During the pandemic-mandated quarantine, loners and socialites alike can enjoy a longevity-related bestseller
What sticks with me is the brightly colored pieces of tape on the floors of every retail establishment deemed “essential” and therefore still open. Swaths of blue, red and black tape were hastily applied to the aisles, lanes and registers where people used to congregate.
The tape serves as a visceral reminder to maintain a distance of six feet from the person in front of you who is also anxiously purchasing toilet paper, Little Debbie snack cakes and enough wine to make a sailor proud.
The light jazz Muzak of the overhead store speakers has been replaced with the drone of a dubiously helpful voice reminding us to “please maintain a distance of six feet from the person in front of you. We’re all in this together.”
I pull my makeshift face mask, a brightly colored purple scarf, closer around my face, shuffle out to my car with my week’s rations and take a deep breath as I apply hand sanitizer before I start the engine and head home on empty roads.
I put away my meager supplies and look at my dining room table as a bright blue book beckons. It’s called The Blue Zones of Happiness by Dan Buettner. I wash my hands (again) and read the first few pages. “This is a book about designing your life to make it happier,” the introduction says. “No matter where you live, what challenges you might be facing, or what aspirations you might hold for you and your family.”
Oh really? You’re on, Dan! As I keep reading, I learn about the three pillars of happiness: pride, purpose and pleasure. But what about pandemics? Are there lessons about self-help in the time of a global health and financial crisis?
Here’s how the author lays out his “Happiness Power of Nine.” Let’s look at each lesson.
Lesson 1: Love Someone
Whoo, boy. Really Dan? Have you ever tried swiping right in a pandemic? It’s not exactly #relationshipgoals. Buettner writes: “Research shows that you’re more likely to be happy if you’re married or in a committed relationship. Loners are mostly unhappy.” Like Pee-wee Herman, I, too, “Am a loner, Dottie, a rebel.” I do see the merit of having someone to help ride out this quarantine. My chihuahua is tired of playing Aaron Burr to my Alexander Hamilton in the re-creation of the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton.” But I’m also not stuck indoors fighting with someone or compromising my personality to make peace. It’s why I always get to sing lead.
Lesson 2: Inner Circle
Buettner suggests forming an Inner Circle. “Create a circle of at least three friends with whom you can have meaningful conversations, who you can call on a bad day for help and who are generally happy.” I guess you really are the company you keep. It’s been fun to see the inventive ways friend groups have developed to stay in touch with virtual happy hours, synchronized movie watching or just a heck of a lot of FaceTiming. It all makes a difference. Buettner writes: “For every happy friend who enters your social network, your happiness goes up by 15%.” Reaching out to friends and family during this time has been vital—everything from goofy FaceTimes with my friends’ kids to a virtual movie night of Cats (you’re going to need that wine you picked up).
Lesson 3: Engage
This is where things get tricky in the time of a global pandemic. Buettner writes: “Identify your interests and then join a club, a team or a civic organization that matches them.” This resonated for me because my all-time favorite thing to do is ride my motorcycle through winding back roads while hanging out at greasy spoons and chatting with other two-wheeled adventurers. Life under lockdown means all my moto journeys have been virtual, but I’ve been able to engage with motorcycle people all over the country without leaving my house. Have you ever felt like you instantly belonged to a group of people you didn’t even know existed? Maybe it’s traders, gardeners or badass biker chicks, but finding your people is a definite stop on the road to happiness.
Lesson 4: Learn Likability
Basically, don’t be a jerk. Buettner’s point is that both happiness and unhappiness are contagious, so COVID-19 isn’t the only thing spreading around. Although I must point out that Buettner has some introversion blind spots, like advice to engage socially with people for six hours a day. Still, his lessons are based on copious research.
Lesson 5: Move Naturally
This seems obvious yet often gets overlooked, especially when orders to shelter in place make any movement at all seem far from natural. But physical activity is a mood elevator. I relish taking my dog on walks. I even unrolled a slightly dusty yoga mat and have been using that to take yoga classes via the internet. The most fun is trying to learn dance moves online from hip young kids. You look ridiculous, but you’re not in a fancy, judgmental gym—you’re in the confines of your home. Dance it out, girl!
Lesson 6: Look Forward
In the dead, dark cold of winter it often seems that things will never be light, bright or warm again. But, eventually, the days get longer and the temperature rises. Buettner writes: “Focus on meaningful things, set goals and monitor progress. Research indicates that people who set goals and monitor them are happier in the long run.” No one knows when this pandemic will end, and even when it’s over no one knows if we’ll ever be the same. But taking time to set goals and make plans for a life that is “normal” is therapeutic.
Lesson 7: Sleep Seven Plus
Way ahead of you, Dan! Have you met my friend, “The Depression Nap?” She’s great! Mentally exhausted, your body powers down like a Commodore 64. I am a champion sleeper. But in these unprecedented times, sleep has been elusive. “Gallup found if you’re sleeping less than six hours per night, you’re about 30% less happy than you would be if you had slept enough,” Buettner writes. Sleep hacks have been working: Like seriously cut it out with the TV and the phone right before bed. Make sure it’s dark, and cold, and I’m a proponent of weighted blankets. It’s like having a man on top of you, but without the toxic masculinity!
Lesson 8: Shape Surroundings
The lesson is to set up your home, social life, finances and everything else to favor happiness instead of trying to change your behavior. As an introvert, I have always considered my home to be my haven I have taken great pains to make my house as comfy as possible, even though I’m the only one who resides there. But boy am I glad I did. I’m on Day 18 of quarantine as I write this, and I’m not sick of my house yet! Buettner is spot on that happiness comes from as many external forces as internal ones.
Lesson 9: Right Community
“Of all the things people can do to try to increase their happiness, the most effective and lasting one is to choose to live in a community that supports well-being,” writes Buettner. Real life has almost become kinder than fiction with news stories and viral videos of people gathering outside of nursing homes, having “drive-by birthday parties” or starting food drives for those who’ve lost jobs. Community is real, even though we take it for granted and don’t know how much we need it—until it shows up for us.
So, can you really find self-help in the time of a pandemic? You can! The book is full of small, actionable steps we can all take to find some measure of happiness in these crazy times. We’ll get through this together. Just don’t make me talk to people for six hours straight.
Vonetta Logan, a writer and comedian, appears daily on the tastytrade network and hosts the Connect the Dots podcast. @vonettalogan