Some activities lead to positive emotions that can help us build resilience.

A few weeks ago, to make the family Zoom call more entertaining, I played the ukulele.

We’ve been sharing our talents—I use the term loosely—during our weekly calls. My mom taught an art lesson, my sister twirled the baton like she did when she was a child. My husband did a fly-tying demonstration.

When it was my turn, I pulled out the ukulele, for the first time in a couple of years. After that Zoom call, I tipped the instrument against my desk instead of putting it away. And I’ve played it every day since.

The practices, usually just a few minutes between work tasks, or calls, are helping me to become a slightly better ukulele player. But there are a couple of other benefits that are even better.

I mentioned this to my husband a few weeks ago. Playing the uke just a few minutes a day, seemed to change my attitude about everything. Life felt a little lighter.

Now after reading research out of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, I have a better idea why.

After surveying more than 600 Americans, researchers found some are feeling higher rates of loneliness and anxiety—as expected during a pandemic. But others are thriving and feeling more gratitude, appreciation, and other positive emotions that are helping them to feel good during this time.

These are the people, according to the study, who are adding in activities that generally lead to positive emotions. Things like exercise, compelling hobbies, relaxation, safe social connection, helping others, prayer or meditation, and other self-care strategies.

Not only do we enjoy the activity while we are doing it, (mostly, I hate exercise, but I feel proud of myself when I’m working out) but the positive feelings that emerge also help buffer us from the bad, making us more resilient.

The effect is even more powerful for those who are experiencing more negative emotions.

“The more stressed, anxious, lonely or depressed you are, the more it matters that you take time to exercise and care for yourself,” writes Barbara L. Fredrickson, director of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology (PEP) lab at the university, and Michael M. Prinzing, a graduate fellow in the lab.

The way to better feelings even in the COVID-era isn’t to deny the fear or confusion, upset, or anxiety. This isn’t about suppression. But we must also deliberately add in positive, life-enhancing activities, according to research. Things we can turn to even when we are feeling low.

The researchers suggest we even write these kinds of self-care activities into our calendars so we are regularly reminded to do them. That helps me too. I schedule exercise in and now, I make sure I have a few minutes free between things to spontaneously play the ukulele.

It’s absorbing, challenging. I’ve got a lot to learn before I’ll be able to play it well, but every time I strum it, I’m engaged. Curious. I also find there isn’t the mental bandwidth for me to think of anything else. During those few minutes I’m wholly focused on this hobby and in the end, that feels like a break. A rest and reprieve from weightier issues.

Turns out the ukulele has become a major coping tool for me. And it’s also replaced one of my bad habits.

It used to be you could find my mindlessly scrolling through social media posts and linked articles during my breaks. I’d wind up ruminating over bad news, upset over the negativity and despair this is also out there, a part of our experience. I’d get stuck in those feelings and feel more stressed. I’d have a harder time focusing on my work too.

Social media can intensify our negative feelings like stress and anxiety, without enhancing our good feelings. The new uke-playing hobby I’ve picked up means I spend less time online. I still read the news from reliable sources at the beginning of the day, but I don’t get involved in the back-and-forth posts about it. I think that’s another reason I’m feeling a bit happier, more grounded, less reactive.

Throughout the day, for just a few minutes at a time, I’m doing something that feels good and interesting. That habit has replaced one that often made me feel bad. Makes sense, right?

Maybe it will work for you too. What interesting, healthy, fun activity can you add into your day to help generate better feelings? Mediate? Sit outside and watch the birds? Play music loudly and dance? Maybe you’ll cook or go for a walk or do cross-stitch or watercolor. Pick something that feels intriguing, positive, challenging, satisfying. Something that enhances your life adds meaning and the benefits will outweigh the bad feelings.