Whether you are directly or indirectly affected by the COVID-19 viral disease, you may be feeling down as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic. There are many solutions out there to help lift your spirits, but not all are backed by research in behavioral science, nor specifically by evidence from the study of happiness and well-being. However, Professor Laurie Santos at Yale University has synthesized the science of well-being into a course for students at Yale, a course for students on Coursera, and has most recently transformed her work into a digital health program on Pattern Health (where I am Head of Behavioral Science) that can be licensed by employers to provide to their employees.
The recommendations that stem from the science of well-being are useful in normal times, but essential in coronavirus times, where the collective hit to well-being is being felt across the globe. There are 9 major insights that can be taken from Santos’ Science of Well-Being program, which I present here to help improve your quarantine well-being. They are: practice your signature strengths, savor life, be grateful, be kind, stay socially connected while physically distanced, exercise regularly, sleep well, meditate, and feel rich with time.
1. Practice Your Signature Strengths
The concept behind practicing your signature strengths is simple. (What are you good at? Do more of that.) The VIA Institute on Character has developed its list of 24 “signature strengths,” which you can sift through to determine which you exhibit most strongly. Once you figure out what your signature strengths are (pick 3 or 4), all you need to do is practice those strengths. This can be as simple as noticing when you are using them already. Say, for example, one of your signature strengths is “humor.” Give yourself a pat on the back the next time you make light of a difficult situation. Or go a step further and put some energy into expressing your humor in new ways. A meta-analysis by Nicola Schutte and John Malouffon the positive psychology interventions pioneered by Martin Seligman shows that using your signature strengths in new ways can reduce depression and increase life satisfaction.
2. Savor Life
Now that you’re confined to your home, it is more convenient than ever to stop and smell the roses. This sort of slow appreciation of experiences makes us value things more highly, which in turn leads to an increase in happiness. Laurie Santos recommends employing techniques to enhance your savoring, including “sharing the experience with another person, thinking about how lucky you are to enjoy an amazing moment, keeping a souvenir or photo of that activity, and making sure you stay in the present moment the entire time.” So the next time you whip up that Dalgona coffee, sit with it as you savor one delectable spoonful at a time.
3. Be Grateful
Gratitude is one of those evergreen happiness-boosting strategies. You can give thanks for what you have, and not just at Thanksgiving. Saying grace at dinner each day is one way of integrating this behavior into your routine to make it a habit, but you don’t have to be religious to express gratitude. In my house, we have a daily secular ritual before dinner where my husband and I share our “gratefuls,” a mental list of the things we feel like appreciating at that moment. We each share the things that we are grateful for that day before we start eating, and we often are surprised at how lucky we find ourselves to be. This counting of “blessings” is shown to increase well-being. This is partially because our normal tendency is to get used to any situation, so the joy of owning a new bike, for example, diminishes over time (a phenomenon that researchers call hedonic adaptation), and the act of thinking through our many fortunes helps us re-appreciate the many things we are inclined to take for granted.
4. Be Kind
Kindness is probably the most underrated of virtues. But a little kindness can go a long way. As Amelia Earhart observed, “a single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees.” The infectious nature of kindness is seen in research where spending money on others can lead to a virtuous cycle of happiness and prosocial behavior: kindness begets kindness.
But you don’t have to spend money on others to spread kindness. In her research on the impact of small acts of kindness (such as donating blood, helping a friend, saying something kind to a stranger, visiting an elderly relative, writing a thank-you note, and so on), Sonja Lyubomirsky finds that intentional acts of kindness toward others can be the best way to make yourself happier. In the time of physical distancing, acts of kindness may take virtual forms, whether they are giving someone a compliment on social media, giving someone a call who you haven’t seen (or heard) in a while, or even sending someone a virtual gift card.
5. Stay Socially Connected
Physical distancing doesn’t mean you have to be socially separate. People all over the world are taking to digital means of communication. Video conferencing is up, for both work and personal purposes. You can schedule a daily video chat or call with someone you care about. Try picking a different friend or family unit each day of the week, but make sure to give yourself some alone time as well. It’s important to stay connected, but you can have too much of a good thing. Reports of “zoom fatigue” are on the rise, though fortunately researchers have found many ways to combat it.
One silver lining of the pandemic is that it appears to be bringing people closer together (not in terms of distance, but in the strength of their relationships). Indeed, research on acute stress and pain supports the observation that personal bonds have been fortified in the past months.
6. Exercise Regularly
Research shows that working out three times a week can be just as effective at treating depression as antidepressant medications, without the negative side effects. While it feels like the whole neighborhood has taken to a daily afternoon walk, physical activity has actually decreased as a result of lockdown (a decline of almost 50%). Given the importance of exercise to your well-being, you might want to design a quarantine fresh start to give yourself a much-needed physical activity boost. There are many ways to get exercise without your gym or running club, whether it’s an online fitness class in real-time or moving along with recorded videos, a (safely distanced) jog around the neighborhood, or even bouts of vigorous chores (such as my favorite laundry strategy where you sprint through the house to put your clothes away one piece at a time). You could even get your heart rate up with the newly popularized pastime of home gardening.
7. Sleep Well
Although exercise rates have suffered from the lockdown, sleep has actually improved in the past few months. A study from Evidation Health using aggregated data from Apple Watches, Fitbits and Garmin smartwatches shows that sleep has increased by about 20% nationwide. This is excellent news, as not getting enough sleep has many detrimental effects, from putting you at greater risk of injury and obesity to colorectal cancer and depression. If there is any new habit that you should continue when quarantine ends, sleeping enough is a good one to keep.
If there’s anything that the coronavirus pandemic has done to all of us, it has left us with a heightened sense of anxiety. Fortunately, one of the most effective ways to deal with anxiety is with mindfulness meditation. The loving-kindness meditation, in particular, is shown to make people happier. If you’re not a normal meditator, or you’re not quite on board with meditation culture, that’s just fine. You might relate to this person’s journey and changing relationship with meditation in the time of coronavirus. And you might even start to enjoy meditation, too.
9. Feel Rich With Time
Think of all the time you’re saving now that you don’t have to commute. (Plus, commuting was never very good for your well-being!) You’ve never been so time-rich! Research shows that prioritizing time over money leads to greater happiness and causes us to pursue social connection (which, as we know, also leads to greater happiness). Savor your time, and be grateful for the time affluence you now have in quarantine. Look, now you are also practicing savoring and gratitude!
You may have felt that the past few months have put you in a time warp, with time both speeding up and slowing down. To many, the month of March felt like a year, while April flew by (is it May already?!) This is because your brain processes novel experiences (like all those we encountered in March) in memory individually — each one a unique pearl — such that they feel longer, whereas your brain batches familiar experiences (see April) together so they feel as if they took less time in your memory. This is why time seems to move faster when you get older (not as many new experiences to encode), or why looking back on an activity-laden weekend getaway makes you feel like you impossibly packed it in (how did you fit all of that adventure into just two days?! It must have been a week!)
To get the most out of your time in quarantine, and keep the days from feeling like amorphous blobs, make sure to incorporate variety into your days. Work on a puzzle one day, and learn sign language the next. Whatever you do, don’t spend every day sitting in front of the television. And make sure to separate your work from personal time in order to mark the time.
Practice Makes Perfect
With these nine strategies, you can successfully improve your quarantine well-being. All you need to do is practice your signature strengths, savor life, be grateful, be kind, stay socially connected, exercise regularly, sleep well, meditate, and appreciate your time affluence. You won’t see all the benefits immediately, but with practice — and by being aware of your mood and behavior — you will reap the benefits of evidence-based self care.
Track Your Progress Over Time
To get the most out of practicing these strategies, there are two things you can do: self-monitor your behavior and passively collect your own data. Self-monitoring, or being aware of your actions over time, has several benefits, which is why Laurie Santos recommends daily journaling to track and raise your awareness about how each of these happiness-boosting strategies are going for you. Monitoring your behavior can be an effective means of behavior change, as with the correlation between self-monitoring and weight loss: people who monitor their weight loss behavior (logging their food intake, exercise or weight measurements) are more likely to be successful at losing weight.
On top of this self-awareness of your behavior, passively collecting data can be an easy way to better understand your patterns of behavior over time. And the value of this data only increases over time. For example, the data collected through wearables is currently being studied to develop algorithms that could in the future identify predictive patterns such as those in heart rate or skin temperature data, which could detect the signs of a virus (such as coronavirus) before you are even aware of any symptoms.
Structure Your Time To Put These Strategies to Work
The challenges presented by constant quarantine are unfamiliar and difficult, but we can look to the science of well-being for strategies that can help us make the most of this heavy situation. What’s marvelous about the program that Professor Santos created is that it’s been structured into a program that guides you through each of these strategies, making it easy to implement these practices in your daily life. But you can implement this on your own, too. All you need to do is start practicing and tracking your signature strengths, savoring, gratitude, kindness, social connections, exercise, sleep, mindfulness, and time affluence.