oneself rather than criticism, (b) recognizing failure as part of the human experience, and (c) being mindful of painful thoughts and feelings rather than overidentifying with them (Barnard & Curry, 2011). This website has some wonderful resources, including guided meditations and journaling prompts for incorporating self-compassion into your daily routine.

3. Express Gratitude. Even in the midst of crisis, we can almost always think of small blessings in our day-to-day lives. Counting your blessings may help to shift your focus and lessen your worries. Indeed, several studies suggest that expressing gratitude enhances positive emotions, like love and joy (Dickens, 2017). When expressed in the context of a close relationship, gratitude also serves to strengthen our close relationships (Algoe, 2012), which may be especially helpful as we keep our physical distance from others.

You have several options for incorporating gratitude into your daily life. One option is to count your blessings by writing a list of three things you have to be grateful for right now. For example, I am grateful for a job that allows me to work remotely, that my family is healthy and safe, and that I have enough food to stay home for the time being.

You can also practice gratitude to specific people in your life by writing them a letter of gratitude. Did your neighbor pick up some supplies for you on a trip to the grocery store? Maybe your partner has been especially supportive during this difficult time. Or maybe you’re feeling grateful for something unrelated to the current crisis. Expressing these feelings in a letter can be a great way to improve your mood.

4. Be Kind and Compassionate to Others. Sometimes expressing gratitude can make people feel guilty for the good things they have in their lives (Layous et al., 2017), but you can channel those feelings to support the greater good by being kind and compassionate with others. Shifting your focus to other people can increase your own positive emotions (Nelson, Layous, Cole, & Lyubomirsky, 2016).  

The world needs our kindness and compassion right now, and we have lots of opportunities to be kind. Pick up some supplies for a neighbor or loved one who is vulnerable. Lend emotional support to a friend who is a health care worker.

Leave a big tip when you pick up take-out from your favorite restaurant. Buy a gift card from a local business to help them get through a steep decline in business. Send that letter of gratitude you wrote to your loved ones. Even practicing social distancing is an opportunity for kindness because you are reducing the likelihood that a vulnerable person will become ill.

5. Seek Opportunities to Connect. Close relationships are one of the strongest predictors of happiness (Algoe, 2019). As we spend more and more time at home, finding opportunities to connect with friends, family, and loved ones will be important.

Without happy hours or coffee dates, you may have to get creative in finding opportunities to connect. Play a card game with your partner. Chat with a friend or family member on the phone or FaceTime. Hold a virtual happy hour with a group of friends. Send messages and photos to loved ones. Talk to your neighbors (from a distance).

6. Take a Break. It can be very tempting to check the news and scroll social media for updates, but overdoing it can heighten anxiety. Be mindful as you gather information and know when to take a break.

Practicing mindful media consumption might involve setting aside a specific amount of time (e.g., 30 minutes) for looking at the news (from reputable sites), and then turning it off and finding a different activity to occupy your time. An activity that consumes your attention—a flow activity—such as reading a book, playing a game, or engaging a hobby will help you cope during a period of uncertainty (Rankin, Walsh, & Sweeny, 2019).

In sum, as we continue to cope with disruptions to our typical way of life and worries about the spread of COVID-19, we will have opportunities for positive moments. I hope these suggestions help you capitalize on those moments and muster the resources to move forward.


Algoe, S. B. (2012). Find, remind, and bind: The functions of gratitude in everyday relationships. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 6(6), 455–469. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1751-9004.2012.00439.x

Algoe, S. B. (2019). Positive interpersonal processes. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 28(2), 183–188. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721419827272

Barnard, L. K., & Curry, J. F. (2011). Self-compassion: Conceptualizations, correlates, & interventions. Review of General Psychology, 15(4), 289–303. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0025754

Dickens, L. R. (2017). Using gratitude to promote positive change: A series of meta-analyses investigating the effectiveness of gratitude interventions. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 39(4), 193–208. https://doi.org/10.1080/01973533.2017.1323638

Fredrickson, B. L., Tugade, M. M., Waugh, C. E., & Larkin, G. R. (2003). What good are positive emotions in crises? A prospective study of resilience and emotions following the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11th, 2001. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 365–376. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.84.2.365

Heintzelman, S. J., & King, L. A. (2019). Routines and meaning in life. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45(5), 688–699. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167218795133

Kushlev, K., Drummond, D. M., Heintzelman, S. J., & Diener, E. (2019). Do happy people care about society’s problems? Journal of Positive Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2019.1639797

Layous, K., Sweeny, K., Armenta, C., Na, S., Choi, I., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2017). The proximal experience of gratitude. PLoS ONE, 12(7), e0179123. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0179123

Nelson, S. K., Layous, K., Cole, S. W., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2016). Do unto others or treat yourself? The effects of prosocial and self-focused behavior on psychological flourishing. Emotion, 16(6), 850–861. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000178

Rankin, K., Walsh, L. C., & Sweeny, K. (2019). A better distraction: Exploring the benefits of flow during uncertain waiting periods. Emotion, 19(5), 818–828. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000479