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4 Ways to Feel Happier—Even During Challenging Times

Many people feel overwhelmed by fear of COVID and anxiety about the election.

For the last few years, I’ve given a talk pretty regularly to audiences around the country on The Science of Happiness. This talk basically distills lots of empirical research about both myths about the predictors of happiness—it’s not about how much money you make—and provides practical strategies for finding more happiness—spending time in nature, engaging in regular exercise, building close relationships. And audience members regularly raise thoughtful questions: how much do genes matter? What role do pets play? Does religion influence happiness?

But over the last few weeks, the question I get more and more from those who hear me speak (virtually) is the same: how in the world can I be happy these days? Audience members share their very real sense of isolation when they can’t spend time with family members and friends. And they describe an intense feeling of anxiety about the upcoming election.

So, is it possible to feel happier these days? It is. And here’s what scientific research tells us we can do, even during these challenging times.

First, disconnect. If you feel anxious when talking about particular topics—the growing cases of coronavirus in your community, political polls, disputed election results—protect yourself. How? Turn off the news, avoid conversations, stop doom-strolling on social media. Protecting your mental and physical health is important, and if you know that certain topics make you feel anxious, avoid them. Think of it like protecting yourself from second-hand smoke.

Element5 Digital/Pexels
Source: Element5 Digital/Pexels

Second, get involved. Most of us feel worse in situations in which we lack control—but the good news is, we actually can do something right now to make a difference. If you feel anxious about the upcoming election, you can donate money to a political party or cause, volunteer as a poll worker, or make calls on behalf of a candidate. My family is writing letters encouraging people to vote (through the non-partisan group Vote Forward).

Third, give. We’ve all heard about random acts of kindness. But did you know that these small and unplanned good deeds—buying coffee for the next person in line in the drive-in, holding the door open for a person carrying bags or pushing a stroller, or running an errand for a neighbor—increase your own happiness? A 2020 study in the journal Psychological Bulletin found that random acts of kindness are an even stronger predictor of overall well-being that more sustained and scheduled types of giving, such as volunteering. One of the best ways to give right now is to donate to your local food bank to help the many families who are struggling with food insecurity during these hard times.

Philip Ackermann/Pexels
Source: Philip Ackermann/Pexels

Fourth, exercise. It’s no secret that regular exercise is a great way to improve psychological and physical well-being. And a fascinating new study reveals that aerobic exercise actually increases a chemical in the brain that makes it easier to cope with stressful events. This study was done with mice—their exercise consisted of running on a wheel in their cage—but its findings suggest that people could experience the same benefits. In other words, engaging in regular exercise prior to Nov. 3 is probably a good idea for us all.