Tangible solutions to an increasingly common problem.
By Sharon Feiereisen March 24, 2021 for Real Simple®
It doesn’t take a pandemic to feel isolated. We may seem connected thanks to social media, but there have been countless studies that have shown that these connections are overwhelmingly superficial and associated with depression and anxiety. Jobs, kids, financial constraints, and other responsibilities further complicate things by increasingly getting in the way of meaningful social interactions. So how to help with loneliness and boost happiness during times of isolation? We turned to the experts to find out.
1 Challenge yourself to learn a new skill before the end of the year.
Learning a new skill may involve a social setting—for example taking a class at a community center—or it could simply involve learning via free online videos or signing up for virtual courses (like MasterClass). “Other ideas include learning a new language online or re-learning an old skill that you’ve let fall by the wayside,” says Shari Leid, a life coach and the author of The 50/50 Friendship Flow: Life Lessons From and For My Girlfriends. “Personally, after 34 years of not touching the piano—as of this past January, I’ve started playing it daily, slowly gaining some of my neglected skills back. I’m determined to learn all of John Legend’s top hits by the end of the year! Picking up a new skill or revisiting an old hobby can bring about so much happiness to your day.”
It’s human nature to like doing things we’re good at, but somehow that doesn’t apply to dance. Dancing to great music just makes people smile, even if they have no rhythm. In fact, there are a number of studies connecting dancing with happiness. “One such study began in 2013 when psychologists in Sweden studied a group of teenagers who suffered from anxiety, depression and stress, in addition to presenting psychosomatic symptoms such as neck and back pain,” says Leid. “Half of the teens in the study were asked to attend two fun dance classes a week, while the rest continued with their daily routine. After two years, those who continued to attend the fun dance classes, not only showed a significant improvement in psychosomatic symptoms, but also reported feeling happier.”
3 Schedule weekly social phone or Zoom calls.
“While being Zoomed-out has become a joked-about end-of-day condition, it’s a reality that makes scheduling a social phone or Zoom chat seem like the last thing we want to add to our plates. But the payoff is worth the effort when it comes to happiness,” says Leid. “Friendships can get us through the hard times. This became very evident to me as I watched my 92-year-old mom and her four best girlfriends, who were all isolated during the pandemic in different retirement living communities, keep their spirits up through laughter-filled nightly phone calls with one another. Filling our weeks with laughter with friends and nourishing those friendships in this way can make all the difference in the world from a week of being simply Zoomed-out to a week filled with laughter.”
4 Allow yourself to dream.
While daydreaming often has a negative connotation, in the context of thinking about how to feel less lonely, it can work in your favor. Shari Foos, MA, MFT, MS, NM, a marriage and family therapist, suggests dedicating time each day to thinking and dreaming creatively about where you are and what’s next. “Enjoy the quiet in your sacred space where you can unplug and take a break from the external noise. This is your opportunity to exhale, check in and dialogue with yourself about your thoughts, feelings and goals. Let your imagination lead you into expansive dreams and big ideas. Don’t worry about what’s practical.”
5 Create with nature.
Playing with flowers is a fun and creative activity that can provide a fulfilling experience. “If you have access to them, pick some fresh flowers,” says Foos. “If not, grab a cheap bouquet and give it a haircut. Collect jars, a set of glasses or small vases and trim the flowers to a length that complements your containers of choice. Cut away extra filler green or use it sparingly to get the focus more on the flowers. From a typical supermarket or street bouquet you can create four to six gorgeous small arrangements.”
6 Organize your space.
Harness your inner Marie Kondo. “Reorganizing the stuff that’s been there so long you don’t even notice it anymore works wonders,” says Foos. “Letting go of the piles of ‘maybes’ or ‘one days’ feels like getting in shape. An empty space invites you to turn the page and refresh your life.” (And here’s where to donate everything you’ve decluttered along the way). While you’re at it, take stock of how you feel in rooms with different colors, different artwork or different sounds. “Do you feel energized by bright colors and loud music? Do you crave the calm of soothing tones, minimalistic art, and quiet? When spending a lot of time at home it’s a great time to make intentional changes,” says Anton C. Bizzell, MD, a physician and the CEO of The Bizzell Group.
7 Write it all down.
Writing things down is an effective way to gain perspective. “Journaling strengthens your focus and helps you get clear about what matters,” explains Foos. “Allow yourself to dive in without thinking and allow your intuition to guide you. Even a phrase or the smallest sketch of an idea can take you down deeper into your creativity. You can do it with a goal in mind or just because it feels great to express yourself. Remember, you’re the one person who always gets you. Talk to yourself.” If that’s too abstract for you, Dr. Bizzell recommends starting what he calls a ‘happiness journal’ to notice and build moments and experiences that care for your heart. “Each day make note of your activities in one column and how you felt in the other column. This could be a call with an old friend, a walk around the block or listening to music. Within a week you will see a pattern and can choose to refocus your day to spend more time on the activities that bring you happiness.”
8 Perform random acts of kindness.
The old adage that it’s better to give than to receive holds a lot of truth. “Surprise friends with a gift dropped off at their front door—it could be something as simple as a latte, a little bouquet of flowers or even a favorite book,” says Leid. “Add a little note of what their friendship means to you. The little drop-off will not only brighten their day, but it will also give you a big boost in happiness.”
This type of act can extend beyond your friend group. We’re all surrounded by so many people who are in need of love and attention. “Think of something like an Adopt-a-Neighbor idea where you leave friendly messages for your neighbor who might be elderly or home with young children,” says Susan London, LMSW, the director of social work at Shore View Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. “Really anyone you may have exchanged kind words with, leave them messages, snacks, toys, etc., something with a little message from you, a phone number if they want to talk or need help picking up groceries.”
9 Make a commitment to join the #5050friendshipflowchallenge movement.
Commit to meeting one-on-one with five or 10 friends over the course of the year—for the purpose of telling each friend the importance they hold in your life and what you’ve learned from each of them. “Notice the positive impact that having these intentional conversations makes in your life,” says Leid. “The fifth step of the five-step challenge is the most important. Once you begin to reflect on the amazing friendships that you have in your life, it’s impossible not to feel happiness.”
Here are the five steps to the challenge according to Leid:
- Set a date for a one-on-one meeting. (Action)
- Set your intentions for the meeting and let go of ego. (Intention)
- Share your admiration and your observations with your friend. (Be the Teacher)
- Ask questions. (Be the Student)
- Finally, write it down, take a photo, keep a journal, and capture the moment. (Reflection)
10 Care for your body.
Getting enough sleep is vital to decreasing stress and isolation. “A full night of restful sleep can help you feel physically and emotionally stronger, think more clearly, infuse more calm, and prime you to notice happy moments in your day,” says Dr. Bizzell. “Try to go to sleep and wake up at close to the same time each day and aim for seven to eight hours of sleep per night. Similarly, regular movement can help you connect with your body and your environment, reduce stress, and keep you healthier. This can be as simple as stretching or taking a walk in your neighborhood.”