The Science of Happiness, and How to Be Happy in Quarantine

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Let’s take a break from pandemic news to talk about some actually good science news! We’re all cooped up at home, sheltering in place and not able to go anywhere or do anything new or fun, so it’s important to take a look around and realize that things are really so bad. Researchers have discovered the key to happiness and, let’s see here, it looks like the key to happiness is…

… “New and diverse experiences. (Going to) novel places and hav(ing) a wider array of experiences.” Well. Shit.

Okay, I’m just kidding. Up front: this is correlation, not causation. Let’s take a look!

This pre-pandemic research was just published in Nature Neuroscience. Psychologists at NYU and Miami University tracked subjects via GPS as they lived and wandered around New York and Miami for several months. They asked the subjects to check in regularly with updates on their emotional states. They found that people who visited more locations in a day reported more positive emotions than those who stayed in one place.

They took half the subjects and tossed them into MRIs, finding that the people who had the strongest link between novel places and happiness also had the most activity in the areas of their brains that processed novelty and rewards.

Okay, so first, here’s my “everybody calm down this isn’t that big of a deal” segment of the video: again, this shows correlation, not causation. Maybe people get happier when they seek out novel experiences. Maybe people who are happier tend to seek out novel experiences. Maybe both! Or maybe people who, say, have a lot of money and free time are more likely to be both happy and to seek out novel experiences. This study doesn’t try to establish a causal link, which is totally fine. Make sure you don’t either.

Secondly, you know how I feel about MRIs. If you don’t, go watch this video. The TL;DW is that everything lights up the reward pathways in your brain so calm down. I’m not saying MRIs are misused here, I’m just saying brains are complicated and it’s wise not to put too much stock in what any one study finds about which parts of whose brains light up.

But let’s say that going new places does, in general, make us happier. Are we screwed while in quarantine? The researchers themselves point out the answer to that is definitely “no.” For most people who aren’t currently on ventilators, you can always switch up your daily routine. Quarantine doesn’t mean you have to stay inside binging Netflix all day. Go for a walk or a bike ride! Explore parts of your neighborhood you’ve never seen! Seek out any kind of green space! A lot of past research shows that any contact you have with green space can improve your mental well-being. A UK survey from 2019, for instance, found a strong correlation between “happiness, life satisfaction and worth” and the amount of parks and nature preserves around a person’s home, even after controlling for income.

My own anecdotal data lines up with this. When I moved to a new apartment a few years back, I specifically sought out one where I could see nature outside my windows, because I work from home and I knew my mental well-being would be greatly improved if I could look up from the computer every now and again and see something that brings me a great amount of inner peace. I also got an emotional support dog, which I talked about in more detail a few years ago. But the crux of it is that this little asshole forced me to go outside multiple times a day when my depression would have convinced me to lay in the fetal position on the floor. I didn’t want to go outside, but once I did (because it was a better alternative than cleaning poop off my carpet) I felt a little better. Eventually a lot better. 

And now that quarantine is here, my emotional support asshole is back to doing his job: making me go outside when I would otherwise prefer the fetal position in front of Netflix, moving only to confirm to my tv that yes, I am still watching.

Speaking of that previous video, the point of it was that a study showed that walking dogs make us more happy, too.

So if quarantine is getting you down and you’d like a change of pace, I recommend a few things that science suggests could help: Go on an adventure. There’s more to see around your neighborhood than you might think! Check out Google maps and see what green space is near you. Walk, bike, skateboard, or drive there and check it out. Pick up a bird identification book for your local area and see how many you can spot. Download the iNaturalist app and take photos of local wildlife and plants to ID them. (Check out this video I made a few years back when I explored tidal pools and used iNaturalist for the first time during a Cal Academy bio blitz!)

Or hell, get a dog! A lot of shelters have managed to find fosters for their dogs during shelter in place, but there are still a bunch of very good boys and girls looking for their forever person. Use this time at home to get to know a new best friend who you can go on adventures with! And then come home and watch Netflix with. Seriously, dogs are the best.

If you can’t do any of that, maybe it’s enough to find novelty and adventure in books, tv, films, and games. If you can’t do things physically, do them mentally. Remember, there is no one “key to happiness.” There’s just a whole lot of ways to take care of yourself and be a better person today than you were yesterday. Good luck!

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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