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Laurie Santos on Keeping Covid-19 Self-Care From Being Selfish

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Laurie Santos, a psychology professor at Yale University and host of The Happiness Lab podcast, is a leading expert in positive psychology, a relatively young field. Since she began teaching “The Science of Well-Being” in 2018, it has become the most popular course in Yale’s history, with nearly a quarter of students enrolling. The class, now online for free, applies what Dr. Santos calls a “preventative medicine approach” to mental health — harnessing science and evidence to help people lead more fulfilling lives.

Her podcast devoted a full season to episodes contending with the mental toll of the coronavirus pandemic, and she warns in an essay in a forthcoming collection “Which Side of History? How Technology Is Reshaping Democracy and Our Lives” (out Oct. 13) of the “cognitive costs” of our always-on relationships with our devices.

In a recent telephone interview, which has been edited and condensed, Dr. Santos said that many of her students at Yale have misconceptions about what makes a happy life, and that she too is not immune from having the wrong intuition about the issue.

“One of the most shocking ones for me is a study looking at how simple interactions with strangers positively affect your well-being,” she said, adding that, even for introverts, “a simple chat with a stranger can make people feel great.”

It’s much harder right now. We need to be much more intentional about it. We need to recognize that it’s missing and that its absence is having a huge effect on our well-being — from the chat with the barista at the coffee shop to the water-cooler interaction with the people in the office. Those things matter for our well-being, but many of us don’t have them anymore, at least not in the same way that we had before the crisis started.

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We need to double down on the social connection we do have. In my class, I’ll say, “Hey, I’ll be on Zoom a little bit earlier if you want to just hang out and chat — not about work, but just for some social contact.”

Understanding where things go wrong is a powerful tool. While I’m on a Zoom meeting, if I have my email in the background and I hear a little ding, it’s going to be really hard to pay attention. The screens we’re using really affect our attention. So we should try to mitigate that by shutting off notifications — really being careful about our attentional hygiene when we’re using this stuff.

It also means that we need to pay attention to how this is affecting our real-life social interaction, which we don’t get that much of.

It’s funny — my husband told me, “You’re the only person I’ve seen, but I also feel like I haven’t seen you in a long time.” We can get that with the people we’re near in real life, because there’s screen things happening. We’re checking Facebook and looking at Instagram, and it can steal the time we do have in real life. That time is so precious right now, so we need to fight the screens to get some of that back.

Self-care is great, if you’re doing it the right way. I’m all for improving your happiness. That’s what the whole class is about. The problem is just how far.

We assume that self-care looks like a nice bubble bath — or even hedonistic pursuits, selfish pursuits. But the data suggests that the right way to treat ourselves would be to do nice things for other people. We actually get more out of being more open and more social and more other-oriented than spending money on ourselves. It’s a bigger increase to your happiness.

Use the tools we do have to really connect. A quick text to a friend you haven’t seen or a family member you’re worried about, like “Thinking of you. Wishing I could get together. Thinking of this fun memory.” Sharing happy times, expressing gratitude and using the tools we do have to do nice things for others.

I’m a big fan of surprise presents. Everyone knows they’re going to get presents on their birthday, but people don’t expect a random, tiny gift and a gratitude letter out of the blue. It’s easy to underestimate how powerful that can be to our relationships and how nice that is to get.

You’re helping others, but the thing we forget is that it’s a way to boost our well-being, too.

The message I’ve seen from the current research is that Covid’s not great for well-being; symptoms of depression and symptoms of anxiety tend to be going up. And those are systematically worse in more vulnerable populations. So if you look at, say, African-Americans right now, the effects of that stuff is worse. If you look at lower-income individuals or folks who don’t have child care help — all the folks who would normally be getting a well-being hit — it’s worse in the context of Covid.

Try not to run away from those negative emotions. As parents, when kids are expressing uncertainty, your instinct is to just deny it or pretend it’s not there, to “power through it.”

But uncertainty, fear, frustration, anger, jealousy — all of those negative emotions — they’re not going away. You need to give them space. One technique is to use meditation, where you really try to recognize and accept those emotions. In particular, RAIN: recognize, accept, investigate and nurture.

If I’m trying to plan my class and I’m just like, “Oh gosh, we’re not even going to get to the new semester,” that’s uncertainty. That’s fear. Let me just acknowledge, accept. “OK, that’s what it feels like. I’m in that state right now. Let me investigate what it feels like in my body.” I’m watching my face get tense. My heart is beating a little faster. I’m feeling antsy. I want to run away from it. I want to eat something or check social. I just want to run away from those emotions, not feel it. But I need to sit with it.

You don’t need to shut off negative emotions — those are real. You would need to shut Covid off to shut those down right now. But you can deal with them and accept them and work with them, given that that’s our situation.

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