The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Staying Happy in Self-Isolation

A reader wrote me to say this article had been helpful to them. Given that the pandemic and self-isolation is ongoing, I thought it would be worth putting back up. (Originally published March 2, 2020.)

There are a lot of guides for this going around, so I’m going to skip most–but not all–of the more obvious advice. You know how to watch shows online, play games, and read books. Catch up on all that reading!

Problems fall into three broad categories: lack of people, other people, and emotional self-regulation. I’ll speak briefly on the first two, but this article is mostly about learning to create your own emotions on demand.

The first issue is if you’re by yourself. People, even most introverts, do need human contact. Isolation is harmful, and long periods of it show as brain damage. The internet isn’t much of a substitute, but as much as it is, make an effort: Don’t stick to text. Get on voice or even video and voice. The more channels you have, the better. I’ve had people I haven’t talked to in ages reaching out to me, this is a good time to reconnect to old friends and relatives you like. Even better if you can do something online together–games or puzzles or whatever. Set up a camera to show the kitchen and talk while you cook, etc.

The second issue is you’re with other people: People are great, but people also suck, and even if you like someone being in the same place as them for two or three weeks when you’re used to seeing them only the evening and the morning can get on your nerves. At the extreme end, I’ve seen anecdotal reports from police that domestic violence calls are increasing.

This is easiest to handle if you’re honest with each other than you need some alone time. Have the conversation, be clear it doesn’t mean you don’t like or love the other person, and consider even scheduling both alone and together time. Some people won’t need this, we all know best friends and couples who love being in each other’s pockets, but if that isn’t you, it doesn’t mean you aren’t real friends or don’t love each other.

The third issue is emotional self-regulation. Most of us have routines, things we do every day. Get up, coffee, light breakfast, drive to work, work, chat with co-worker, have lunch, work a bit more, goof of on the internet, etc, etc. We’ve figured out routines that keep us mostly in the same set of emotional spaces throughout the day. This is like walking with a cane: You’ve set up mood assists throughout the day, week, and year.

When you lose that routine, you lose those assists. You’ve been walking with a cane: Leaning on it, threatening kids on your lawn, and suddenly a dog thinks its a stick and races away and it’s gone.

So you need to learn how emotionally self-regulate without so many assists or you need to find new assists.

Write down things you love doing during the day that you can do at home. Those are your assists. When  your mood is low, look at the list and do one of them.

To emotionally regulate without assists you have to accept that a lot of your moods can be directly controlled. I’m not saying it’s always easy, but it’s mostly not easy because you never learned how; it’s not something our society trains us to do.

Let’s say you want to feel loving. Stand up, close your eyes, and imagine a child you love or a puppy. They’re mad glad to see you, and dash to you, and throw themselves into your arms. Open your arms in a huge hug, then mimic hugging them. Imagine it as best you can.

Practice this both with the physical movements, and entirely in your mind, until you can do it whenever you want and bring up that feeling.

Say you want to feel excited or gleeful. This is an arousal emotion, and can be used to change fear into something positive. Open your eyes as wide as you can, concentrating on lifting them up, and grin! Think of something exciting: Jumping out of an airplane with a parachute, jumping over a wall, playing frisbee with your dog, that time you snuck into some place you shouldn’t have and it was a gas, the first time you learned about something you loved (I remember how excited I was when I first read D&D books in the seventh grade), or remember bombing down a hill on your bike or a toboggan.

The feeling you’re looking for is WHEEEEEE!

When I do this, I often remember the TV show Pinky and the Brain. It always starts with Pinky asking, “What are we going to do today, Brain?” To which Brain replies, “Same as every day! Take over the WORLD.” I say that out loud or mentally.

Any emotion you can normally feel can be activated in this way: Imagine the situation, and either mimic the physical sensations of it happening, or feel them in your imagination. Ideally do both.

So find a memory or experience that reliably brings up the emotions, and watch your body as it moves into that emotion. What does it feel like? What is the face doing? The body? What are you thinking?

Once you know what it feels like, and what the change feels like, you can learn to bring it under conscious control.

There’s nothing wrong with using props here, especially in the beginning. If a piece of music reliably brings up the mood, use it. Just be aware as the emotion arises, then try and do it without the prop later.

Like most skills, there’ll be fumbling. New skills take time. Keep at it. You’ve got plenty of time and this is a chance to learn a skill that will make your life immeasurably better long after social distancing is done.

(If readers like this article, I may put together a post on emotional self-regulation while dealing with other people. Other people can be the greatest help or hindrance, but working together in this way is the among the greatest experiences in life.)

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  1. Jerry Brown

    This is probably much better advice than what I have been following. Which came from my favorite bartender and was ‘drink heavily and hope for the best’. Thanks.

  2. Zachary Smith

    I want to focus on this part of the essay:

    People, even most introverts, do need human contact. Isolation is harmful, and long periods of it show as brain damage.

    This is true. It’s also true that the US of A routinely uses isolation as a form of punishment. As a type of torture.

    This Most Exceptional Nation calls it “solitary confinement”. The relatively minor bits of confinement we’re now enduring are trivial by comparison. I hope people will give an occasional thought to the humans being treated this way in US prisons with their months and even years of far worse than what the rest of us are going through.

    Doing this isn’t right. No more than is the prevention of any coronavirus help going to Venezuela or Iran. Iran in particular is suffering terribly, and the Trumpies are doing their very best to make it worse. They’re brothers-in-arms with the b*tch Madeleine Albright. And of course Saint Hillary.

  3. I didn’t check out Pinky and the Brain until many years after its run–which will be too late for most viewers, due to all its topical references. Still, I have to give credit to any kids’ series that references Dudley Moore and Rue McLanahan!

  4. Ian Welsh

    Yeah, I’m over 50 now, my references are bound to be dated!

  5. Stirling S Newberry

    This is what a writer experiences normally.


    Considering my comments are the only comments that get moderated here, I’m gone. See ya. I hope you make it through this crucible, I really do, but I’m crossing you and the commenters here off the list and I won’t read here or comment here any longer. In fact, I won’t comment anywhere on the internet any longer. What’s the point? There is no honesty. It’s all misinformation and lies, even here.

    I’m going to spend this time with my family. They’re all I have any way and that’s a great thing to have when it’s the only thing you have.

    Good luck to you all, you’re going to need it. Continue to feel smug and secure that in a cold and lonely distant corner of the internet you have some delusional form of status and power where you can squash dissent and bully people into submission you don’t like. As it is above it is below.

    Adios. Oh, and less I forget, this blog site and many more like it won’t exist in a year let alone five years so enjoy it while you can because soon it will be no more. Want to bet?

  7. Dave Dell

    Just watching Gov. Cuomo on TV. A politician in command of himself, aware of the situation, aware of needed resources, marshalling the resources available, doing all he can for NY State and indirectly for the nation as a whole. Intelligent, coherent, able to talk in whole paragraphs.

    And what do we have nationally? Joe Biden and the orangeade competing to be President.

  8. anon y'mouse

    music helps easily accomplish this, in my opinion.

    i instead try to cultivate equanimity. stoicism helps in the face of daily travails.

    unfortunately, it departs me absolutely when it comes to our political system. as it should, i hope.

  9. Ian says:

    If readers like this article, I may put together one on emotional self-regulation while dealing with other people. Other people can be the greatest help or hindrance, but working together in this way is the among the greatest experiences in life.

    As one of those perfectly described by we all know best friends and couples who love being in each other’s pockets, but if that isn’t you…, I would be very grateful to have your advice on emotional self-regulation while dealing with others. Many thanks and stay healthy!

  10. Ivory Bill Woodpecker

    As long s I have a working computer and a working Internet connection at home, I’ll be fine.

    And if one or both fails? I have books and DVDs.

    Plus, I always have my “imaginary” Friend, from Whom I will never get a virus. :mrgreen:

  11. Zachary Smith

    Staying Happy In Self-Isolation

    So far I’ve been reading and watching DVD documentaries. Though I’ve got many unread books, they’re mostly of the ‘heavy duty’ types. For the coronavirus crisis I’m leaning towards escapist fiction. Lightweight stuff! I’ve read how Eisenhower would relax from his duties as CIC in Europe by picking up a cheap paperback Western from a stack his aides had brought in from the US. My approach is much the same, though my eBay book purchases have been old mysteries and vintage SF. An inexpensive fat “vintage” paperback arrived yesterday, and several more are on their way. Ditto for shows. I’m no great movie fan, but enjoy shows about Science, Nature, and “how they made that”. Youtube isn’t nearly as good as it used to be, but I can see enough of a show to decide if I want to try to buy a full copy from a retailer. The site remains a nice diversion if I search for “baby ducks” or “making needles” or “looking for Planet Nine”.

    For ages I’ve sworn I’d never rent books, and this still the case. Despite that, I’ve arranged to borrow an old model Kindle. My Public Library is no longer open to the public, but I figure they’ll continue to allow access to their e-books. The Internet Archive site allows people to “borrow” old books which libraries discarded ages ago. Finally, Amazon offers both free and 99 cent books of the old stuff not many people read. Stuff I like!

    Others will spend more time in the workshop. Or with video games. Watching old TV shows from decades ago. Around here we’re not “locked down”, so walking outside when the weather permits is a nice diversion. Fairly soon there will be grass to mow, and gardens to plant/tend.

  12. someofparts

    Well, it’s not for everybody, but I swear by having a dog.

  13. Hugh

    Animaniacs was great, also Rocky and Bullwinkle and Monty Python. And more recently, the Simpsons and Futurama.

    You can get either ebooks or audiobooks through your library, or Internet Archive. or librivox for audiobooks. For ebooks, there are also Project Gutenberg, Project Gutenberg Australia, and fadedpage. fadedpage is Project Gutenberg Canada. I think it is the most recent and is really well done. There is Roy Glashan’s Library that is sort of associated with Project Gutenberg Australia. It has vintage SF, some westerns, mysteries, fantasies, etc. wikisource has more classic literature.

    If you like artwork, there is wikiart, wikimedia, the Athenaeum, and Google Arts and Cultural. You can also type in an art museum and see if they have a virtual tour.

    And if you like astronomical images, you can try the ESO (European Southern Observatory), Hubble, or NASA.

  14. Ché Pasa


    I’ve probably only read half of the volumes in the house and many of those I haven’t read for many years. Our library is an endless trove of entertainment, inspiration and information even if much of it is decades or more than a century out of date. So what? We can learn what our predecessors and ancestors learned, no?

    Starting the garden… The weather is still way too cold and uncertain to put any seeds in the ground, but we can prepare the ground and start some seeds indoors. Much work clearing deadwood from the trees, chopping it into firewood. Repairs that don’t require much purchased materials. Painting. The usual.

    We have to periodically check the pantry to see what we’re running out of and may not be able to replace any time soon. There is a grocery store, dollar store, hardware store, a pharmacy, several restaurants and a post office up the road apiece, but… There is spotty stock at best. There hasn’t been flour, beans, rice, tortillas, bread, nor most paper and cleaning products to be had, in some cases for weeks. Not because of hoarding so much any more as it is due to lack of delivery or very sparse delivery. We’re out in the country, and this place isn’t a priority for deliveries. But there are some things on the shelves.

    We aren’t “locked down” in the sense of being quarantined and facing punishment if we go out. In fact, we can pretty much travel freely, though gatherings are prohibited, restaurants and bars are closed except for take out/delivery, and no events or entertainments are going to take place for the duration — which will be who knows how long.

    We have access to internet, Netflix, (no cable, though, yay!) and can do video calls, but we don’t after a disastrous introduction to Skype several years ago.

    Most of our friends and relations are in the at risk demographic as are we, but so far none have turned up positive. For what it’s worth, I’ve been on immunosuppressants and hydoxychloroquine for years so I guess I’m a walking laboratory for risk and possible treatment. I understand that hydroxychloroquine is now unavailable, however, so when I run out, who knows?

    So far as I know, there are no restrictions on travel via the interstates, for example, and plotting the cases of covid-19 in New Mexico, it’s pretty obvious that most of the “community spread” cases have started or come in via I-25, I-40, and I-10.

    And we try not to pay too much attention to the news or to the daily freak shows from the White House.

  15. Stirling S Newberry

    >Animaniacs was great, also Rocky and Bullwinkle and Monty Python. And more recently, the Simpsons and Futurama.

    Seconded. Also Batman:TAS.

  16. GlassHammer

    Some combination of Chores, Exercise, and time with the Family is working for me.

    Spending more time working on our property has been nice.
    Getting rid of overgrowth and making areas useful again feels good.
    In two weeks I should have all my preparations done for planting in May.

    All the physical activity is helping me sleep better.

  17. There are silver linings from one end of this dark cloud to the other!

  18. Willy

    I enjoyed traveling in younger days. But now I’m finding that my emotional experience of walking around exploring strange new cities can be nearly duplicated with the many walking videos I can cast to my big couch-side TV.

    And no, I’m not disabled (yet) and am fitter than almost everybody my age. But I do have to rest and recover my physical energy and bone joints for my backbreaking day job. I get more than enough interpersonal interactions with the non-native personalities I deal with in meatspace (yesterday, Tonga, Brooklyn and Jamaica).

    I’ve been to Burning Man, Gorky Park, and toured the ISS. I have a pretty good imagination and can ‘feel’ what it’d be like to live in a tiny studio apartment a block from Central Park without having to pay the $2500 a month rent. Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station seems a cool place but I wouldn’t want to live there. If I get hungry “walking” past a Shibuya alleyway ramen shop I’ll just pause for a bit and learn how to make my own with an authentic recipe.

    It’s not quite “The Matrix”, but there’s no carbon emissions, big hotel bills, long lines or sore feet. And I haven’t (knock on wood) gotten a nasty virus in years.

  19. Ché Pasa

    Italy in a happier time: ProWalks Tours

  20. mago

    I keep wondering how people in a fragmented world will hold up to another year of this. All I can say is yikes!
    And for those fortunate enough to have a practice that fosters compassion, go deeper.

  21. GlassHammer

    On the one hand I have never listened to so little human conversation and thought so highly of people.

    On the other hand I have never read so much human thought and hated people more.

    Conclusion, social cohesion requires us to never be 100% sure what someone says or thinks.

    This is why I am starting a new social media platform called Mumbler.

  22. Ben

    +1 to the “emotional self-regulation when dealing with others” article!

  23. Astrid

    A simple trick I learned early on is to smile when I engage people, whether in person, on the phone, or even text messaging or emailing. It does make a difference in my mental state and I think it comes across. Another is to read through my emails before sending, it doesn’t always catch my grammar mistakes, but it gives me time to make sure I’m making my point coherently and kindly to the other side. I don’t do it anonymous online communications and with close family members, because filtering does take effort and I feel like I’m muzzling myself, but my work relationships are often much smoother than personal ones.

    I’m lucky to be optimally set up for 1 and 2, but 3 is causing me sporadic issues. I am getting burned out from working from home though. Very hard to motivate myself to work beyond the set hours, even though I actually work at a job I feel pretty good at and want to do more to support.

  24. Willy

    You can sent snappy little videos to Bernie haters:

  25. Hugh

    It might be a reference to Heka, but I remember some ancient Egyptian writing, maybe demotic, not heiroglyphic, found on a cliff in the desert: “The whole universe belonged to me, being alone.” It is a sentiment that crosses thousands of years. Being alone doesn’t always mean being lonely. It is that moment of peace you get when you are miles from anyone or anything, just you and the universe.

  26. Willy

    Trump fucked up when he went for the divide and conquer strategy. Divide America and try to conquer it with a coup. He would’ve done better as an actual populist.

    At least we now have this:

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