Not another COVID-19 blog…

So if you’re like me, you are simultaneously sick and tired of talking about COVID-19 and disinterested in anything else. Here in a suburb of London, my life is unrecognisable because of it. So I thought I’d share some of the tricks I’m learning to make this weird time in my life more manageable.

Find a new routine

We know young kids benefit from routines, but bearing in mind they are just smaller people, it makes sense to apply the same logic to ourselves. Going to bed at the same time each day, waking up, eating meals at set times – it gives shape to the day and provides a welcome feeling of normality in an otherwise anything-but-normal time in our lives.

During the week, I’ve tried this and it’s been really helpful. I wake up at the same time as usual, make breakfasts for myself and the kids, have my breakfast and coffee while watching one cycle of BBC Breakfast (making sure to turn it off when the stories start repeating). I log in at the same time for work, then break to do my PE with Joe “the Body Coach” Wickes on YouTube, work some more and get my son started on his school work at the table next to me. I am trying to eat lunch at the same time as usual and finish work on time. Then it’s dinner, baths, bedtime stories, kids asleep (at their usual time), and an hour or so of TV and conversation with my husband – much like our pre-Covid-19 lives.

Have a purpose (or several)

I’ve written previously about what psychologist Paul Donan has termed the “Pleasure Purpose Principal”, which basically says everyone needs pleasure and purpose for well-being. Different people have a different ideal mix – my husband responds well to more pleasure where I really thrive on purpose – but we all need a mix of both.

I would hypothesise that at this time, most of us could probably benefit from dialling up the purpose element, as we are in a very disempowering position, held hostage by an invisible virus. Anything we can do to counterbalance the disempowerment by feeling impactful and empowered is a great antidote. For me, I have become involved in my local mutual aid group, which partially means moderating the Facebook group and partially linking up requests with an amazing group of local people who have volunteered. I’m checking in with my elderly neighbour who is shielding. And I’m volunteering to do pro bono coaching for people struggling with this as part of a coaching collective that has formed during this crisis.

I’m also crafting my day job so I am doing specific, concrete things to help people. I work for an HIV charity, so I’ve been focused on providing reassuring information and support to our supporters, many of whom are living with HIV themselves and feeling frightened or unsettled, even if they aren’t amongst the list of people who are particularly vulnerable. But I’ve also found a sense of purpose supporting my colleagues – which is relevant for just about anyone, regardless of what sector we work in or what our companies do.

What would give your days a sense of purpose and impact right now? Maybe it’s spending more time with your kids. Maybe it’s your day job, working remotely. Maybe it’s volunteer work. Maybe it’s a creative project – to start writing that novel, paint your masterpiece, or work on that side hustle you had in mind. Don’t worry about other people and don’t judge them or yourself – focus on what will give you purpose.

Connect, connect, connect

I don’t know about you but this is reminding me that I actually really like people. I normally have to be careful about carving out time to be alone, and that’s still the case to an extent as I’m now constantly surrounded by my family. But I am also finding it helpful to be deliberate and intentional about connecting with people.

During the work week, I’m in pretty regular Zoom meetings, and have been making sure to have some chit chat in these calls. We have a workplace (i.e. Facebook for the office) that I’ve been interacting with everyday, to help replace the chats in the office kitchen.

Outside of work I’ve been busy with a WhatsApp group of two of my friends, checking in with another friend via WhatsApp, active on Facebook (which I usually eschew to a large extent), and connecting daily with the other Mutual Aid volunteers. I still skype my parents once a week. This all adds up and means I feel part of a community and connected with others.

A key part of the strategy for me has been little and often. WhatsApp and Facebook are not the same as a video call, and a video call is not the same as being together in person. So I’m trying to set up more zoom drinks and house party sessions with friends and family, which combined with the mutual aid group zoom meetings and my local Quaker Meeting via Zoom of a Sunday morning and all the WhatsApp and Facebook conversations means I have a rich and varied socially distanced social life.

How can you connect with others? Which people or communities are best to connect at more depth, like using zoom, and which are fine to WhatsApp with or interact on Facebook? Enjoy the variety – it’s horses for courses.

Interact with nature

I’m fortunate to have a garden, so during the work week I’ve made a point of taking a half hour lunch break sitting with my salad in the garden. But even without a garden or when the weather turns from the brilliant sunshine we enjoyed last week, there are ways to have nature in our lives.

You can crack the windows to allow fresh air into your home (even if it’s grey and raining). Light a natural candle or diffuse some essential oils to bring some natural smells into your space (more on this below). Enjoy plants in the home (more in this below as well). Even substitutes like natural white noises or a picture of natural settings have been shown to help people recover faster in hospitals.

On house plants: I’ve invested in more houseplants with some of the money I’m saving with our nonexistent childcare (our nursery has been brilliant and isn’t charging us during their closure, as well as the afterschool and breakfast club at my other child’s school). I’ve also replanted some of my spider plant’s babies so we have plants dotted all around the house. This helps clean the air and is subtly soothing. I also “splurged” a whopping £5 on flowers at Lidl when I did my grocery shop, so we have some beautiful cases of flowers. It doesn’t have to be much to feel quite different.

On essential oils: if you have an oil diffuser, great, but if not, you can put a few drops of oil in a mug and add boiling water (note boiling not boiled). This diffuses surprisingly well. If you have a hot plate or a drip coffee maker with a warming plate where the carafe sits, you can place the mug in that for even longer lasting diffusion.

Get into your body

Our brains are on survival mode and dealing with a lot of bizarre shit right now. Getting into our bodies and switching off our brains can help immensely.

One way to do this is exercise, which is of course healthy to do anyway. Yoga with Adrienne or PE with Joe Wickes are both free on YouTube and require no special equipment. In the UK we’re allowed one exercise outdoors a day, so now’s a great time to get into running if you’re not already, or to cement a “run every day” routine.

But another way to get out of our heads and into our bodies is breath work and mindful meditation. I have completely fallen out of this practice, but recently trying a breathing mediation I realised I had been shallow breathing for days. The stress and uncertainty of this whole situation had meant I hadn’t been breathing as deeply and calmly into my lungs. Even a short session of mindful breathing left me feeling exponentially calmer.

A quick way to breathe mindfully: breathe in and out normally and naturally. Don’t force your breathing. Pay attention to the feeling and sensation of the in breath, where it switches from in breath to out breath, and the sensations of the out breath. When you notice you’ve been distracted by thoughts (more “when” than “if”), return to the sensations of the breath. That’s it. Do that for as long as you can.

Be kind to yourself

Lastly, be kind to yourself. This is stressful. We’re in unprecedented times. We’re balancing home schooling, parenting in challenging circumstances, and working our day jobs with kids (sometimes literally) underfoot. It’s a global situation – there is nowhere to go that isn’t affected, or won’t be soon. That’s a challenging situation to be in.

We may need to nap during the day, or take it easy when we get the chance. Despite best laid plans to do loads of online courses to better myself during this time, or read more books, or watch better television as opposed to rewatching episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine (or now, Tiger King – oh my lawd!), I am often spent at the end of the day. I just want to switch off and scroll mindlessly through Facebook. During my lunch breaks out in the garden, I’ve found myself unable to do more than look at the signs of spring and listen to the birds. I’m feeling tearful less frequently than week 1, but am still choked up about once a day.

This is okay. Do what feels good. Pay attention to what does not feel good. We’ll get through this.

Fullness, not busyness

Recently, I’ve been reflecting a lot on how I can do more: I want to help others and the planet. I want to be present for my kids. I want to work at and enjoy my marriage. I want to invest and find comfort in my friendships. I want my work to be meaningful and impactful. But how to do it all?

Some people choose a word or a motto as their theme for the year, a sound bite rallying cry instead of self-punishing resolution. Early in January, as I ran laps around my local park listening to a podcast on the subject, I tapped into this desire to do and live more, but found it tricky to find the right work to encapsulate it. “More” was a contender, except that it implied too much plate-spinning, cramming my days with even more. I also considered “nourishing,” but it suggested holing up in a spa, not getting out there and doing more.

I settled on the word “fuller” as a mantra. I wanted to live a fuller life. Fuller doesn’t necessarily mean more. Eating a healthy, appropriately sized meal can be more fulfilling than consuming a load of empty calories. “Fuller” brings with it the challenge of considering something before declining, pushing myself out of my comfort zone and being willing to dream bigger.

In practice, it has spurred me to sign up for a half marathon for the charity Terrence Higgins Trust, nearly eight years and two kids since I ran my first and only half marathon to date. It has led me to reading different books than I usually read, making more efforts to see my friends, and taking chances at work, throwing myself into the charity I work for with less caution around preserving work-life balance and more permission (from myself, to myself) to feel ambitious and passionate.

Which leads me to last week, sitting in silence at my local Quaker meeting as the question of how I can do more good in this world sat before me. And the phrase from Advices & Queries that came up again and again for me was, “Attend to what love requires of you – which may not be great busyness.”

I’ve loved this line since I first came across it. As a mother of young kids, I appreciated that it seemed to take into account the limited bandwidth at this season in my life, often interpreting that what love required of me was very often that I focus first on my kids’ needs and wants.

But more recently, as I reflected on it, I’ve thought again about the distinction between “busyness” and “fullness”. Busyness might be the empty calories of pointless meetings, scrolling through social media, and getting sucked into the tribalism and pageantry of politics. Fullness is making an impact at work, for the cause and those around me, whilst connecting with friends and family outside of work and getting involved in grassroots political actions and informing myself for upcoming vote.

In short, busyness is draining; fullness is empowering.

What would fullness look like for you?

How is fullness for you different from busyness?

The power of so-called weak ties

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I recently read an article about ways to be kinder to yourself in 2020, and one strategy was to “cultivate more casual, low stakes friendships”, which the sociologist Mark Granovetter calls “weak ties.”

I have experienced weak ties as a key contributor to my improving happiness and well-being over the past few years. It’s easy to underestimate the impact of these weak ties, but they are a relatively easy way to make a big impact on happiness.

Continue reading “The power of so-called weak ties”

On Purpose

Today I want us to talk about purpose.

Why purpose

There may not be a unified meaning of life, but I don’t think we can think about happiness without thinking about purpose.

As psychologist and author Paul Donan writes in Happiness by Design, happiness is experiences of pleasure and purpose over time. Everyone needs both pleasure and purpose, though the particular calibration of the two can vary person to person and over time. I’m naturally inclined to need a hefty dose of purpose, which is why I carve out “spare” time and use it to coach, or write, or volunteer. My husband, on the other hand, probably needs a bit more pleasure in the mix. But we both need both to be truly happy.

Happiness writer Gretchen Rubin had a similar observation in her book The Happiness Project, in which she said to be happier, you have to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.

I think the emptiness of pleasure without purpose is depicted well in the movie Seeking a Friend for the End of the Worldin which a comet is coming to destroy Earth and nothing we can do can stop it. Faced with impending doom, a lot of people go into full-on party mode with orgies and drugs. A scene in which a massive party is happening and someone offers heroin to kids (because why not?) is particularly illustrative to me that pleasure for its own sake seems awfully unsatisfying and depressing.

A study showed that students literally walking up a fairly steep hill estimated the hill’s steepness and difficulty more accurately when they reflected on their purpose,  whereas those who didn’t tended to overestimate the challenge. The challenge was still there for both, and all participants acknowledged it, but having a purpose made it more bearable.

So we need to feel good / experience pleasure. We want to avoid feeling bad / experiencing pain. And we need to feel purpose / growth and avoid pointlessness and stagnation. And doing so makes the necessary challenges of life feel truer to size and worth overcoming.

An example of defining a purpose

But what do we mean by purpose? And how to we go about finding in a modern life?

Purpose needn’t be an all-consuming calling. It can be the work we do, which also brings us an income, or it can be raising our kids, or writing a book.

During a recent bout of illness, I binge-watched Call the Midwife and reflected a lot on what my calling is (spoiler: it’s not to be a midwife). I realised I craved the sense of community the characters shared as they fought against injustice and needless suffering, and I wanted to help people, but beyond that, I struggled to feel like I had much of a clear-cut purpose.

When I returned to my daily life, I saw many opportunities to nurture this vague concept of a calling – caring for my kids, listening to their smallest cares (as the things that seem small to me now are actually quite big in their worlds).

Even at work, I felt purposeful when I was doing work that was helping make a colleague’s life easier or helping a supporter.

I even noticed a feeling of purpose whenever I connected with a wider community, in small ways such as a brief conversation with someone on the train, or making eye contact and really listening to a colleague at work talk about something bothering them.

I also felt when the opposite was true – meetings at work that meant nothing and led to no change or decision… the hubbub on the class parents’ WhatsApp group… the time wasted on work that never would see the light of day.

How, not what

My purpose, I realised, would never be an all-consuming singular passion. The closest thing I’ve ever had to a calling is the deep-seated desire to be a mother, which I don’t take for granted having known the possibility of it never happening. Yet even as powerful as that calling has been, it has never been so all-consuming that I saw it as my only calling.

Sometimes, purpose can be as much the how we live as the what we do. My purpose is to help people, to bring more compassion and kindness and love into the world. And I am happiest when I can do this, even in small ways, every single day. I don’t feel a prescriptive need to help people by doing a specific job or being just one thing, but wherever life takes me, I know I must infuse my life with love, compassion, and helping others.

Questions to reflect on

What is your purpose? Is it a ‘what you do’ kind of purpose or more of a ‘how you live’ kind of purpose?

How can you build more of this into your life?

A social media experiment

As many of you may know, I’ve drastically limited my time on social media.

Then recently, whilst at home sick with a high fever and flu-like symptoms, I ended up posting on facebook for the first time in nearly a year, which led to me checking back regularly to see if I had any comments. I then would peruse my newsfeed as, being bed bound, I had lots of time on my hands and nowhere to go and no energy to do much more than scroll.

But after a few days, I started to feel down. I can chalk this up in part to being isolated and feeling poorly, which always tends to leave me feeling out of sorts and a little blue.

Yet alongside the familiar sickness-blues was another familiar sensation that I experience from time to time and have come to associate with social media: a sense of being left out, or not belonging, or needing to do more.

Basically, by the end of my illness (and therefore, the end of my social media usage), I found a number of drawbacks to having used it.

Now, I don’t want to suggest that social media is “bad” or that I’m somehow a better person for not using it (hardly). As with a lot of things, there is no inherent value or drawback in the thing itself; it depends on how you use it.

But I did find it interesting, so here is what I’ve learnt following this unintended experiment in the pros and cons of social media. Continue reading “A social media experiment”

Lessons from trees

Wangari Maathai was working on women’s empowerment and preparing for a UN conference about women and the issues they faced globally at the time. Listening to rural women talk about the problems they wanted to solve, she heard them talk about water, food, energy, and a means to earning an income themselves.

As a child, Maathai remembered her mother teaching her not to chop down the fig trees, as these were sacred in their traditional worldview – something that imperialism and missionary work hadn’t quite fully unrooted (yet).

Fastforward several decades, and Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her work founding the Greenbelt Movement responsible for planting millions of trees across Africa and beyond. She realised that trees could solve the root issue (no pun intended) behind many of the problems women expressed around livelihoods and quality of life, as well as helping ensure security and reduce likelihoods of human conflict over limited resources, by increasing those resources.

She also learned that those sacred fig trees that were ripped from the ground after living there for hundreds of years had actually been holding the ground together with their deep and widespread root systems. She deduced that if ripping them from the ground led to increases in landslides and flooding, planting them back and protecting them might reverse the trend. And she was right. There was wisdom in the traditional beliefs, regardless of whether we explain this as god or ecology.

So why do I share this? Aside from inspiring us all to plant and protect trees as quickly as we might try to save a more apparently sentient being, this story holds a key lesson: an elegant root solution can be more powerful and practical than numerous patches. Continue reading “Lessons from trees”

When ‘as if’ starts to become reality

I’m reading Richard Wiseman’s book Rip It Up, and have been fascinated by the numerous studies linking facial expression to emotional moods in participants, from John Laird’s initial studies to studies around the world over decades, each with slightly different approaches yet gleaning similar results.

To summarise, smiling (or simulating isolated facial movements related to smiling, such as holding a pencil in one’s teeth) left people feeling happier (even if they weren’t sure why) and frowning or making angry faces (or again, mimicking aspects of these expressions) left people in more negative emotional states at the end of the studies.

This reminds me of something Gretchen Rubin often says, that the opposite of a profound truth is also often true. So pretending and acting happy isn’t the same as being happy…but can acting happy lead to real happiness? Continue reading “When ‘as if’ starts to become reality”