As 2021 begins, I think we can all look back and agree that last year was a challenging year.
We all continue to be fearful of what is to follow: will we catch the COVID-19 virus, will we infect our loved ones, will another lockdown make us redundant…will life ever be normal again?
These are some questions that continue to occupy our thoughts and cause an alarming degree of fear and anxiety—a symbol of the uncertain times we live in, as we figure out daily how to cope.
Personally, this past year taught me vital life lessons, most importantly, practising self-care, and the importance of both physical and mental health. The knowledge I gained has proven invaluable to me, helping me to deal with the curveballs 2020 threw our way.
Perhaps some of these will resonate with you as well and help you on your journey as you navigate the anxiety-provoking times ahead of us.
Contrary to expectations, it is good relationships and not fame, wealth, or high achievement that keep us happier and healthier. This crucial finding was the outcome of one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies on happiness spanning a period of 75 years (Harvard study of Adult Development tracking the lives of over 700 participants). Strong social connections protect both our bodies and our brains, making people live longer and delaying the decline of brain function.
In these times of social isolation, being physically alone does not have to mean being alone socially. Embrace digital connections. Take the time for that video chat with your parents, grandparents, or for a Zoom call with school friends you haven’t spoken to in ages. Connectedness matters more than we think, more so in these times.
Random Acts of Kindness:
Studies have shown that doing random acts of kindness have many physical and psychological benefits. Being kind reduces our general levels of stress and anxiety. It increases the levels of “feel-good” hormones, serotonin and oxytocin, in our bodies. As a result, we feel more relaxed, calm, and energized. In 2010, Harvard Business School conducted a survey on happiness in 136 countries all over the world and found that altruistic people are by far the happiest.
Helping others does not have to be something grand. Holding a door open for someone, helping an elderly neighbour with groceries, or even a warm smile for a stranger are all examples of simple acts of kindness, which bump up happiness.
Savouring and Gratitude:
In other words, appreciating experiences as and when they are happening. One of the biggest benefits of savouring is that it thwarts what is referred to in Psychology as “hedonic adaptation.” To clarify with an example, material goods such as a new iPhone, a brand-new car, or a salary raise may give us happiness initially, however, we then adapt and get accustomed to them. After a while they simply become the new normal bringing us no additional happiness.
Material goods such as these simply will not give a sustained level of happiness. So, instead, we need to invest more in experiences and savour them, sharing them with family and friends, reliving those happy memories. The practice of gratitude also goes hand in hand with the act of savouring. Being thankful for what you have keeps negativity at bay, promoting happiness and contentment.
Expressing one’s true emotions and feelings is directly related to good physical and mental health. The discovery that suppression of emotion damages our health and well-being was made by Freud, nearly a century ago. Today, more than ever, it is essential to acknowledge our emotions, instead of suppressing them. Studies carried out by University of Texas Professor Pennebaker and his colleagues (1997) established that people who suppress their emotions also suppress their body’s immune system, making them more susceptible to numerous illnesses ranging from the common cold to cancer. Thus, grief, sorrow, and anger, commonly perceived as negative emotions, need to be expressed and not bypassed.
Reliability of News:
The rise of social media has led to an information overload, with people absorbing news from various social media platforms. In addition, we also fall prey to the psychological phenomenon known as “confirmation bias,” an inclination to seek out information in support of our opinions and ignore contradictory points of view.
At the same time, due to cognitive laziness, most people happily choose to simply hear the news from their channel of choice or simply scroll through their newsfeeds on social media platforms. We need to be cognisant of this lapse and strive to make informed choices, forming opinions based on sound judgement.
Unplugging is also crucial, especially before going to sleep. Giving in to an evening ritual of “doom scrolling,” the term used for continuously scrolling through sad or depressing news, enhances feelings of stress and anxiety, dashing any hopes of a good night’s restful sleep.
Research has interestingly shown that being “present” in the moment is a key predictor of happiness. A study done by Harvard Psychologists Killingsworth and Gilbert (2010) revealed that nearly half our thoughts are not related to what we are doing, and it is this mind wandering that makes us unhappy.
In addition to showing just how often our mind wandered, the study also revealed that we are happiest when our thoughts are in synch with our actions. For example, a person doing the dishes and focusing on doing the dishes is happier than a person doing the dishes while thinking of a sunny beach.
Practising mindfulness can be challenging at first, but it can be improved through training, by focusing on your breath. A simple practice to follow is when you feel your mind begin to wander, bring it back to focus on the breath. Breathing consciously not only develops your mental strength, but it also improves cognitive performance, reduces stress, and strengthens brain tissue.
According to the theory of social comparison, it is an inherent part of human nature to compare ourselves to others. In fact, judging one’s self in comparison to peers is particularly pronounced during adolescence, being a crucial part of identity formation.
Studies by Vogel, Rose, and colleagues at the University of Toledo (2014) have shown that social media aggravates this spirit of comparison and competition, damaging one’s self-esteem and self-image. These social comparisons induce a deep sense of insecurity and diminished worth, particularly in teens and adolescents, with a higher percentage of females being affected.
Hence, the need to make a concentrated effort not to succumb to social comparisons, or if at all, and then a downward social comparison instead of an upward one. In other words, compare yourself to people worse off than you, rather than those who are better off, as this would instill a feeling of gratitude for all that we have been blessed with.
In addition to the points mentioned above, to alleviate anxiety and stress in these uncertain times, our focus needs to shift to things that we can control.
With a vast majority working from home, keeping a structured schedule, for example, is highly beneficial. Having regular mealtimes and consistent breaks during the day to go for a walk, or practise yoga, gives a sense of calm and groundedness, reducing anxiety.
Here in Canada, many people started decorating their homes early for Christmas. Channelling their energy toward turning their homes into a safe and cozy haven amidst the uncertainty and chaos looming outside not only serves as a wonderful distraction, but fills people with hope for happier times ahead.
So, here’s to welcoming the New Year 2021.
I hope and pray that it is a safer, healthier, and happier one for us all.