Isabel Seliger

For those enduring the mental and emotional challenge of social isolation during coronavirus, cold-weather concepts like hygge offer insights on how to cope.

Winters in Calgary, Canada, can be long, lasting anywhere between six to eight months. They can be brutal, too, with extreme storms and temperatures that can shut down entire parts of the city. So in mid-March, when local artists Caitlind Brown and Wayne Garrett voluntarily quarantined themselves for two weeks after returning from Germany, the experience felt familiar.

“If there is a major storm here, we’re told to stay home anyway so [quarantining] isn’t entirely alien,” says Brown. “So I’ve been thinking a lot about whether people in colder climates have an easier time self-isolating because they’re used to it, to some extent.”

For billions of people who are waiting out the pandemic inside their homes, cabin fever is kicking in. The feelings of loneliness, lethargy, boredom, and restlessness from not being able to go outside regularly or engage in social activities bear some resemblance to what some Canadians, and other communities farther north, cope with daily during drawn-out winters.

Brown and Garrett are the creators of the Hibernation Project, a weekly showcase of art installations that address isolation and loneliness during winter. Launched last year, it challenges local artists to create pieces around themes like feasting, anticipation, and, well, isolation. “Every event up until the point of social distancing has been about gathering in our domestic space,” says Brown. They’ve invited artists to a potluck of strange dishes in their basement, for example, where they recorded their guests’ “tummy gurgles” — which was later used as the “cozy” background audio to the immersive cave they built right in their living room.

Their project incorporates hygge, a Nordic concept that roughly translates to “coziness,” but is more than that. It’s a philosophy that emphasizes more intentional ways to find delight in your surroundings, even in the worst circumstances, according to Meik Wiking, the
 CEO 
of Denmark’s Happiness Research Institute and the author of “The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well.” The Danish incorporate hygge into their lifestyle as part of as a “survival strategy” for winter days in which they have to stay inside, and with limited sunlight. And over the last few years, it’s gained traction in North America as a way to cope with the bleakness — and discover the joys — of their own winters. It calls for reveling in life’s simple pleasures, which in the urban context can mean anything from exploring the winter landscape to meeting up with friends over hot drinks.

“Hygge is also this feeling of being sheltered from the outside,” Weiking says. Think of it as the art of “creating a nice atmosphere,” or a “perfect night in,” which is why it can be applicable to the current pandemic.

Of course, the parallels between the winter blues and psychological toll of Covid-19 aren’t perfect. Uncertainty over the pandemic, the anxiety of its economic ramifications, and the strain of pandemic-time burdens like caring for vulnerable relatives and children all add extra layers of stress. But people who’ve embraced staying indoors for long periods of time can offer the rest of the world some guidance on how to cope with social isolation and endure the long days inside.

Indulge in your guilty pleasures

If there’s one concept that’s central to hygge it’s that now is the time to indulge in the things that comfort you. “It’s about giving your overachieving adult cells a break and enjoying some guilty pleasures,” says Wiking. “If these aren’t the days to do exactly that, I don’t know when it will be.”

In practice, that means when you do your less-frequent grocery shopping, anticipate your cravings and don’t underestimate how much you may need to stock up on that chocolate you’ll crave later. If binging all five seasons of “Breaking Bad” on Netflix is how you want to spend your day, there is no shame in that either.

In fact, a recent study out of the University at Buffalo suggests that, especially at a time when our traditional social lives are upended, it’s healthy to lean on guilty pleasures for fulfillment. Screen time and comfort food don’t replace interpersonal relationships, but they are often “associated with social connections, love, caring for others and being cared for,” psychology professor Shira Gabriel, who led the study, told the Seattle Times.

Take the slow approach

In 2015, Brown and Garret visited Dawson City, Yukon — 1,700 miles north of Calgary and along the same latitude as Alaska — to talk to residents about the experience of living in near-constant darkness. The city gets just four hours of sunlight on the shortest days of the years.

“Something we were told was that people in urban spaces tend to forget that it’s actually OK to sleep and eat more in the winter,” says Brown. “And I think that’s true now as well.”

Urban living is well known for its fast pace, with residents always on the move. With cities at near-complete standstill, many now find themselves with a sudden abundance of time, but also exhaustion and a lack of motivation. Under the stress of a global pandemic,  it’s worth saving what energy you have left, and avoid forcing yourself to engage in the usual grind of city life.  

“People are beating themselves up because they can’t go to the gym, but that’s OK,” Brown adds. “Do what’s healthy for you and cut yourself a break.”

Wiking says this is also a good time to engage in slower, more relaxing activities that under normal circumstances, you may not have time to do.

Rather than throwing together that quick sandwich, for example, consider making a stew, if that fits your taste. “Hygge cooking is also slow cooking, and I mean, these are times that allow us to have a stew boil for three or four hours.” Or, as many in the U.S. have done, get a jigsaw puzzle and slowly work your way through it, a couple pieces at a time. It’s not hard to see how that activity fits nicely with the concept of hygge. One Bloomberg reporter described her experience:

They’re cozy and comforting and distracting. In a time when the real world is a giant car wreck we can’t look away from long enough to read a book — jigsaw puzzles offer a not-too-taxing mental exercise. Normally, I find them a little bit boring. But “a little bit boring” is about all I can keep up with at the moment.

Make the most out of your time in isolation

Another core tenet of hygge is that winter is not just something to be endured. It’s an opportunity to find what you enjoy doing and lose track of time doing it.

As artists, Brown and Garrett are always itching to make something. “Winter time can really have an impact on your psyche, your productivity and your social space,” says Brown. “So we started the Hibernation Project as an excuse to keep making things.”

If you’re looking for inspiration, Garrett suggests embracing the boredom. That means rather than grabbing your phone when you’re bored, “allow yourself to think and wander, and that can lead to great creativity,” he says. Find a new passion project that you’ve always put aside for a later date or pick up a new skill. For the outdoorsy, maybe go exploring (safely) the nooks of your neighborhood. Or maybe you’ve never been a crafty type, but now’s the time you decide to give papier-mâché a try.

“The idea is to make the most of isolation, and pursue all sorts of hobbies,” he says.

There’s a a caveat, though. The key is to not pressure yourself into feeling that you have to start anything or even be productive, which is not only stifling, but would hurt more than help your mental well-being. “Do or not do as you deem appropriate,” says Brown.

Recalibrate your priorities

It’s worth thinking about the pandemic like winter in that winter is temporary. “Like winter, this will come to pass as well, and we will all come out of isolation. So there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” says Garrett.

That bit of optimism can be more than just comforting. “If you choose to recognize [the lockdowns] as something that won’t last forever, there are some opportunities for a hard reset,” Brown adds.

Between rushing from place to place, and finishing one task after another, the daily grind has some of us living life on autopilot — with little time to reflect on the decisions we make. For those whose routines have now been disrupted by the pandemic, and replaced with prolonged periods of time indoors, there’s an opportunity to re-enter them differently when the city opens up again.

Urban planners have been doing this on a larger scale as they think about how recovery could make streets safer and more pedestrian-friendly, and cities more resilient overall. On a more personal level, this might be the time to rethink relationships, reorganize priorities and find a different career path, or break old habits and from new ones. You can “reevaluate almost every aspect of the every day,” says Brown, adding that few get that kind of opportunity outside of life events like weddings or funerals.

There is more than one way to be “alone together”

Loneliness is perhaps one of the biggest threats of social isolation — whether due to the weather or a novel virus — as getting together with loved ones is both endangering yourself and the other party. For many, videoconferencing tools have become a godsend, and people have gotten creative with them. Happy hours, watch parties, and dance nights have all happened over the digital space.

Since the pandemic, Brown and Garrett have also had to move their project online. They’ve held a digital dinner party, followed by a game night in which different artists introduced different social-distance-friendly activities. One was a guessing game in which one player read a Yelp review and others had to guess what establishment it was for. The pair also created a virtual art gallery in which artists set up exhibits for different chat rooms that “visitors” call into. They also created their own version of public access television, with artists hosting bake-alongs and performances on different “channels.”

Brown says there’s room to get creative with the technology, but it’s OK to keep it simple, too. “Just reach out in whatever way you can,” she says, adding that it might be more complicated for some people who are unfamiliar with new technology. “So if you’re capable of doing it, reach out to the people who you feel can’t reach out to you.”

Find small “escapes” throughout the day

Circumstances beyond our control can trigger feelings of helplessness. In moments of mental distress, it’s important to give yourself a break by “escaping” to a place that sparks more positive emotions. And not all of those sheltering at home have the luxury of time for new hobbies. For caretakers now working around the clock and often under chaotic conditions, even a short breather can be especially crucial.

This can be to a physical space within your home, like a nook near a window for sunlight, or outdoors for a solo walk or a breath of fresh air, or even to your bed. Or this could be a figurative space: a phone call with a loved one, or a “journey” to the fictional world. “I escape into books,” says Wiking. “Reading allows us to travel in time and space, and since we are forced indoors these days, I can still explore the world through the books and in a very comfortable manner.”

These are the simple pleasures at the core of hygge, and can help people maintain their mental health, which Wiking and his team at the Happiness Institute consider a primary factor contributing to someone’s happiness. They’re currently conducting an international survey on emotional well-being during the pandemic, which will be measured by each person’s satisfaction in life, frequency of social connection, and coronavirus-related fears, among other things.

“As a happiness researcher, I'm painfully aware that things go up and down in life, that we all encounter struggles and hardship, and loneliness and loss, as a lot of us are these days,” he says. The results of his survey won’t come out for a while, but the latest World Happiness Report, published last month, found that people in strong communities — in which there are higher levels of interpersonal and institutional trust — are more resilient during hard times. As are people who have social support from friends and families.

“I would imagine that we will see an increase in the sense of gratitude towards everyday pleasures, like going outside and hanging out with friends, once we hopefully get to the other side of this,” he says.

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