Quarantine life got you down? Between what I see on social media and what most of my therapy clients have been coming in to talk about lately, it seems like this quarantine has a lot of us struggling to cope with everything going on in the world right now.
There’s a metric ton of things to complain about, but the more we complain about them, the worse we feel — it’s a never-ending cycle of negativity that can have dire consequences for our mental and physical health.
We can’t go out and do the things we used to do, so we feel like a prisoner in our own homes. There’s a lot we can’t do right now. But is there anything we can do?
Yes, but we have to make a mental shift in how we think about our situation. We may not be in control of what’s going on around us, but we are in control of how we think about our situation. We choose whether to be negative and complain about something or to be grateful for it.
What We Take For Granted
A few years ago, I was in a therapy session with a mother (we’ll call her Brenda) and her daughter, Kim. At one point, Kim complained about how much her mother called her. “She calls me like ten times a day! It’s so annoying! Wouldn’t it drive you crazy?”
This is an example of how short-sighted and egocentric a lot of us can be — we only consider the immediate convenience, or inconvenience, to ourselves — we rarely look too far into the future. See, there were a few things Kim hadn’t considered up until that point.
“Kim,” I said, “it probably is annoying for your mom to call you that often, but have you thought about the fact that one day will be the last day you ever talk to her again? There will come a time where she’ll be gone. Your grandmother (Brenda’s mother), died last year.” “ Brenda,” I said, turning to her, “do you wish you could talk to your mom just one more time?”
“More than anything,” Brenda mumbled, tearing up.
“I never thought of it that way… Damnit, now I’m about to cry!” Kim said, semi-jokingly. Kim never complained about her mom calling her after that.
Most of us only appreciate things in hindsight. We only miss people when they’re gone. We only miss walking when we break our legs. We only miss the smell of our grandmother’s cooking when she’s gone. We only appreciate intimate gatherings with friends when we haven’t seen them in years. We only appreciate toilet paper when we’re out.
When was the last time you took a deep inventory of everything you’re grateful for? Or, do you take most things in your life for granted? You reject your mom’s call because you assume you’ll be able to call her tomorrow. You complain you have to go to work Monday because you assume you’ll still have a job (and a paycheck). You complain about the dreary weather outside, without a thought to be grateful you still have your eyesight to see how grey everything is.
The Case For Gratitude
“Enjoy the little things in life, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.”— Robert Brault
The moral of the story is that there’s always something we can be grateful for in the present moment. But we have to prime our minds to look for it. Thankfully, there’s a simple psychological strategy from Stoic philosophy that can help: memento mori.
Memento mori roughly translates to “remember death,” or “remember you will die.” I came across this term thanks to Ryan Holiday’s writings on Stoic philosophy a few years ago, and it’s completely changed how I live my life and how I approach therapy with my clients. It sounds morbid and fatalistic, but it can actually empower us to live our best life. If we look at the saying more as a reminder that everything eventually ends (rather than the morbid bit about dying), it automatically primes our brains to want to hold onto what’s going on around us.
Think of being at a bar when “last call” happens — you instantly want just a little more time with your friends or one more beer — your mind tries to root itself in the present moment. But before last call, you weren’t paying much attention to the moment.
A lot of people joke about how they wish they could wipe their memories of their favorite book, just so they could experience the joys of reading it for the first time all over again — because that’s a high they’re chasing the rest of their life. But we can’t do that. We rarely take the time to savor a good book as we’re reading it; instead, we impatiently race to the end, as if there’s a prize at the finish line. But the prize is the reading itself, the journey we get to experience along the way with Frodo, Harry, Eragon, or whoever our favorite characters are.
What advice do we give young people? “Enjoy your youth while it lasts!” We were told the same thing, but did we enjoy it? Were we grateful for what we had when we had it, or did we take it all for granted and only now, when it’s gone, do we appreciate it and wish we could go back?
Remember it will end.
The COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine has wreaked havoc on our way of life, but some good can come from it if we choose to look for it. Compare life in quarantine to life before it. You could hug people, go to the store and find everything you needed, order online and get fast shipping, walk around outside and take a deep breath of fresh air without wearing a mask, hang out with friends, go to the gym, go to concerts or sporting events, sit down at a restaurant, visit your aging family members, or just enjoy being able to wipe your ass with silky double-soft ply instead of single-sheet sandpaper.
You can use these experiences to take two inventories:
- One of everything you miss in quarantine — so you can practice gratitude for them when you get them back.
- Another of everything you’re currently grateful for during quarantine — so you can stay sane and prime your mind to seek out the good things to focus on.
Practicing gratitude can help stave off the cabin fever, depression, anxiety, and all the other mental funk that many of us are dealing with in social deprivation.
“Do not dream of possession of what you do not have: rather reflect on the greatest blessings in what you do have, and on their account remind yourself how much they would have been missed if they were not there.”— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 7.27
Two Ways To Practice Gratitude
Here are two ways to shift your mind into gratitude-mode so you can be happier and weather the storms life throws at you — now and in the future.
- Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness allows us to focus our awareness on the present moment — our breathing, our thoughts, our surroundings — and makes it easier to find things to be grateful for throughout the day. Mindfulness also helps us be more present and intentional; when we’re with family, we’re fully present with them instead of distractedly playing on our phone; or focusing our mind on the sounds of a bustling city street as we walk downtown instead of mindlessly hurrying to our destination. It teaches us to take in the moment for what it is and find joy in it.
- Keep a gratitude journal. Write in it in the morning to prime yourself for things to look for in the rest of your day. Then write in it in the evening to review the things from your day you’re grateful for. These entries can be bullet points or single sentences — you don’t have to fill out a page if you’re new to journaling. Don’t overthink it, just list out stuff to be grateful for. Try to list 5 things for the morning and 5 for the evening. If you can do more, great. If you can’t hit 5, look harder — they’re there somewhere, they just might be easy to overlook.
To get you started on practicing gratitude, here’s a brief list of simple cognitive reframes to switch your mind into gratitude-mode:
- When the elevator is broken: “I’m grateful I can walk up the stairs.”
- When you can’t find a good parking spot: “I’m grateful I have a car.”
- When your partner is snoring: “I’m grateful my partner is alive and that I get to sleep next to them.”
- When your new puppy poops on the carpet: “I’m grateful to have the memories of them when they are a puppy, because I know they will grow up too soon and I will miss the times they were young.”
- When you get fired: “I’m grateful to have my family and my health.”
These practices have helped my clients and myself shift out of complaining-mode and into gratitude-mode, which is a much better mental state to be in. Anytime a family member’s phone call is inconvenient, or a friend texts me when I’m in a mood — or basically any time I’m not feeling grateful — I remind myself, memento mori, and it snaps me out of my selfish reverie. Remember it will end, so be grateful in the here-and-now for what you have while you have it.