It's nothing new to say that these are trying times--or to add that the social distancing treatment we've prescribed culture-wide for the pandemic has had some unfortunate effects on mental health.

But now, a top psychologist who studies the science of happiness at the University of North Carolina has come out with a short study that embraces a simple solution that I think will resonate with many people.

In short, a brief semantic change she's suggesting might well have a positive impact on behaviors that lead to good mental health and happiness--while still accomplishing the physical distancing objectives we've learned are necessary.

Dr. Barbara Lee Fredrickson is a psychology professor and the head of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab at UNC.

Recently, her team surveyed 600 Americans to ask about their daily activities and correlate them with the degree to which they experience positive or negative emotions.

The results, which I'll lay out below, aren't all that surprising. But it's what Fredrickson and her associate, Michael M. Prinzing, a graduate fellow who works in the lab, advised as a result (a change in nomenclature, really) that might make you really stop and think.

First, the results of their study. The team at UNC found that people who described having spent part of the 24 hours before they were questioned doing the following things were more likely to report feeling negative emotions:

  • Passively scrolling social media
  • Interacting with people purely through chat or text

"Interacting with others doesn't seem to help much when you can't actually see or hear the people you are communicating with. This was a useful wake-up call for us," Frederickson and Prinzing write.

The following activities were more likely to be associated with those reporting positive emotions:

  • Exercise
  • Self-care (such as participating in hobbies or relaxing)
  • Engaging in spiritual activities (prayer or meditation)
  • Interacting with other people, especially via video or face-to-face interactions
  • Going out of their way to help other people

"Most people know that these things are important, of course. But they are especially so these days, as we stay at home to slow the spread of the coronavirus," Frederickson says.

So, how do we encourage people to engage in the second group of activities at the expense of the first? One simple way might be to change the words we're using, no longer calling it "social distancing," but instead, "physical distancing and social solidarity?."

Personally, I'm going to try it. And it might make a lot of sense for the people you lead in your business, as well.

The less you can emphasize distance--and instead emphasize physical separation but social connection in your language--the better things might be for your employees.

And the more you can encourage employees and others to do the things on the positive list--exercising, connecting with others, engaging in self-care and spirituality, and helping others--the better it can be for them (and by extension, for your business.)

We might not be able to change the entire world, but we can certainly affect the people we lead. And if a small change in terminology and attitude might have an effect, it seems to me it's certainly worth a try.