How to cope with the chaos of Corona: expert tips to boost your mood

The tried and true sources of happiness in human lives haven’t gone away during the pandemic, but you do need to look harder for them

13 December 2020 - 00:00 By claire keeton
“The research shows that social connection — the simple act of talking to other people — increases our positive mood."
“The research shows that social connection — the simple act of talking to other people — increases our positive mood."
Image: Carlos Amato

If talking to strangers on a train can make even introverts happier, as scientific research shows, it is not surprising that the blanket of social isolation smothering the world has led to a spike in depression and anxiety.

But people are also becoming more intent on the pursuit of happiness, with 2.5-million people from all over the world enrolling since March in a “science of wellbeing” course offered free online by Yale University’s professor Laurie Santos.

“I think people are really searching for evidence-based ways to improve their mental health,” says Santos, a cognitive scientist whose Happiness Lab podcast has had more than 20-million unique downloads.

The happiness guru has attracted students from more than 170 countries, including SA, following her launch of the most popular course on the Ivy League campus where she teaches.

Santos comes across as thoughtful and positive, yet she avoids being evangelically cheery.

In an interview with the Sunday Times, she explained why the social isolation of the pandemic is so corrosive to people’s happiness: “The research shows that social connection — the simple act of talking to other people — increases our positive mood.

“People who live alone are feeling really lonely, and even those of us who live with family members are missing out on the smaller forms of social connection we’re used to at work or when out interacting in the world,” she said.

This pattern is as true for SA as the US, or anywhere, with many people suffering increased isolation and loneliness during the pandemic, according to researchers, psychologists, counsellors and life coaches.

Children are not exempt. Johannesburg social worker Lehlomela Sehorane, who specialises in trauma counselling, said the children of an essential worker who she counsels can no longer play outside their house since their grandmother died of Covid.

“The other children say they can’t play with them or they will infect them. My client blames herself for her mother’s death, saying, ‘If I did not go to work, my mother would be alive.’ ”

Being deprived of social contact and affection is definitely taking a toll, said professor Ramodungoane Tabane, head of the psychology of education at Unisa.

“We are social beings and this has been taken away from us, and in how we greet each other,” he said, talking about the elbow or foot bump not matching the hug. “Friendships have been affected. Relationships have been affected.”

Joburg executive life coach Lindiwe Mkhondo has also seen increased suffering and disconnection among the business leaders with whom she works.

At least the solution to part of the problem seems clear. Santos said that interacting with — and, particularly, helping — others has been proven by scientific evidence to boost one’s mood.

Acts of kindness reward the giver, too, whether they are small gestures or acts of personal sacrifice, like donating a kidney.

Another proven step towards wellbeing is practising gratitude every day — and this is within individual control when so much else is not.

Mimi Cooper, a Cape Town meditation instructor and founder of the Quiet Inside, said: “This year has pushed many people to their limits by shattering our illusion that we are in control. A lot of people are feeling more anxiety, worry and stress than ever before.”

All the uncertainty has been a big blow to happiness, Santos said. “We don’t know when this pandemic will end or if we or someone we love will get really sick, and many of us are uncertain about our jobs.”

Before Covid-19, people would come to Sehorane for relationships problems and “normal things”, but these have been overtaken by financial stress, she said. “People may be more together as families but there is this monster of economic crisis in their midst. They have lost their jobs and are anxious about what tomorrow brings.

We were not prepared for this. It is like waking up tomorrow and the world is blue, and not knowing: tomorrow will the world be green?
Social worker Lehlomela Sehorane

“We were not prepared for this. It is like waking up tomorrow and the world is blue, and not knowing: tomorrow will the world be green?”

Santos said people benefit from taking time to recognise and allow space for all their emotions, not trying to block out negative emotions — which can surface as unhelpful behaviours.

The latest research shows evidence of a lot of harmful coping behaviours during the pandemic. People are turning to alcohol to self-medicate against anxiety or eating too much, which causes its own problems, said Santos.

Self-esteem can be eroded in this cycle. Sehorane said when lockdown restricted exercise and one of her clients gained weight, the loss of self-esteem tipped her into nearly starving herself.

A teenager who got drawn into Facebook and WhatsApp groups to counter the isolation of lockdown nearly took her own life when people posted nasty content about her, said Sehorane.


To cope with the chaos of corona, experts are unanimous that practices such as mindfulness and meditation are better than excessive drinking or overeating or vanishing down social media rabbit holes.

Mkhondo said, of this time in history: “It’s time to pause and reflect, to cultivate an inner state of being of calm, inner stillness and peace … to clarify your purpose. Tap into this daily and let it be the anchor.”

Mindfulness is effective in reducing stress, anxiety and depression, said Cooper of the latest study results.

“Mindfulness is defined as deliberately paying attention to the present moment with an attitude of non-judgment,” she said.

“Try to notice when you are judging yourself or blaming yourself and see if you can adopt a kinder and more supportive approach (this works for couples too).

“When you’re focused on what’s happening now, you prevent your mind worrying about the future or obsessing over the past.”

When you’re focused on what’s happening now, you prevent your mind worrying about the future or obsessing over the past
Life coach Lindiwe Mkhondo on the benefits of practicing mindfulness

In competitive sport, visualising a future win is part of the training but, as Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps taught the coach who took him to his first gold medal, visualising obstacles is important too. (That helped him when his goggles leaked.)

Being self-aware improves happiness, said former Nightline anchor Dan Harris, who wrote the book 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works – A True Story. (His publishers wanted a higher percentage.)

Harris said on the Happiness Lab podcast that practices like meditation induce calm, which can be contagious — positive and negative emotions are contagious, the science demonstrates.

Practising meditation, even one minute at a time, helps to still the racing mind and inner cacophony, said Harris, who found this out for himself when panic attacks compelled him to try it.


Since the spread of the coronavirus, the world seems to have been having a collective panic attack, worsened by the consumption of bad news and fake news.

Cooper said: “I’ve noticed that a lot of people have started having a really unhealthy relationship with news, checking it obsessively and seeking out sensationalist headlines.”

A new study by University of Cape Town psychology graduate Leora Hodes found that “young adults are bad at estimating how much time they spend on their phones”, overestimating on weekdays but underestimating their usage on weekends.

“Additionally, our results revealed that screen time significantly increased during the level 5 lockdown, so you are not alone if you found yourself playing Candy Crush more during this time of uncertainty,” said Hodes.

Not all screen time is equal, points out award-winning science writer Catherine Price, who wrote the book How To Break Up With Your Phone.

She likened good and bad screen time to nutritious and junk food, a difference sharpened by the pandemic — and urged people to check how their screen use makes them feel — and take a break if it makes them more scared or lonely.

Santos suggested that people use screens to boost their mood: “The simple act of calling a friend or setting up some Skype or Zoom time with friends can make us feel less lonely during this time. The act of doing so has a bit of a start-up cost, but the benefits are huge.”

Therapists also advise couples and families to find offline activities that they enjoy together as a way to stay connected or reconnect.

Despite the escalating demands on her, during the pandemic Santos has tried to follow the science and have boundaries, switching off at 7.30pm to spend time with her husband, and meditating before bedtime, improving sleep quality.

Maintaining a screen-life balance has become harder during the pandemic as people are more dependent on screens to work and socialise.


Burnout is a common risk of lockdown working conditions, where the line between work and home gets blurred.

“As an executive coach, some of my observations of the state of leaders are of stress and burnout, fear, anxiety, constant pressure [to perform] at speed and the workload has increased,” said Mkhondo.

People are working longer hours now than when they spent their day in the office, said Unisa’s Tabane, whose private practice is in Pretoria. “Now they are on Teams (or Zoom, or Hangouts) from 8 to 12. People are burnt out and getting irritable more easily.

“We need to remember people need personal space and there are labour laws to protect you.”

Universally, millions have found the change of routine to be difficult, though some people with the resources and the desire to be at home have adapted gracefully, even gratefully.

But, said Santos, “I think a lot of us are still struggling with the simple changes to our routine. We’re not going to school or work any more, which makes it hard to mark time, or just focus like we usually do.

“You can fix this by setting up your own personal routines. Even if you’re working from home, do so in a specific spot in your home, and do a ritual to end the workday so you know you can take a break,” said Santos, who has produced coronavirus special episodes of the Happiness Lab.

“The sources of happiness remain the same during the pandemic — taking time for gratitude, getting in some social connection, healthy habits like exercise and sleep, and finding ways to be present.

“The same things cause happiness; it is just that we need to be a bit more intentional about making sure we do those happiness-inducing behaviours during the current time.”


  •  Every night, write down three to five things you are grateful for.
  • Intentionally make one additional social connection each day, even if that is calling a friend or meeting over Zoom or Facetime— it doesn’t have to be in person.
  •  Get a half hour of cardio each day.
  • Sleep enough (typically seven hours or more a night).
  •  Take your foot off the pedal and just breathe consciously to experience your inner stillness below the surface.
  • Meditate: take a few deep breaths and pay attention to the sensation of the breath flowing in and out of your nostrils or mouth. If you are feeling anxious you can gently extend your exhales,  which helps calm you.
  • Mindfulness: to focus your attention on what is happening right now, notice what you see in front of you. You can run through the different senses, too.

Sources: Laurie Santos, Mimi Cooper and Lindiwe Mkhondo


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