Plenty of advice has been dispensed on how to maintain one’s sanity during this pandemic crisis.
Concentrate on what you can control.
Find time to take care of yourself.
These are good points of guidance. But there’s an area of morale that we’ve written about extensively in the past and that podcast guest Loretta Breuning (look for her show to go up this week) recently reminded me about, that’s been largely overlooked: the need to tend to your dopamine.
Dopamine is the neurochemical of anticipation. It generates excitement, energy, and elation in expectation of possible future rewards. It’s released when we think about and make plans for potentially fun and pleasurable moments and events.
In a time when the activities you’re able to do are limited, and the timetable for the duration of those limitations is uncertain, it’s hard to make plans of any kind and your calendar is probably pretty empty. As a result, most everyone is running low on dopamine, on the tang of anticipation, and this contributes to feeling demoralized and down in the dumps.
But even within this landscape of constraints, you can still find ways to proactively boost your dopamine and feel better about life.
While dopamine can be released when vaguely contemplating future possibilities, it’s most effectively activated by actually committing to an idea and then picking a concrete time/date for it to happen.
So the trick to improving your mood during quarantine is to make plans for different activities and then put them on your schedule.
Sure, all you can muster in terms of these activities is small stuff, but small stuff works.
Have a marriage meeting or family powwow today and take a look at the calendar for the week ahead. What are some things you can put on the schedule that you’ll look forward to, even slightly? Dopamine is particularly activated in the face of novelty, so think not only of things you know you’ll enjoy, but things you’ve never done/tried before too. The activity doesn’t have to be plainly pleasurable either; uncertainty itself activates dopamine (the chance that something might turn out to be surprisingly rewarding gets your brain excited), so anything different can work. Here are some ideas:
- Monday morning: Try a new online workout
- Tuesday night: Make a favorite dessert
- Wednesday afternoon: Take a bike ride on a part of a trail you’ve never been to before
- Thursday night: Do a video conference book club or virtual cocktail hour with friends
- Friday night: Get take-out from your favorite restaurant and eat it picnic-style at a park or your backyard
- Saturday afternoon: Drive to a state park and take a hike
- Sunday morning: Go fishing
You don’t actually have to schedule an activity for every day; we’ve found that scheduling one weekday activity and then something for both Saturday and Sunday has helped boost our spirits.
The anticipation of a picnic won’t get your dopamine soaring like thinking about an upcoming trip to Peru, but you will find it makes life feel a little more bearable.