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Staying Happy While Social Distancing

March 24, 2020
by Katherine Nelson-Coffey, PhD

Although it may seem frivolous to prioritize happiness during a crisis, we will still experience positive moments in our day-to-day lives, and embracing those experiences may be helpful. Happy people are not immune to the problems around them, but they tend to care more about society’s problems. Likewise, focusing on happiness does not mean denying or avoiding negative emotions. Positive experiences also increase resilience during crises. People who experienced more positive emotions following 9/11 were more resilient, experiencing fewer symptoms of mental illness in the aftermath of those attacks. Also, when parents are happy, they are better able to support their children. 

 Here are a few recommendations to help parents and children maintain happiness right now.

 1.     Establish a Routine. People who have more consistent routines feel that their lives are more meaningful. Establishing a routine for what your children’s days will look like, including meals and snack times, time outside, and time for different activities (e.g., creative activities, cleaning) will help you and your children feel a sense of order. For example, go to bed and wake up on your typical schedule, try to exercise every day, and eat regular meals at regular intervals.

2.     Practice Self-Compassion. Rather than beating yourself up for what you should be doing or how you should be handling this crisis, try practicing self-compassion by accepting that you may not accomplish what you anticipated and forgiving yourself if haven’t created the perfect homeschool experience for your child. For parents, practicing self-compassion can enhance awareness in the parent-child relationship (mindful parenting) and reduce parenting stress.  

 The website www.self-compassion.org includes excellent resources (guided meditations, journaling prompts) for incorporating self-compassion into your daily routine.

 3.     Express Gratitude. Even in the midst of crisis, we can almost always think of small blessings in our day-to-day lives. Counting your blessings may shift your focus, lessen your worries, enhance positive feelings, and strengthen close relationships, including parent-child relationships. Expressing gratitude to important people (not necessarily one’s children) also helps parents view their children’s behavior more positively. You can practice gratitude by creating lists of 3 things you are grateful for each day or by writing a letter to a specific person for whom you are grateful.

4.     Be Kind and Compassionate to Others. The world needs our compassion, and shifting your focus to other people can also improve your own mood.

 We have many opportunities to be kind and to teach our children about kindness. Help your child write a letter to a family member. Write positive notes in chalk with your child in front of a neighbor’s house. Lend emotional support to a friend who is a health care worker. Donate blood. Even practicing social distancing is an act of compassion because it ensures we can all stay well.

 5.     Seek Opportunities to Connect. Close relationships are one of the strongest predictors of happiness. As we spend more time at home, finding opportunities for you and your child to connect with others is important.

 You may need to be creative in connecting with others. Help your child chat with family members on FaceTime. Hold a virtual play date for your child to play a game with a friend. Send messages and photos to loved ones.

 6.     Take a Break. It can be very tempting to check the news and scroll social media for updates, but overdoing it can heighten anxiety. Children may also notice if we spend more time on our phones or watching the news. Be mindful as you gather information, and know when to take a break.

 You can be mindful by setting aside time (e.g., 30 minutes) for reading the news, and then turning it off and finding a different activity. An activity that consumes your attention—a flow activity—such as playing a game or reading a book with your child will help you cope with uncertainty.

These recommendations are described in more detail in this Psychology Today article.


Katherine Nelson-Coffey is an Arnold Gesell Visiting Scholar of Parent and Child Development at the Yale Child Study Center and assistant professor of psychology at Sewanee: The University of the South. Her research explores the causes and consequences of parents' emotions, mental health, and subjective well-being. 

Submitted by Jill Max on March 24, 2020