With America's coronavirus epidemic again resurging, it's possible that this upcoming winter could feel particularly isolating for some Americans—especially as colder weather makes it harder for people to socialize outside. But instead of focusing on your negative circumstances, psychologists recommend focusing on your "small self" to help keep your spirits up—and writing for Vox, Sigal Samuel offers three tips on how to do so.
Your 'small self'
According to Samuel, research has found that shifting your focus outside of yourself often can help to generate positive feelings.
"A lot of life's problems are caused by too much self-focus and self-absorption, and we often focus too much on the negatives about ourselves," Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California Riverside, told Samuel. But "[s]tudies show that anything we can do to direct our attention off of ourselves and onto other people or other things is usually productive and makes us happier," she said.
To do so, psychologists recommend focusing on your so-called "small self," which Virginia Sturm, director of the Clinical Affective Neuroscience lab at the University of California-San Francisco, defines as "a healthy sense of proportion between your own self and the bigger picture of the world around you."
How to focus on your 'small self'
To shift your focus to your small self, experts say it's necessary to develop a sense of your social connectedness, purpose, and inspiration—and they offer some tips on how to do so.
1. Developing a sense of social connectedness
Lyubomirsky said she believes social connectedness "is the key to happiness"—and her belief is supported by research, Samuel writes.
For example, for one study from Harvard University, researchers followed hundreds of people over 80 years, starting from when the participants were teenagers and lasting into the participants' 90s. The study found that the participants who ended up the happiest were those who developed good relationships with their families, friends, and communities. In fact, the researchers found that having close relationships was a better predictor of a happy, long life than having money, a higher IQ, or fame, Samuel notes.
And other research has found that social connections not only help with mental health, but they can bolster a person's physical health as well, Samuel reports.
Although socializing in person can be difficult amid the epidemic, you can still foster your relationships with others to help develop your sense of social connectedness, Samuel writes. For instance, you could perform an act of kindness, such as donating to charity or volunteering through online programs, Samuel suggests.
"I do a lot of research on kindness, and it turns out people who help others end up feeling more connected and become happier," Lyubomirsky said.
2. Developing a sense of purpose
Experts have found that having a clear purpose is one of the best ways to deal with being isolated. For example, Samuel reports that Steve Cole, a researcher at the University of California-Los Angeles, has studied different ways to help people deal with loneliness, and he's found that the most effective ways to combat loneliness involved strategies that focus on bolstering people's sense of purpose.
"Nietzsche said if you find purpose in your suffering, you can tolerate all the pain that comes with it," Jack Fong, a sociologist researching solitude at California State Polytechnic University, told Samuel. "It's when people don't see a purpose in their suffering that they freak out."
Billy Barr, who's lived alone in an abandoned mining shack in the Rocky Mountains for nearly 50 years, agrees that purpose is important. According to Samuel, Barr recommends that people participate in a citizen science project, such as tracking rainfall with CoCoRaHS.
"I would definitely recommend people doing that," Barr said. "You get a little rain gauge, put it outside, and you're part of a network where there's thousands of other people doing the same thing as you, the same time of the day as you're doing it."
Other citizen projects that could give you a sense of purpose include efforts to "classify wild animals caught on camera or predict the spread of Covid-19," Samuel writes. And "[i]f citizen science isn't your jam," you can try tackling "something else that gives you a sense of purpose, whether it's writing that novel you've been kicking around for years, signing up to volunteer with a mutual aid group, or whatever else," Samuel suggests.
3. Developing a sense of inspiration
Research also has found that developing a sense of inspiration can have positive effects on mental health—and that inspiration can come from a place of gratitude, curiosity, or awe, Samuel reports.
Feelings of gratitude, for example, have been found to help protect people from stress and depression.
"When you feel grateful, your mind turns its attention to what is perhaps the greatest source of resilience for most humans: other humans," David DeSteno, a psychology professor at Northeastern University, explained. "By reminding you that you're not alone—that others have contributed to your well-being—it reduces stress."
One way to harness those feelings is by gratitude journaling: a practice in which you write down what you're grateful for once or twice a week, Samuel reports. Experts say it's best to write in detail about one specific thing you're grateful for, rather than writing a longer list of superficial things. And experts especially recommend that you focus on people you're grateful to or events that were surprising, as they lead to stronger feelings of gratitude, Samuel notes.
Another way to harness those feelings is by writing a letter of gratitude to someone, Samuel writes, noting that research has found that writing such letters can increase your levels of gratitude even if you don't send them to others. And writing the letters can have long-term effects, Samuel note. One study found that people who wrote letters of gratitude expressed more thankfulness and saw more activity in the area of their brains involved with predicting the outcomes of actions as long as three months later.
Harnessing feelings of curiosity and awe also can help to improve your mental health, Samuel writes.
"Awe makes us feel like our problems are very trivial in the big scheme of things," Lyubomirsky explained. "The idea that you are this tiny speck in the universe gives you this bigger-picture perspective, which is really helpful when you're too self-focused over your problems."
Samuel cites one recent study that looked at the effect of so-called "awe walks"—a 15-minute walk outside that 60 people participated in over the course of eight weeks. Researchers encouraged some participants to find a moment of awe during their walks, and those participants experienced greater increases in positive emotions each day and greater decreases in distress when compared with a control group, Samuel notes.
"What we show here is that a very simple intervention—essentially a reminder to occasionally shift our energy and attention outward instead of inward—can lead to significant improvements in emotional wellbeing," Sturm, the study's lead author, told Samuel (Samuel, "Future Perfect," Vox, 10/14).