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'Happiness Lab' professor Laurie Santos: 5 surefire ways to find joy in 2020

The Yale psychology professor and host of the popular 'Happiness Lab' podcast shares five tips to make yourself feel better during stressful times.
Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology at Yale University and host of the Happiness Lab podcast.
Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology at Yale University and host of the Happiness Lab podcast.Michael Marsland

Ever since the coronavirus pandemic was declared nearly nine months ago in the U.S, it has sparked an enormous amount of stress, anxiety, fear and grief for people around the world.

According to a national poll from the American Psychiatric Association, 48 percent of Americans are anxious about the possibility of getting coronavirus, 40 percent are nervous about becoming seriously ill or dying from coronavirus and most Americans ― 62 percent ― are worried about the possibility of family and loved ones getting coronavirus.

In addition, more than one-third of Americans agree that coronavirus is having a serious impact on their mental health, according to the APA.

Considering all of this, it can feel challenging to stay happy and positive. Fortunately, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, said Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology at Yale University and host of the Happiness Lab podcast. “With several promising vaccines that are up to 95 percent effective on the horizon, we suddenly have more to look forward to than before,” she said. “There could only be a couple more months of this, and this brings real hope.”

In the meantime, Santos shares five simple ways to find happiness:

1. Stay connected

With the holidays quickly approaching, there’s an understanding that this season could look much different than years in the past. Gatherings will likely be much smaller, and those who have been directly impacted by Covid-19 or have lost a loved one will certainly feel the impact. “This holiday season might not be great, but if we play our cards right, we’ll have next year,” Santos said.

With all of these dynamics in place, it’s more important than ever to stay connected with your family and friends. “There’s evidence that happy people are more social,” Santos said. “This is tricky, obviously, during 2020, with limits on people getting together and social distancing. Just remember that you don’t have to be physically together to be connected,” she added.

While the dining room table can only fit a certain number of people, Zoom lines can get bigger and bigger. Santos encourages everyone to remember that connecting through technology could sometimes require some scheduling and extra work, but the experience can certainly lift your spirits.

2. Show gratitude

There’s a belief that complaining and venting to your closest girlfriends will help you feel better in the long run, but the data actually suggests that you’re better off focusing on the blessings in your life. “Happy people focus on what they’re grateful for,” Santos said.

There are many ways to focus on what’s going great in your life, but Santos’ favorite method involves writing down three to five things that you’re grateful for at the end of every day. “This can boost your well-being in as little as two weeks,” she said.

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3. Get back to your healthy basics

This holiday season will be quieter with fewer holiday parties and expectations, so you should use this time to recharge and get back to the healthy basics. This involves eating healthy, getting plenty of rest and exercising.

“A half an hour of physical exercise every day can be as effective as antidepressants in some cases,” Santos said. She encouraged women to team up with a friend to help stay accountable and also to get that extra social connection while also doing something good for yourself. Even scheduling a yoga workout over Zoom with a friend can go a long way.

It’s also very helpful to practice positive sleep habits. “I put my phone to bed before I go to bed, so that I don’t read something anxiety-provoking on social media half an hour before bedtime,” Santos said.

4. Find ways to be present

Worrying about when a vaccine will come or whether you’ll be able to see your loved ones over the holidays can lead to anxiety, but getting in the present moment and truly experiencing — or savoring — what you’re doing can lift your spirits. So focus on the here and now and enjoy that walk with your dog, watching a movie under a warm blanket or sipping your favorite latte. “The next time you’re hanging out with your children and they’re laughing, pay attention to what that experience is really like,” Santos said. “Think about how it feels to be experiencing this right now.”

5. Practice mindfulness

“Research shows that you can’t run from a negative emotion; it’s important to face it head on,” Santos said. She suggested a four-step mindfulness practice called R.A.I.N. This stands for Recognize what’s happening, Allow life to be just as it is, Investigate the inner experience and Nurture the feeling. “This starts with calling the emotion what it is, recognizing and having a moment in that state, paying attention to how it makes you feel and then nurturing it with self-compassion,” Santos said. “Think about how you would treat someone else going through this, and do the same for yourself,” she added.