Cultivating Gratitude in Uncertain Times

In the past few months, we’ve all been thrust into a new, unfamiliar reality demanding an avoidance of close contact with others, and a confined home-centered existence interspersed with cautious outings and taped supermarket queues. While all of these massive life adjustments are having many negative ramifications, the space lockdown has created away from our modern lives can give us access to unexpected silver linings hiding in the darkest of the quarantine clouds.

Until the lockdown, ours was a world that revolved around the pursuit of wealth and a Sisyphean task to gain more of everything (more success at work, better grades, more clothes, more money). And does this make us happy? Largely, I’d say no. Once we acquire what we want, that desire is simply transferred to something else, and the cycle continues. This pressure can place an unnecessary burden on our mental health and wellbeing.

Once we acquire what we want, that desire is simply transferred to something else, and the cycle continues.

One of the best things I have learned for a richer life is to inhale the small things with a deep affectionate breath. Soaking up the little happinesses around us is a way to see things for what they really are amongst this clutter of modern living. I think this concept of reveling in the happy ordinaries of life first properly stuck for me when I watched the 2013 film About Time in a university flat. The notion of living a life that makes the possibility of time travel unnecessary because you’ve done your very best to notice the good in everyday life, and made the most of it come rain or shine, is a truly positive idea.

Just as outlets for productivity and constant movement have been closed due to quarantine, we’ve also been given the rare opportunity to stand back and do more to appreciate the little things. But how do we practice this?

Enter gratitude: that powerful emotion of thankful appreciation for the goodness in our lives. The ancient philosopher Cicero called gratitude the ‘mother of all virtues’. Poet William Ward wrote that it had the ability to ‘transform common days into thanksgivings’ and ‘turn routine jobs into joy’. Gratitude allows us to bask in the warmth of the present and focus on the good in the situation, so stress and anxiety no longer hold the spotlight.

The ancient philosopher Cicero called gratitude the ‘mother of all virtues’. Poet William Ward wrote that it had the ability to ‘transform common days into thanksgivings’ and ‘turn routine jobs into joy’.

With my close family thousands of miles away on the east coast of the United States, finding and mastering positive coping mechanisms has been a lifeline for me and a way to curb homesickness. My practice of gratitude really started when I first moved away by cultivating the habit of avid journaling. Initially, it started as a means to document my travels and life in a new country, but it soon turned into a way to alter my world view, and to gradually redirect my attention to the glimmers of light that go unnoticed around us.

Through journaling, I spent more time considering the greener side of life. Instead of writing about any stresses encountered that day, I focused my attention on musing over the extraordinary things that often flutter past us unnoticed: the feeling of cozy knit socks on cold feet after a long day, the rustle of waterproof coats in the rain like the rattle of windchimes, the purple carpets of bluebells that settle along roads and open fields in the spring. To this day I carry around an evolving series of battered black notebooks absolutely everywhere. These journals have become the foundation from which I have learned to practice my appreciation and gratitude for life.

A 2016 study published by Psychotherapy Research, found that there are long term positive effects for people who engage in gratitude writing. The simple act of listing a few things that have improved our day can make a big difference over time. And by actually setting aside a small portion of our days to reflect, we are not only practicing gratitude, but fostering an attitude of mindfulness – another key player in our arsenal of coping mechanisms for navigating and processing challenging times.

Greater Good Magazine defines mindfulness as ‘maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.’ By focusing on the moment at hand, we may direct our thoughts away from anxieties about past and future events, better embracing our current state of existence. Simply being present in the moment should not be underestimated.

By focusing on the moment at hand, we may direct our thoughts away from anxieties about past and future events, better embracing our current state of existence. Simply being present in the moment should not be underestimated.

Both gratitude and mindfulness are practices that need not be cultivated in solitude. After I moved to England to attend university, my relationship with my parents was forced to evolve into an entity that worked across an ocean. Our routine of regular video calls and a digital trail of pictures of family and pets has since evolved further in the face of the pandemic. Not knowing when we’ll be able to see each other again has transformed these regular social check-ins to a collective practice of gratitude where we are present and appreciative of those we love, making time for the connections that matter.

Instead of fighting off a storm cloud of worry and the downpour of anxiety it threatens, I get to bask in the afterglow of the lively conversation we had, or laugh at how our dogs have trained my mom to give them treats at all hours of the day. Although it is, of course, good for us to acknowledge gratitude internally for those we love and care for, as you might imagine, it’s even better to express it and connect over it. This has actually been scientifically proven as this Soul Pancakes experiment rather touchingly illustrates (and even involves some gratitude writing!).

So, in a world filled with uncertainty and strain, the practice of gratitude, in its many forms (either solitary or with loved ones) and of mindfulness, offer radical acts of self-care. And, if we choose to let them, can serve as a wakeup call to redirect our attentions on the other side of this pandemic, to what we have, instead of the endless pursuit of more. With all of the injustices and difficulties in the world, it is more vital than ever to look after ourselves and each other by paying attention to the small things.

And, if we choose to let them, can serve as a wakeup call to redirect our attentions on the other side of this pandemic, to what we have, instead of the endless pursuit of more. With all of the injustices and difficulties in the world, it is more vital than ever to look after ourselves and each other by paying attention to the small things.

The endeavor to find the good and positive in unexpected places is a brilliant way to refocus our attitudes. But, rather than using it only as a coping mechanism to get us through, we must work to make it a life habit. By encouraging gratitude to become a daily thought process, we are choosing to see the silver linings whatever the weather – in the worst and best of times. After all, how good is life if we don’t take the time to indulge in the sunshine and happiness around us, even if just for a moment?

After all, how good is life if we don’t take the time to indulge in the sunshine and happiness around us, even if just for a moment?

So, while this time is untethering right now, and on some days, it feels as though a mountain has grown spitefully out of the ground just to block out the hopeful sun, consider taking a moment to sit on the back stoop and watch blackbirds fly from tree to tree. Bask in the final rays of evening light as the sky fades into dreams of pink and red is an act of rejoicement. Maybe just turn the kettle on, and listen to it come to the boil. Let the tea’s steam lap your face and become a beam of warm light.

……………..

Taylor is a 22-year-old writer living in Sheffield. She moved from Florida in 2016 to university in London before moving to Sheffield in 2017. After studying archaeology at undergraduate level, and working as a lifestyle editor for the student newspaper, she’s now committed to pursuing creative non-fiction writing through magazine journalism. Aside from her blog, Seven Hills, she has interests in travel, nature, and poetry. Follow her on Instagram at @taylor._ogle