For months, University of Washington psychological scientist Jonathan Kanter has been leading local and national studies on how people have been coping with quarantines and isolation.
Yet he’s not doing any better than the rest of us.
“Honestly, I am exhausted and almost everything I say feels super hypocritical,” said Kanter, a research associate professor of psychology and the director of the university’s Center for the Science of Social Connection.
Food scarcity. Homelessness. A rise in unemployment. Racial injustice. People are exhausted. Their relationships are strained. It’s tough to relax.
“It’s ridiculous what is happening in our country this holiday season,” he said.
But there are things we can do, he said, to overcome it all and enjoy the holidays.
“Maybe try to reflect back to what things were like at the beginning of the pandemic,” he suggested. “Back before things in our country became so massively politicized.”
Back in March, he said, there were large-scale feelings of solidarity and togetherness.
“It’s hard to remember such an innocent time,” Kanter said. “We were going through something unusual, but we were going through it together.”
Around the same time, Kanter began overseeing research by UW doctoral student Adam Kuczynski on social isolation, loneliness and related health risks.
The results — still being reviewed — are expected to shed light on how keeping our physical selves safe during a pandemic may take a toll on our mental health, and our hearts.
For two weeks, those in the study received coping suggestions from Kanter and Kuczynski. Once the researchers stopped providing tips, Kanter said, “they fell back.”
After months of racial and political strife that Kanter compared to the Civil War, “The holiday season is the time to reach out to our neighbors.”
His advice comes at just the right time.
Just last month, about half of Seattle-area adults said they were dealing with feelings of depression, according to a U.S. Census Bureau survey. Of the slightly more than 3 million people age 18 and older in the Seattle metro area, an estimated 1.5 million were feeling “down, depressed or hopeless” at least a few days over the previous week, the survey found.
Kanter’s data suggests that it’s important to “protect against loneliness and save your mental well-being.”
“I encourage people to go back to the basic steps of relationships,” he said. “Talk to people you care about.”
It’s also a time to release the stress we’ve been under, which is known to have negative effects on our health.
“Remember to breathe,” Kanter said, with a laugh. “As human beings, we have the capacity to feel a lot of discomfort and tremendous stress and to keep going with grace and integrity.
“It starts with remembering to breathe and relate with your body,” he said. “And I think it’s cliché, but it’s one of the most meaningful things I can say: Just take it day by day.”
Accept that this holiday season is different from those in the past, or may not be what you want. But it can still be meaningful.
After so much grief and personal loss, he said, “The best thing we can do in the morning is wake up, take a couple of breaths and ask, ‘What’s important, what are my values and what do I care for?'”
And, as we approach a new year, Kanter noted there is “pretty good data” on something called “goal flexibility.”
When people suffer losses or changes in their lives, as they have this year, “the ability to be flexible and fix new goals is important.”
Open up to change and move on to new goals that are within your capacity, he said, rather than “rigidly sticking to goals that are out of reach.”
“Goals and ambition are good, but I think it’s about realistic goals and ambitions that are based on the current situation,” he said.
Breathe. Relax. Connect with someone.
“The cliché of the holiday season is to let people know how much you care and how much you love them,” Kanter said. His data suggests such outreach is an important safeguard against loneliness and protects your mental well-being.
“The research is clear that giving and expressing appreciation and supporting others not only helps the person who receives it, but helps our own mental well-being as well.”
“That spirit of giving is really necessary,” he said, “and it’s not going to stop on Jan. 1.”