Are you ok?
If there’s one question that defines pandemic life more than any other, it’s this one. And for many people right now, the answer is “No.” According to researchers who analyze emotions expressed on Twitter, 2020 is the saddest year in the 13 years since their study began, setting multiple “saddest day ever” records. In June, a survey conducted by the CDC found that 40 percent of adults are suffering from adverse mental health symptoms, including depressive and anxiety disorders, trauma, increased substance use, and thoughts of suicide. (Among essential workers, this number was 54 percent.) Some are calling this a second pandemic, one that threatens to have lingering effects long after the virus is under control.
It goes without saying that if you’re experiencing severe mental health symptoms that strain your ability to cope, you should seek help — a therapist, counselor, helpline, or trusted friend. But if what you’re contending with is more of a low-key pandemic blues, then it might be helpful to expand your repertoire of pick-me-ups — quick things you can count on for a little lift.
While these steps aren’t a panacea for the cabin fever, touch starvation, or Zoom fatigue that have become commonplace during quarantine life, they can help break the downward spiral of a bad mood, offering a bit of relief, even joy. I’ve focused intentionally here on small things, ones that can be done in a few minutes. They’re not going to change the course of your life, but they might change the course of your day.
It’s easy to overlook these small things or dismiss them as unimportant. But because emotions tend to work in positive feedback loops, meaning that like begets like, a few small moments of joy in a day can have a meaningful impact. They can be a tool for increasing your resilience, a kind of pressure-release valve for the stresses of daily life. You can also think of them like antibodies that can buffer you against secondhand stress, the phenomenon by which you “catch” the stress of others close to you.
Note: Want to print these ideas and keep them handy? These tips and more can be found in my resource “50 Ways to Create Joy Every Day,” which you can download for free right here.
By now we all know that being out in nature makes us feel good. But it’s not just the fresh air and break from your devices. Nature quiets the part of the brain that can’t help sweating the small stuff (also known as the subgenual prefrontal cortex) reducing stress and restoring our ability to concentrate. Some studies show we need as little as ten minutes in a natural setting to get the benefits, so even if you don’t think you have time for this one, you probably do. And take note: research shows we forget how good we’ll feel after a walk in the park, so give this one a try even if you don’t feel like it!
Research has shown that our expressions can influence our emotions. The mechanism for this is called the facial feedback hypothesis, and posits that the muscle contractions involved in certain emotions influence our minds in an unconscious way, triggering the experience of the emotion. (Note: some readers may be aware that a replication study of the seminal facial feedback research failed, but a subsequent meta-analysis of 138 studies shows that the effect is subtle, yet significant.)
So when you’re feeling down, try “faking it ’till you feel it” by smiling, doing laughter yoga exercises, or looking at photos of yourself taken at a particularly joyful time. You might also try chanting a mantra with “smile vowels,” such as the long e sound, which curve your lips upward, and have been shown to trigger positive facial feedback in studies. And if you tend to frown while working at your computer, you can try putting a pencil between your teeth, which curves your lips into a smile. (Just avoid putting the pencil between your lips, which curves your mouth downward and has the opposite effect.)
Jump for joy
The photographer Philippe Halsman took photos of everyone who was anyone in his day, from Marilyn Monroe to Audrey Hepburn to Richard Nixon, and he always made them jump. He believed that jumping helped people drop their masks and release the joyful self inside. Try it: it’s nearly impossible to be grumpy while leaping through the air!
Why does this work? It’s not exactly clear, but one mechanism may be that jumping expands our body posture, lifting our head up and opening up the chest. Similar to the way that our brains take note of our facial expressions, our bodies take cues from our posture, and an open, expansive, exuberant body cues joy. To get this effect, jump on the bed, bounce on a trampoline, or do jumping jacks.
Sit in the sunshine
Sunlight helps regulate your Circadian rhythm, giving you a natural energy boost. And it elevates serotonin levels, a neurotransmitter that is critical in balancing mood. Even before the pandemic, research showed that Americans spend an average of 87 percent of their time indoors, and another 6 percent in cars, so many of us do not get nearly enough sunlight to help us feel alert and upbeat.
Getting outside is an obvious way to take advantage of the sunshine (don’t forget your sunscreen), but you can also get more daylight exposure by moving your workspace nearer to a window, or taking a break in a sunny corner of your home.
Wear something bright
Yes, in these times it can be hard to find the motivation to dress up. (Earlier this week I put on jeans and then an hour later changed back into leggings, so believe me, I get it.) But on tough days, like the one earlier this week when the baby was awake for three hours in the middle of the night, I make a point to put on a bright top, a colorful scarf, or a little red lipstick. When I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror wearing a vibrant color, I look more alive, which boosts my energy and makes me feel ever-so-slightly more cheerful.
This one seems so simple, but it works. When you lift your gaze, it opens up your posture and allows more light into your eyes, two things that can help to improve your mood. And because the upward direction is often associated with joy, looking up increases the likelihood you’ll see something joyful, like a bird, butterfly, or a whimsical shape in the clouds.
One way to do this? If you’re outside, keep a tally of chimneys, spires, or weathervanes as you walk around. And if you’re indoors, try positioning a mobile or a hanging plant in a part of your home you use frequently to help raise your gaze.
Make yourself feel small
It sounds counterintuitive, but feeling small can actually be soothing. Research on the emotion awe has found that when we are in the presence of something vast and beautiful, it can trigger a feeling called the “small self,” which puts our problems in perspective and raises our sense of connectedness to other people and the universe as a whole.
To feel more awe, try looking at the stars, a stand of tall trees, or a particularly beautiful building, such as a cathedral. You could also try looking at aerial photographs, looking down on the Earth from above, or images shot from outer space.
Cheer someone else up
Mark Twain wrote, “The best way to cheer yourself is to try to cheer somebody else up.” Focusing on other people’s emotions is a surefire way to take the focus off of your own. And thinking about ways to cheer someone, whether through a kind gesture, a funny video or joke, or a reminder of a shared memory, not only gives you the joy of giving to someone else, it also can provide a conduit to the same joy for yourself. (For example, spending 15 minutes looking for a hilarious panda video for yourself might feel like wasting time, but when you’re sending it to someone else, it’s a worthwhile investment in their joy.)
And if you’re successful in sparking someone else’s joy, the benefits compound. Emotions are contagious, so you’ll be in a prime position to feel their joy boomerang right back to you.
Do you have a quick pick-me-up that never fails to boost your mood? Please share it in the comments!