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6 Ways to Find Joy During This Dreary Winter, According to a Happiness Expert

8 minute read

Meik Wiking knows how to find joy in the little things. On a recent evening, the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen settles into his favorite chair and pauses to explain why he loves it so much: “It’s the chair in the corner,” he says, “where I can observe the entire room so no Vikings can sneak up on me.”

Channeling a similar sense of playfulness is just one of the many things we can do to try to boost our moods this winter. As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, colder weather is stifling the few safe outdoor activities available to us and the expectations and pressures that come with the holiday season are bearing down. The hardship and grief that so many people around the world are facing are devastating, and there’s nothing that can erase that pain. But there are a few strategies we can employ to try to create moments of relief. Wiking, who has written several books on happiness, including The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living and The Art of Making Memories: How to Create and Remember Happy Moments, is here to help.

In a recent study conducted by the Happiness Research Institute, Wiking and his team found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that COVID-19 case counts were closely linked with emotional wellbeing. The researchers surveyed 3,211 people in 97 countries up to six times each during a three-month period starting in April. With rising case numbers came increased feelings of boredom and anxiety, along with decreased feelings of pride, happiness and relaxedness. “The impact on anxiety was most pronounced,” the researchers reported. “Per one million people, for every 100 new cases, 7,200 become anxious.” Loneliness posed a high risk to younger people, people without jobs or single people, and life satisfaction went down drastically in nearly every European country. And the more news survey participants read or consumed about the pandemic, the higher their chances of experiencing greater amounts of worry and fear.

The question of how we can try to feel happy amid it all looms large, so Wiking spoke to TIME about some of the methods he has found through his research and his own life that can help brighten our days. Here, he suggests six ways that we can try to feel happy this winter.

Dive into a good book

“Books have this wonderful ability to allow us to travel in time and space,” says Wiking, who has found himself reading more than usual. Before the pandemic, he would travel up to three times each month for work, but this year, he hasn’t ventured far beyond his Viking-proof chair—so he has turned to stories. And along with that magical ability to transport us through words, reading has also been found to decrease stress and increase life satisfaction, happiness and the feeling that the things one does in life are worthwhile. One study from researchers at the University of Sussex found that just six minutes of reading could reduce stress by up to 68%.

Read more: TIME’s 100 Must-Read Books of the Year

Create new experiences through seeking new sensations

The Happiness Research Institute’s 2018 Happy Memory Study showed the importance of experiencing new things in order to forge happy memories. The study found that nearly a quarter of people’s memories were of unique experiences, and of their happy memories specifically, more than 5% were of firsts—first time being in love, first visit to a new country, first time seeing “Starry Night” in person. During the pandemic, it may be harder to experience positive firsts, but, Wiking points out, there are ways to get a little creative. New sensations—smells, tastes, physical feelings, sights or sounds—even if we don’t necessarily love them, can lead to developing novel memories. “You could try Danish smoked herring, or basically any herring,” Wiking suggests. “That might be a new taste sensation for you that you might not try a second time, but it will be new.”

Of course, the act of living through a pandemic is itself a new experience, if a deeply challenging one. And it’s something we’ll remember for the rest of our lives. Wiking offers a bit of encouragement for actively seeking to create stand-out moments: “It’s a good year to be making memories, because they’re sure going to stick.”

Mark the happy moments

On that note, it’s important to appreciate those moments as they’re unfolding. A reader of Wiking’s The Art of Making Memories once told him that the book reminded her of something that occurred when she was 7 or 8 years old. She was eating dinner with her mother and sister, and they were having a great time, laughing and rejoicing in each other’s company, when her mother stopped and said, “I hope you remember this moment.” And decades later, she did remember it.

Simply calling out small moments of joy or contentment, Wiking explains, can help a lot. “The act of attention is a tool we can use, and of course it’s a tool that you can overuse,” he says, “but every once in a while, just saying, ‘I hope you remember this moment,’ can be quite powerful.”

Practice hygge

You might remember hygge, the Danish word for a way of living that embraces finding pleasure in everyday experiences. Hygge saw a moment of global fame as a trend in 2016, and many believed then that adopting it could help counter the turmoil felt as a result of the political chaos and natural disasters at the time. Hygge, which Wiking also refers to as “the perfect night in,” might once again be especially helpful, since people are now forced indoors. Making small changes to the home atmosphere, such as lighting candles and snuggling up with blankets, can help evoke that sense of coziness indoors when limited daylight hours and colder weather make the outdoors less friendly. Wiking tells the story of a family that started using candles at dinnertime, and as a result, noticed that their meals lasted about 20 minutes longer. “I don’t think candles are going to change the world,” Wiking says, but he adds, “It puts everyone in a storytelling mood, instead of just sitting down, shoveling down the food and playing with their devices.”

To level up your hygge practice, Wiking suggests bringing out the blankets, board games, books, puzzles and mulled wine: “Hunker down and go into hygge hibernation.”

Spend more time in the kitchen

Cooking, both the process and the product, can bring joy. Like many people around the world, Wiking has noticed that he’s been spending more time in the kitchen than usual, since restaurants are closed and he’s had more time to cook. “It’s a nice pleasurable activity to engage yourself in,” he says, “and to me, it’s a big part of day-to-day happiness that I’m able to create and enjoy a nice meal.”

The best new dish he’s attempted under quarantine: a simple French tarte tatin, which he describes as “happiness in a circle.” Baking the sweet is a great way to use up any apples or plums that might be going bad soon. Following Wiking’s instructions, melt some sugar in an oven-safe pan, add plenty of butter, drop in the chopped fruit and let it simmer. Lay puff pastry on top, and bake for 25 minutes at 200 degrees Celsius (about 390 degrees Fahrenheit). When it’s finished, flip it onto a serving plate and enjoy.

Acknowledge that nobody is happy all the time

For all his investment in happiness and the study of how to achieve it, Wiking is clear about the fact that no one can sustain unending happiness. Free yourself from the pressure of that impossible standard. “In any human life, there will be times of unhappiness, of worry, of heartbreak, of failure, of struggles, and that’s part of the human experience,” he says. “That’s what we collectively as a human race are going through this year.” While we’re losing loved ones, dealing with record unemployment rates and facing isolation and concerns about our own health, Wiking says it might help to simply acknowledge that it’s been a difficult year. And, looking ahead to the other side of the pandemic, know that we may feel more grateful for some of the things we took for granted before, whether it’s spending time with family, moving through the world without worrying about coming into contact with others or hugging our friends.

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Write to Anna Purna Kambhampaty at Anna.kambhampaty@time.com