AUSTIN, Texas — Let's face it, 2020 has been pretty rough on our emotions. If you've been feeling down recently, you aren't alone.
According to a COVID Response Tracking Study conducted in late May by researchers at the University of Chicago, people in the United States are more unhappy today than they've been in 50 years.
"The COVID crisis is making us all worried and feel uncertain. We don't know when we're going to come out of it. A lot of people are hurting financially, a lot of health concerns," said UT Professor Dr. Kristin Neff.
People also may be feeling extreme loneliness from being at home, which Neff said is something that started before the coronavirus pandemic.
"You had a loneliness epidemic to start with, and then you throw a shutdown on top of that, and it just really exacerbates it," she said.
The good news is there are scientific-based ways to increase happiness, starting with something that Neff has written multiple books on – self-compassion.
Self-compassion looks at our hardships head-on. It doesn't sweep them under the rug, but it also is different from a pity party.
"Self-compassion allows us to feel connected in our suffering, and then we're kind to ourselves because it's so hard," said Neff.
Research shows that the more self-compassionate you are, the happier you are. There are three components to self-compassion – awareness, mindfulness of what's hurting us in the moment and kindness.
Sometimes self-compassion looks like treating yourself with kindness with the words you say to yourself. Sometimes it means accepting ourselves. Sometimes it means making a change with encouragement. Sometimes it means taking part in self-care activities.
One simple practice for self-compassion is using touch. Put your hands on your heart or give yourself a hug.
"As human beings, we evolved for touch to be a really important signal of care. Touch reduces cortisol. It increases heart rate variability," said Neff.
Another way to work on self-compassion is by writing yourself a supportive letter as if you are writing to a friend.
"One study showed if you write a self-compassionate letter to yourself for seven days, it decreases depression for three months and increases happiness for six months – has a long-term effect," said Neff.
Another way to increase happiness is by savoring. Once you notice something that's pleasant you actually linger with it.
An easy practice is to go outside and just notice what's beautiful or attractive to you and really see it, really take it in. Instead of just going for a walk, really stop to look at the flowers. tree bark or clouds. According to Neff, there is empirical research to show doing this for 20 minutes each day has an incredible impact on happiness.
"While you're doing that, first of all, you're not thinking about all your problems. You're really appreciating what's beautiful," said Neff.
Finally, practice gratitude. Neff said when you go to bed at night, counting on your fingers 10 things you're grateful for can I have a radical change in your perception and it can increase happiness.
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