How to stay happy during the COVID-19 pandemic

Friday, March 13, 2020. For many of us, this was the last time we spent time at the office. We heard buzzwords like ‘pandemic’ and ‘virus’ but we knew nothing about the challenges the pandemic would bring to our mental health and happiness. 

Happiness is the state of feeling contentment. As the definition points out, happiness is a state. This means that happiness is not a trait or a permanent characteristic of our personality. Happiness is a state that can change according to circumstance. 

The happiness debate has transcended through time. Back in 300 B.C., Aristotle said that happiness is the best way to lead our life and find meaning and flourishing. In the 1700s, Jeremy Bentham pictured happiness, the experience of pleasure and lack of pain, as the ultimate human motive. For the last five decades, empirical scientists all around the world have been studying the determinants of happiness. 

By detecting what is the predictor of happiness that needs more attention in each situation, we can have happiness under our own control. 

THE SCIENCE OF HAPPINESS 

By far, income has been the most extensively studied predictor of happiness across different scientific disciplines. Is it how much money you make what makes you happy? Or how much more money you make compared to your colleagues? Both matter. Before your basic needs are met you would care about how much money you make. Beyond that point, you would start caring about how much money your peers make. 

Researchers also studied how macroeconomic factors shaped our happiness, and how money could bring us happiness. Studies show that we tend to be happier when the unemployment and the inflation rates are low and when we spend our money on others or donate it to charity as opposed to when we spend money on ourselves.

Leaving money aside, what other factors determine our happiness? Commuting fewer hours, spending time in green spaces, and having social connections are some of them. 

While all these factors are important, the COVID-19 pandemic has given us a lesson: social connection is the predictor of happiness that is suffering the most right now. The pandemic introduced changes to our daily lives, such as only meeting with our colleagues and friends online, that have detrimental consequences to our social connections and, thus, to our happiness.  

THE IMPORTANCE OF SOCIAL CONNECTION 

Humans are social species. We need to be surrounded by people, to share activities, to communicate, and to cooperate with one another. Human evolution holds our backs here. The human brain has evolved to live in community.

Social connection is not only a great predictor of happiness but also a special characteristic of the happiest people. In a study with 222 students, the happiest 10 percent of respondents reported having strong social relationships. Being surrounded by people we can rely on also seems to matter. Another study shows that the effect of social connection on happiness is quantitatively almost the same as a fivefold increase in income. 

Despite the well-known consequences that social connection has for happiness, when the pandemic started, governments recommended ‘social distancing’ to fight the virus. After the pandemic uncovered that our social connections were at risk , the advice shifted to ‘physical distancing’ to keep people away from one another but still socially connected. How to keep ourselves socially connected yet physically distant is something we can learn and put into practice to protect our happiness during this particular time. 

HOW TO IMPROVE SOCIAL CONNECTION DURING THE PANDEMIC

Newspapers and magazines have been offering advice about how to stay happy during the pandemic: walks, meditation, and taking care of ourselves are at the top of the list. Now, how can we create social connections during a pandemic that forces us to cut down on social interactions? Keeping in touch with family and friends and using the internet to do so are very valuable options. However, there are three more things that science encourages us to do.

1. Create small conversations

A study in France showed that the elderly who interacted with postmen reported fewer feelings of loneliness than those who did not interact with postmen. This study suggests that small conversations help. You can have a quick chat with the cashier at the supermarket or even with other customers. Don’t worry, nobody will notice it’s you, you’re wearing a mask!

2. Engage in activities that have social impact.

Other activities that indirectly connect us with other people are also important. A large body of research shows that activities that help others, for example donating to charity or volunteering, have a great positive impact on happiness and social ties. Spending some money on others is another great choice! Research shows that spending money on other people vs ourselves increases our happiness and our connection with the recipient. Maybe you can think of sending flowers to your grandma or muffins to a friend. 

3. Be grateful.

Research shows that people who express gratitude more often report greater happiness. Another study shows that being grateful strengthens our social relationships and promotes prosocial behavior. Remember to say “thank you” to your colleagues more often and you’ll see the difference!

The main changes that the pandemic has brought into our daily lives, such as simply working from home, are a serious threat to our social connections. Anything we can do to maintain and bolster our social connections will make a difference to our overall happiness, mental health, and daily joy. 

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