April 23, 2020
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How to embrace kindness and gratitude in the time of COVID-19

An expert on human happiness says staying connected and focusing on even the smallest bits of positivity can help you cope during stressful times.

Photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash

The COVID-19 crisis is unprecedented and tumultuous, and our emotions are following suit. Many people are understandably struggling with mental health. We’re feeling sad, stressed, and helpless to fix the situation. How can we feel better?

In January, we spoke with Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, and an expert on human happiness. In her research, she looks at the power of behaviors that increase happiness, like performing random acts of kindness or expressing gratitude. We checked back in with Sonja to see how people can practice kindness and gratitude during these difficult times.

You can learn more about Sonja and her work through her website or by following her on Twitter @slyubomirsky. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Hi Sonja, as a happiness expert, what would you recommend for people to do to maintain their happiness levels? Should people embrace acts of kindness even more? Is that possible during these circumstances?

I’ve been asked this of course repeatedly. I think the same kinds of strategies that work to make people happier and increase positive emotions and increase meaning, are the same ones that I think are relevant today. I think in times of adversity, stress, trauma, or uncertainty, we actually probably need those strategies even more. So I don’t really think that anything’s different. It’s not like, “Oh well, because of what’s happening now, we should do more gratitude and less kindness.”

"I really think that feeling connected is the key to happiness and is what makes life worth living." — Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky

I really think that feeling connected is the key to happiness and is what makes life worth living. It’s very important for us to stay connected. The truth is that people are really doing that. We have some new data that we’re about to submit for publication that shows that people have not shown as big a drop in the sense of connection as we would expect, given the circumstances. People are connecting over video, calling much more. They’re reconnecting with old friends. Human beings have a need to belong, so we really need to satisfy that sense of feeling like we belong and we can connect to others. Anything that helps us strengthen and maintain our relationships and the sense of connection is really important.

I study mostly gratitude and kindness and I think this is more important than ever. I think everything that I write about, like what helps people maintain and improve happiness during normal circumstances, applies even more so or certainly equally so to these trying times.

There are behaviors that are scientifically proven to increase happiness, like performing random acts of kindness and expressing gratitude. Is there a reduced effect when these things are done over digital channels?

That’s a really good question. My lab has actually been interested in that question for a while, which is very relevant now: The differences between face-to-face versus digital kinds of interactions. So we actually have done a couple of studies already and there’s some, basically the data that would say the bottom line is yeah, it’s better to have face-to-face conversations, which is not surprising.

We did a study, for example, where we asked people to either engage in kind acts or just in more social interactions every week for four weeks, and they either had to be in person or digital. What happened was a lot of people just didn’t do the digital ones. I think they found it hard to think of how to be kind remotely. You can, but it was harder to think of ways, at least before the pandemic happened. When we looked to see what people actually did, we found a much greater sense of connection and positive emotion associated with anything that was face-to-face. And interactions that were more closer to face-to-face were better. Video calling was more connecting and more positive than a phone call, which was more positive than interaction on social media.

Human beings basically are hardwired to interact face-to-face, and to read all those cues. Many people find that Zoom meetings are a lot more exhausting than face-to-face meetings. There’s something about your brain having to read all those cues and just put more effort into paying attention, because it’s over a screen. My general take-home message is that digital interactions are impoverished, relative to face-to-face interactions, but they’re still rewarding. They’re still beneficial, so we should still do them.

I’ve read recommendations that people should set up routines, like a specific work-from-home routine. But I also know in our last conversation, you said that routine can dull the impact of happiness boosting behaviors. How should people balance routine with randomness?

That’s kind of a hard question, actually, because there are different kinds of routines or habits—some that are really beneficial, some that are not. There are some routines or habits that human beings want. We want the ritual of holidays and the structure of how we do certain things at certain times of day.

So those routines, I think, are beneficial, because without them we can feel a loss of control or uncertainty. You need those lines drawn. But then there’s other kinds of routine, structure, or habit that are not so good.

If you do acts of kindness the same way each time, you’re going to stop getting a boost from it. It’s like if you see the same movie over and over again. I would say that certain kinds of routine are good, but are really more like a meta structure on your day. But you don’t want to be doing the same thing all the time. So have a virtual happy hour every Sunday night, but vary what you talk about or who you’re doing the happy hour with.

That makes sense, ensuring there’s a balance between the two. While this series is called the Kindness Chronicles, I would like to delve into the gratitude aspect of your studies. How can people practice gratitude when so many upsetting things are happening?

There’s research on people who have cancer, for example, and how do they practice gratitude—it’s difficult. When an adverse event happens, it’s really hard to describe it and you have to spend all your mental energy just processing it. It’s okay to feel really terrible, despondent, or anxious. Usually, gratitude comes a little later when you can see the big picture.

Right now, unfortunately the big picture is really bad. It’s almost the opposite from standard bad events, and people might feel worse when they look at the big picture now. But just do it in little pieces. You focus on the little things. A lot of gratitude exercises are about focusing on the little things as you get through your day.

At my lab, we have a thing where each week, we go around and share something positive from last week that happened. One of my students said, “I got these leggings with pockets. There’s not a lot of things that I’m happy about right now, but I got these leggings with pockets that I really like and they were really cheap.” Do whatever you can to focus on the little things, and that gets you through the day.

That’s really good advice. Thank you for your time. Stay safe and healthy.

Caitlin Fairchild

Caitlin Fairchild is the Deputy Editor of The Renewal Project.