8 Easy Ways to Instantly Boost Your Mood if You’re Social Distancing Alone

·5 min read
Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

From Oprah Magazine

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

How do you prevent being alone from turning into feeling lonely—especially during a pandemic? Science tells us that the key is reaching for small things that might spark happiness by creating a flood of feel-good chemicals in your body. “It’s okay to give ourselves time and space to cry, complain, or be angry at a time like this," says Miami-based mental health counselor Raquel Espinel Suarez. "But remember to set a timer—literally—so that there’s a hard end to any wallowing. Once it dings, do something that will trigger happiness, bring back a pleasant memory, or make you smile.”

Although happiness generators are often deeply personal, there are certain crowd-pleasing actions that have been scientifically proven to release endorphins and dopamine, the hormones that kickstart happiness. Here, your to-do list for getting chipper—even when you're feeling anything but.


Turns out the greatest comfort food is actually…all food. According to a 2017 study from the Academy of Finland, the simple act of eating releases endorphins. Whether you’re digging into a delicious pizza or virtuously sipping a flavorless nutritional drink, your brain becomes flooded with its own natural opioids, creating pleasurable feelings. Additional research shows that chowing down releases dopamine not once, but twice—first as we’re consuming the food, and again once the nourishment hits our stomachs. That being said, there are specific foods that can up the ante on feeling blissful. Those include:

Chocolate. Everyone's favorite indulgence has been shown to release endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin, creating an antidepressant effect—and that's particularly true of dark chocolate. But to reap the benefits, you only need a square or two...not an Easter basket's worth.

Spicy foods. If your motto is the hotter the better, you may already be familiar with the feel-good flood in your body that occurs after eating chili peppers. Research shows that the burning in your mouth after ingesting capsaicin (the natural chemical that makes peppers hot) is actually a sensation, not a taste—and the scorching it creates sends an SOS signal to your brain to relieve the pain ASAP. That’s when endorphins rush to the rescue as your body’s way of blocking the pain and making you feel good.

Ginseng. This herb, often used in tea, has been shown to suppress stress by balancing the hormones that release it. And since chronic stress can lead to depression, ginseng seems to have a positive effect on counteracting that, too—even demonstrating levels of efficacy comparable to certain prescription antidepressants.


Our sense of smell plays a major role in our mood and how we process stress, and researchers have used electroencephalographs (EEGs) to test how various fragrances affect brain activity and cognitive function. Here’s what science says you should be sniffing to spark joy in an instant:

Vanilla. When you’re eating your feel-good chocolate—or any time you want to unwind—sniff some vanilla to further reduce anxiety. In one study, patients undergoing MRIs as a diagnostic workup for cancer at New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center were divided into two groups, with one set breathing air scented with vanilla and the other inhaling the regular, unscented stuff. Patients in the vanilla group reported feeling 63% less anxiety. But, while vanilla may put smile on your face while helping you relax, if you need a pick-me-up instead of a chill-me-out, clementine (and citrus in general) evokes feelings of happiness while upping energy—it's like a cup of coffee, without the jitters.

Pine. Maybe it’s the memories of Christmases past, but the scent of pine has been shown to lower depression and stress levels. That's one reason why Shinrin-yoku (walking or just standing in a forest to improve health) has long been a thing in Japan. One study of almost 500 volunteers in Kyoto found that they experienced a significant dip in hostility and depression and a big boost in liveliness on days they spent time near pine trees.

Freshly cut grass. Another green scent that chases away the blues, this outdoorsy aroma contains at least five chemicals with stress-relieving properties, according to research from the University of Queensland in Australia.


Most of us can attest to the emotional power of music; that's why Adele = breakup playlist, while Pharrell = HAPPY! Science also supports the idea that the songs we listen to can have a direct effect on the amount of dopamine, “the happy hormone” released by our brains.

In one study from the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital, researchers used brain imaging technology to monitor the changes in dopamine when subjects listened to different songs. Based on their findings, you might want to add these five songs—which topped their list for giving listeners “peak emotional responses”—to your playlist. They’re clinically proven to increase happiness.

“Clair de Lune,” Debussy

“Adagio for Strings,” Barber

“Piano Sonata No. 17 in D Minor (The Tempest),” Beethoven

“First Breath After Coma,” Explosions in the Sky

“Adagio for Strings,” Tiesto

Even if you don't want to be spinning tunes, you can use your sense of hearing to your advantage. Since one of the key evolutionary purposes of our sense of hearing is to warn us of danger, loud, jarring sounds (even those we may enjoy, like a drum solo) often trigger the release of the stress hormone cortisol. And noise pollution has been found to disturb our sleep and increase anxiety. When you need to relax, turn to he sounds of nature, either in real life, or recorded. Whether it’s a rainstorm, a babbling brook, or the wind rustling the leaves on a tree, research shows that natural sounds positively affect our fight-or-flight responses by encouraging our focus to go outward, and soothing the central nervous system.

If you can’t get outside, try the next best thing and bring the outdoors in with an app like MyNoise, which lets you download over 150 sounds, like “Cave Water” or “Irish Coast” for $.99 each (or $9.99 for the entire collection). Even better: some sounds, like “Rain Noise,” are free.

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