Social Distancing School: How to Keep Growing While Stuck at Home

One of my favorite authors and podcasters, Gretchen Rubin, developed what she refers to as a “happiness formula.” Being happier, according to Rubin, involves considering what makes us feel good, what makes us feel bad, and what makes us feel right, in an atmosphere of growth.

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Though it’s a bit clunky, and a part of me resists the idea that a state-of-being as ephemeral as happiness can be reduced to a formula, I’ve always been drawn to the final component of her claim, that happiness involves living in an atmosphere of growth. It resonates with me because my personal experience confirms it: I’m happiest when I am learning new things, improving myself and expanding my world. It’s part of the reason why I am so gung-ho about setting elaborate New Year’s resolutions, developing bucket lists for all seasons, and crafting long lists of things I’d like to accomplish.

The social distancing brought on by COVID-19 has forced me to examine and renegotiate what it really means to live in an atmosphere of growth. While growth previously included a heavy dose of travel and seeking new cultural experiences in my city, giving these things up doesn’t mean that I have to stop growing. I just need to get a little bit more creative. Here are some ideas:

Cultivate an artistic hobby

Along with a set of watercolor paints, knitting needles, and needlepoint materials, I own a sewing machine, and along with the rest of those crafting supplies, my machine gets little use. There’s only so much time in a day, and in ordinary circumstances, work, community commitments and my social life tend to take precedence over artistic hobbies. So when I realized that I was going to be spending a lot of time at home in the upcoming season, I decided to pull out my machine, start a project, and learn some new skills along the way. I ordered a pattern online, read blog posts about pattern variations, and watched a series of youtube videos on how to sew French seams. Now I basically feel like Coco Chanel, and let me tell you, it’s thrilling. 

Sewing isn’t for everyone, but artistic hobbies abound (Calligraphy! Music making! Cake decorating! Cooking!), as do electronic resources for improving your chosen craft. Pick a project, and dive in!

Read or watch something substantive

Every year I assign myself a “challenge read” which involves working my way through a book that I feel like I should have read at some point, and theoretically want to read, but have a hard time motivating myself to actually pick up (i.e. “Moby Dick”). Not knowing how long the CDC will recommend social distancing, I’m diving right into this year’s challenge read (“The Grapes of Wrath”), and I’m planning to substitute a few travel-oriented 2020 bucket list items with additional reading goals. We’re lucky to live in an era when books are at our fingertips through apps and devices like Kindle, Hoopla, Audible, Libby, and my personal favorite Overdrive, which allows me to access library books electronically.

If reading isn’t your thing, consider watching movies or shows with some intentionality. While the mindless binge of your latest favorite show can feel relaxing in the moment, it won’t necessarily lead to the feeling of growth and satisfaction that say, working your way through the Best 100 Movies of All Time, or deciding to watch every Hitchcock film will.  

Memorize poetry

I’ve been deleting or skimming most of the COVID-19-related emails that I’ve received from various businesses, but I decided to read the message from one of my local library’s executive directors, and I was glad that I did because of his clever closing paragraph: “It feels silly to tell people to wash their hands, but… wash your hands for 20 seconds. They keep saying to sing “Happy Birthday” two times while you do it, but you may also recite “La Figlia che Piange,” which is a brief and charming poem by T.S. Eliot, and, unlike his more famous work, quite comprehensible.” What a delightful suggestion, to recite poetry while hand washing. I’ve decided to memorize one of my favorite poems, “Hope” by Lisel Mueller, so I’ve taped a copy on my bathroom mirror and am slowly learning it, with each hand-washing. If I conclude my time in isolation with a few stanzas of verse imprinted on my brain, I’ll be a happier person for it!

Social distancing isn’t easy on anyone, and depending on our circumstances, it may be especially challenging, scary and disorienting. But within all the uncertainty, there is space for growth, and if we can commit ourselves to embracing learning opportunities, we’ll not only make the present moment more endurable, but we’ll end this experience as more well-rounded people.

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