The Key To Happiness While Social Distancing

Video Chat

Happiness expert Gretchen Rubin on strategies to finding joy during isolation.

There are a lot of stressful factors weighing on us right now amid this global pandemic. But if there’s something that author Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project knows best, it’s that happy people might be more likely to do something about the world’s woes. In other words: Finding light during dark times is really important to our collective future.

This week, we’re talking to Gretchen about how to cope with the pandemic. Today, Rubin weighs in on how we can still find some happiness — while social distancing from many of our loved ones.

Wake-Up Call: Okay, a quick “Happiness 101.” How do you even define happiness? What are the most basic things you’ve learned about it?

Gretchen Rubin: I really don’t define it, because I think you can get very caught up in, “Is it joy, is it happiness? Is it peace? Is it satisfaction? Is it bliss? Is it hedonic well being?” And there’s no one size fits all solution. We can each only build a happy life on the foundation of our own nature, temperament, values, and interests.

But during this difficult time, all we can do is try to be as happy as we can be under the circumstances. You can take control by getting enough sleep, making sure that you eat, are exercising in some way, and aren’t wearing yourself out. Your physical experience is always going to influence your emotional experience. Overall, ancient philosophers and contemporary scientists agree that relationships are key to a happy life. We need to feel like we belong and have intimate bonds.

But given that relationships are so important to happiness, how can we cope when we’re unable to see friends and family members that make us happier?

Right now, everybody’s struggling. So there’s comfort in knowing that we’re all socially distancing because we care about each other. Coming together with other people can boost morale, but right now — that’s exactly what we’re not supposed to do.

So with our normal social patterns being disrupted, we need to mindfully either recreate or reinvent social connection.

What are the most effective ways to recreate social social connection?

Maybe start a group text with your friends, or learn to use apps like House Party or Zoom. We can take notes from different generations, who really do use social media differently to connect.

My 15-year-old uses Snapchat a lot with her friends and she really likes that as a tool. And my 20-year-old daughter is doing voice memos through texts. I’ve always said, “I don’t want to take the time to listen. I just want to read it.” But she says, “Everybody has time now. And it’s nice to hear other people’s voices.”

And then there are some people connecting through video games, or virtual book groups. I’ve heard of people doing a virtual St. Patrick’s Day party where they all got dressed up in green.

Is looking at social media just as effective as getting that direct digital connection, or do you think it’s better to reach out directly?

I think direct communication is best, but I do think that knowing what everybody’s up to is just fun and lightweight. And it can bring a sense of comfort to know that everybody’s going through this.

People love familiarity and mastery, but they need novelty and challenge, and it’s going to be hard to find that when we’re not out and about doing things.

And so I think social media can play a role in that. Obviously, it can be negative and can kind of get people riled up. But it can also be a wonderful source of humor, knowledge and a treasure trove of book, podcast and T.V. recommendations.

You’ve written that happiness, especially in our culture, can be defined as self-indulgent. This is an especially sensitive, turbulent time for many people as the coronavirus wreaks havoc on the world. What’s the importance of happiness right now?

Research shows, and I think common experience confirms, when people are happier — they’re actually more likely to turn out and think about the world’s problems. Happier people volunteer more. They give away more money. They’re more likely to vote. Sometimes people say if you want to be happy, all you want to do is drink margaritas on the beach. But actually happy people want to do things like distribute malaria nets.

We’re much more likely to serve the world if we come from a place of happiness ourselves.

So how can people who are in the position to give back while we’re social distancing?

Support people whose jobs are at risk. If you can afford to pay workers, like a dog walker, even when they’re not working, that’s a great way to give back.

And a lot of people are ordering in. Research suggests that ordering in food is safe, and it certainly supports a lot of workers and businesses that are threatened.

You can also help out elderly neighbors and family members with grocery runs. Furthermore, one of the best ways to make ourselves happiest, is to contribute to somebody else’s well-being.

This interview was edited by staff writer Amanda Svachula.

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