Focus on the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, experts suggest

Relationship and happiness scientists weigh in on the psychological benefits of socializing versus the risk of COVID-19 this winter, and offer suggestions on how to make it through the next four months.

Relationship and happiness scientists weigh in on how best to get through the next 4 months

A person in a mask stands on a corner as snow falls in Ottawa on Nov. 22, 2020. An epidemiologist says next spring will be 'hope-filled' with vaccinations, so people should remain vigilant about pandemic health restrictions this winter. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

With winter in the air and the concept of social bubbles long burst, one epidemiologist is advising us to avoid socializing altogether for the next four months — because there's light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel.

"So just slowly keep walking towards the end while maintaining yourself in a protected environment within that tunnel," said Dr. Gerald Evans, chair of the division of infectious diseases at Queen's University.

"When spring comes, it's going to be a lot more hope-filled because we're going to have lots of potential for vaccinations and getting people back to doing the normal things they like to do," Evans said.

Ontario scrapped the idea of social bubbles — groups of 10 close contacts that may include people outside one's household — in October.

Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa's medical officer of health, has repeatedly said that people must stay within their immediate households, and those living alone should be limited to essential contacts — one or two people, like a close friend or a counsellor.

Socialize, but differently: relationship scientist

Relationship scientist Cheryl Harasymchuk said people should make socializing a priority this winter to mitigate the potential mental health risks of isolation — just not in the ways they typically think.

"What I think people need to do is adjust their expectation and preconceptions of what a social life means," said Harasymchuk, an associate professor at Carleton University.

There are mistakes we make when we predict our future happiness.- John Zelenski, Carleton University

She said research suggests that "small, everyday gestures" matter for well-being, so daily interaction with a couple of close friends is still key — but it can take different forms, such as sending a meaningful text with a photo, or calling to ask how an interview went.

In May, Harasymchuk recruited single people living alone and tracked them for six weeks. She looked at the creative, playful moments they had with close friends during that time. Those included fancy dress-up Zoom calls, making lip-synching videos together, participating in online escape rooms, and holding virtual bake-offs and "pub" trivia nights.

A person walks their dog as hail falls in Ottawa in May. John Zelenski, who studies how people connect with nature, suggests going outside, or staying indoors with plants or pets if it's too cold. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Harasymchuk, who also researches romantic relationships, said limiting affectionate touch this winter won't "forever damage" people, as in case studies involving orphans or monkeys who had no contact with others for extended periods.

"There is an end in sight," said Harasymchuk. "My gut reaction is people can make do with this relatively short time [of limited touch]."

Managing your expectations

John Zelenski, professor of psychology and director of the Happiness Laboratory at Carleton University, said as people contemplate whether to gather this Christmas, they should be aware of the "focusing illusion."

He said people tend to zero in on how one particular event could impact their well-being — like watching their favourite sports team win, or attending a big family gathering.

"There are mistakes we make when we predict our future happiness," said Zelenski. "We overestimate the impact."

He said virtual contact "gets us pretty far," although it's not the same as physical touch and contact. 

Zelenski, who studies how people connect with nature, suggested spending time outside, or indoors with plants or pets if it's too cold. He also said making a connection with a stranger or someone with whom you have "weak ties" can be rewarding during this time.


Priscilla Hwang


Priscilla Hwang is a reporter with CBC News based in Ottawa. She's worked with the investigative unit, CBC Toronto, and CBC North in Yellowknife, Whitehorse and Iqaluit. Before joining the CBC in 2016, she travelled across the Middle East and North Africa to share people's stories. She has a Master of Journalism from Carleton University and speaks Korean, Tunisian Arabic, and dabbles at classical Arabic and French. Want to contact her? Email or @prisksh on Twitter.

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