Cultivating Joy

The world is in upheaval as we cope with the disruption, uncertainty, and fear of the COVID-19 pandemic. Collectively, we’ve never seen a time like this and it’s easy to become swept up in the Breaking News Vortex, glued to our devices and spiraling into a perpetual state of panic. Joy might not be a word that comes easily to you right now. It might seem trivial when the fabric of civilization seems to be unravelling; however, joy is exactly what we need.

I’m not suggesting that we pretend everything is OK—it’s definitely not. By all means, we need to follow the guidelines of or government and health care leaders in order to mitigate the risk to ourselves and others. But, within our newly-altered lifestyles, the social distancing, the isolation, the pause of business-as-usual, there is still much joy to be found. When we look for it, it can be our lifeline.

I know this, because seeking joy has saved me before. A lifelong struggle with anxiety became much worse after I had my son and my thoughts were continually haunted with horrific what-if scenarios that I convinced myself would actually happen. And then something awful really did happen—my 15-year-old step-son became critically ill with an autoimmune disease and kidney failure.

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Three years later, the disease is under control and he has received a kidney transplant, but the stress of that time ravaged our family, my marriage, and all of our mental health. I felt like the world was spinning of control, along with my mind.

In those dark days, what got me through (apart from counseling and medical treatment) was, unexpectedly, joy. Looking for the joy in each day is what pulled me out of the abyss. It was extraordinarily difficult at first, but the more I looked for things to be joyful about, the more joy I felt in my heart.

So now, when everyone on the planet has been thrust into a state of being that closely mirrors living with anxiety, I believe we can all benefit from this practice of looking for and cultivating joy in our daily, albeit changed, lives.

Self-isolation = re-connecting time!

Despite following social distancing guidelines, in the past week I’ve actually spent far more time than usual connecting meaningfully with family and friends. I called my brother rather than texting, and rather than just “liking” friends’ posts on social media I’m making an effort to message them directly. We’re encouraging and supporting each other, which makes this whole overwhelming circumstance more bearable and strengthens our relationships in the process.

Time with family

I’ve been dreading sending my son off to Kindergarten in the fall, since I know our time together will be much less. So, I’m taking advantage of this gift of bonus time to soak up the wonder of his burgeoning imagination, witty sense of humour, sensitive heart, and the fact that he still loves to snuggle with his mama. He also gets to spend more quality time with my husband, who just yesterday taught him how to use the drill and hammer out in the shop (which I think I’m happy about).

Family dinners are usually rare in our house, with conflicting work schedules between me, my husband, and my stepson, but we’ve been able to sit down together every evening for the past week. My son’s delight in having all his family together shows all over his beaming face, which is infectious in the best of ways.

Nature outings

It is (finally) Spring, and getting out of the house to walk the dog—and ourselves—is increasingly enjoyable. Here on Vancouver Island we’ve been lucky to have a run of sunshine and every time we walk we see new signs of life emerging from seemingly dead branches and frozen earth. A friend of mine recently mused that seeing the changes in nature reminds her that everything is a cycle. From the darkest winter bursts the most vivid spring, and we, too, will make it through this difficult time to our next season.

Kindness is all around us

Lately I’ve witnessed many incidences of people going out of their way to be kind to others—everything from letting people go ahead in line, to checking on and getting supplies for their high-risk neighbours, to fundraising initiatives for protecting our most vulnerable, to people simply saying a warm, “hello” while passing (on the other side of) the street. There seems to be a tangible shift in consciousness to an understanding that we are all in this together, so we need to support each other. In a world that was becoming increasingly isolationist and protectionist, it is comforting to see this outpouring of “community.”

Some ideas for cultivating joy for yourself and your families during these stressful times

Call or video chat with friends and family. This goes for your kids, too! A few minutes of connection can buoy our spirits for much longer afterwards.

Fill your eyes and ears with the arts. We need art now like never before. Enjoy the healing power of listening to one of the many live-stream concerts available, or take a virtual tour of a world-class museum or gallery. Watch a recorded dance performance, or a poetry session. Or roll up your sleeves and create something! Art is both a balm and an outlet for our souls.

Move your body! If you can, get out in nature for socially distanced hikes, beach wanders, or even walks around your neighbourhood. Fresh air, sunshine, and exercise go a long way to helping us feel better. If you can’t leave the house, there is always morning yoga, living room dance-offs, and couch cushion obstacle courses.

Read, read, read. And read. Not the news (any more than you have to), but read to escape, read to look at things from a different perspective, read to learn, and read with your kids! Take advantage of the extra time you have to read aloud to your kids now—we know the rich dividends to be reaped from this in the future.

Plant something. Even if it’s just a pea plant growing on the windowsill, seeing something you nurtured grow is incredibly satisfying.

Learn something new. From home repair to learning an instrument or a new language, the Internet has you pretty much covered.

Tune into your senses. A coping skill I learned for dealing with my own anxiety is to observe my surroundings in detail, with all of my senses. Soak in the warmth of the sun when it is shining, notice the colours in the sky, hear the sound of bees waking up and buzzing their way through the early flowers, savour that fresh-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookie you just whipped up with the kids, and smell the increasingly fresh and unpolluted air.

Practice gratitude. Keep a family gratitude journal, or just share around the dinner table each night or before bed. The more you notice what you are grateful for, the more there is to notice.

Give. Do something nice for someone, even if it’s as simple as making a card for an isolated family member that you can take a picture of and send them. Once you start brainstorming with your kids, the opportunities to make someone’s day a little brighter are endless. And it makes us feel good, too!

Listen. Really, truly listen to your kids. When we take the time, when we are not distracted with thinking about the next activity we need to prepare for, it’s amazing what these little sages share with us, what they teach us about being alive and finding joy in simple things.

Let go. When circumstances make us feel out of control, many of us tend to try to get back a sense of power by over-controlling other things. But this is not the time to be cranky with our kids for making messes or not doing things “properly,” or for imposing rigid schedules to account for every minute of the day since they are not in school. There is one thing we can control right now, and that is our attitude. We can choose to be tossed around by the chaos of the storm, to succumb to despair and panic, or we can choose to rise above and support our children to see the joy that still exists, and to nurture the hope that better times lie ahead.

Kelly McQuillan
Kelly McQuillan
Kelly McQuillan is a writer, musician, teacher, and fledgling mother living in Comox, BC.