We know it’s going to be harder to socialize outdoors as the weather gets colder. We also know there’s probably going to be a surge in new Covid-19 infections. Many of us are feeling anxious about how we’re going to make it through the lonely, bleak months ahead.
I see a lot of people trying to cope with this anxiety by drumming up one-off solutions. Buy a fire pit — better yet, buy a whole house! Those may be perfectly fine ideas, as far as they go — but I’d like to suggest a more effective way to think about reducing your suffering and increasing your happiness this winter.
Instead of thinking about the myriad negative feelings you want to avoid and the myriad things you can buy or do in service of that, think about a single organizing principle that is highly effective at generating positive feelings across the board: Shift your focus outward.
“Studies 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,” said Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California Riverside and author of The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. “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.”
Rather than fixating on our inner worlds and woes, we can strive to promote what some psychologists call “small self.” Virginia Sturm, who directs the Clinical Affective Neuroscience lab at the University of California San Francisco, defines this as “a healthy sense of proportion between your own self and the bigger picture of the world around you.”
This easy-to-remember principle is like an emotional Swiss Army knife: Open it up and you’ll find a bunch of different practices that research shows can cut through mental distress. They’re useful anytime, and might be especially helpful during the difficult winter ahead (though they’re certainly no panacea for broader problems like mass unemployment or a failed national pandemic response).
The practices involve cultivating different states — social connectedness, a clear purpose, inspiration — but all have one thing in common: They get you to focus on something outside yourself.
When the world between your two ears is as bleak as the howling winter outside, shifting your attention outward can be powerfully beneficial for your mental health. And hey, even in the dead of winter, a 15-minute awe walk outdoors is probably something you can do.