Finding Happiness while Social Distancing

Photo by Kate Trifo on Unsplash

“However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man’s abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace.”
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Social Distancing is Tough

The other day I went into my local bakery to pick up some bread and tasty croissants, as I do most weeks. A local couple owns the place and they are both master bakers. You can imagine how soft and delicious the bread is, to say nothing of the croissants. The place is quaint and tiny in a brick building downtown a few miles from home. Going in there and chatting with the proprietors is part of my routine. The small talk about this and that helps give you a sense of the town and how everyone is doing.

Well this last time I went in we got to talking about all the stress and responsibility we feel to not be vectors for the virus. It is a weight I think we all feel right now and the stress that goes along with it is tangible everywhere. I mean we are humans and humans are social, but lately it seems to have gotten harder to remain disciplined. So, as I do, I got curious and started doing some reading.

Being Social Makes Us Happy

No bones about it, for the typical person being in isolation doesn’t produce a very rosy feeling. If it did, I’m quite certain prison wouldn’t be the terrifying prospect that it is.

In fact there are a number of well respected studies that show people with rich social connections enjoy a greater degree of happiness than one would predict, all else equal. I’m sure you can think back to the last time you were out with your friends having fun and how that made you feel. For me, the last real bit of fun I had before COVID-19 was going out on the town with my wife for our anniversary. We ate, we drank, we laughed and we socialized. It was great!

But what can we do, now that COVID-19 has us so limited?

The Paradox of Happiness

Think back to the last time you made a commitment to eat better, or exercise more. It was probably for New Years or after a good gathering of friends and family. You probably had a few beers and an extra helping of dessert over laughter with the ones you love. That’s pretty much the typical holiday experience for most Americans. Well, it turns out there are some psychological underpinnings to this behavior.

According to one study, we are actually more likely to pursue self-isolation for the sake of personal improvement when we are already happy than when we are not. Our tendency is to reach out to people we care about when we are sad or stressed. Be honest, how many of you are talking more to your family now than before COVID-19 hit? I know I am. So, it may be that in this depressed state we find ourselves in we are now more likely to seek each other out.

No Good Answer

The logic goes that if you can elevate your happiness you are less likely to seek out others for comfort and more likely to focus on self-improvement. So, if that is true than what can we do to increase our happiness in order to stave off our urge to cling to one another at exactly the moment when it is the most dangerous? I recommend considering a few options:

  • Continue to get daily exercise.
  • Write a letter to your friends expressing your gratitude for having them in your life (imagine the joy that will bring them). If you know me, send me your address so I can write you.
  • Volunteer – many poll stations still need people to count ballots, or better yet donate blood.
  • Finally wake-up every morning and tell yourself one thing you are going to do once we have a vaccine for COVID-19.

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