It’s official. We have just passed the one-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic in Colorado. CU Denver announced it was going remote on March 11, 2020, two weeks before Gov. Polis put the state on lockdown. We spoke to Professor Amy Wachholtz, PhD, program director of the clinical health psychology program at CU Denver, about how to increase happiness during this challenging period.
In the past year, the Lynx community and Coloradans have experienced various levels of stay-at-home living. For caregivers and people living with certain health conditions, staying home was paramount. Students who normally attended class in person on the Auraria Campus, which has a collective student population of 38,000, were required to switch to remote learning. Faculty had to pivot to online teaching virtually overnight. Staff said goodbye to their offices, leaving behind beloved plants, candy bowls, and ergonomic work chairs.
In the past year, we’ve gone from saving masks for healthcare workers to mandating masks for everyone, from grocery store lines to curbside pickup, from closed restaurants to al-fresco dining. We’ve reexamined the value of toilet paper, learned to make bread, alphabetized our spices, and created work-from-home setups in every available closet and corner. “In this day and age, to focus on what is going right rather than what is going wrong is not easy,” Wachholtz said.
But it is possible. “People who focus on their strengths—both personal and community strengths—tend to do better psychologically and emotionally in a crisis situation,” Wachholtz said. Given the length of the pandemic, however, many people—even eternal optimists—are having trouble maintaining a positive mindset. “When we think about the term crisis, we usually think short term, whereas it’s now been a year. We need to move out of crisis mode and into more of a constant crisis mode,” she added.
That constant crisis mode needs to include optimism, but it needs to be tempered optimism, because people who are overly optimistic may put themselves in danger. “Nobody wants to be the last person to die of COVID-19 in the United States,” Wachholtz said. The right approach for the current moment is to balance optimism and caution—“be mindful, even though we’re so exhausted.”
Positive psychology, which is the study of well-being, offers tools to develop an optimistic mindset. Here is a simple list of five things anyone can do to improve their well-being, courtesy of Wachholtz and happiness research.
Research shows that people who spend more time outdoors, especially in the sun, have higher emotional well-being. And early research is showing that spending time outdoors is especially beneficial during a pandemic. “Now that the weather is getting warmer, we can renew our connection to nature,” Wachholtz advised.
Practicing gratitude is not difficult. It only requires acknowledging something positive. During the pandemic, practicing gratitude may require a little creativity. Wachholtz suggests being grateful for little things like “curling up with a favorite pet or enjoying a moment of silence.”
Studies correlate reading with increased life satisfaction and happiness (Note: reading material needs to be non-news and non-social media). Even six minutes of reading a day has been shown to reduce stress. Readers can be transported to different worlds or they can learn something new. Try The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living by Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute.
Enjoy Everyday Pleasures
The Danish people have a word for finding pleasure in everyday experiences—hygge. Try making little changes at home to renew your focus on sensual pleasures: light a candle, take a bath, snuggle under a blanket, play a favorite song, or eat a decadent treat.
Screen time, which research shows can decrease happiness, has increased dramatically during COVID. Don’t worry about marathon-watching a comedy series or creating Instagram accounts for your pet fish. Just set aside one day or evening a week for gadget-free entertainment like playing cards, board games, or charades.