Please enjoy this guest post by my 14-year-old niece, Campbell Portland. This piece was published in her high school newspaper a few weeks ago!!!
In a year with many hardships and losses, gratitude tends to be overlooked because people lose sight of the things in life that they can be grateful for. Big changes in day-to-day life, social interactions, mental health, along with the loss of contact with family and friends during a pandemic create a cloud of sadness around the start of 2021, especially for families with an empty seat at the dinner table. Though life has changed and hardships continue to be fought, focusing this strange and quarantined January on what we do have, can make positive changes in your outlook on life and your mental health.
A better mindset is the pathway to better mental health. Frame your problems as challenges and your suffering as fighting, not setbacks, but hurdles. Though times are tough, times have been tough before and times will be tough again. Once you are able to come to terms with whatever challenges you are going through, gratitude is the next step. Gratitude is defined as the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness, however gratitude is more than just being thankful. It is being able to identify the good and bad parts of your current situation and being able to be thankful for the good, but also aware of the bad and what actions and thoughts will allow you to overcome those bad circumstances. Specifically during this pandemic, everyone has had times where they are fed up of being lonely, online, and stressed out about the healthcare crisis and excess negativity and sadness has found a way to settle like a blanket over our lives. Like a blanket, we forget that it is there after a bit of time, and don’t realize that the blanket is changing our perception of the temperature just like how negativity is changing our perception of life. Gratitude is the ability to recognize that blanket of negativity and sadness, not take it off, but being able to remember that your left foot is dangling outside of the blanket and that is enough for you that day. Gratitude is not about being 100% happy and grateful every day, it is about being able to take what you are given and find small or big things that are good in your life or day, and be grateful for it.
The science behind gratitude is actually very important and interesting. According to Joan Moran, a gratitude journalist, gratitude stimulates your neurotransmitters and the hormones that bring energy and happiness into your living experience. This means that even if you are having a bad day and can’t see the light, realizing a small thing that was good and something to be grateful for like your enjoyment of a bowl of cereal, or a song you heard on the radio, your brain will respond by improving your mood and firing dopamine, which will make you feel happy and joyful. So when that day rolls around when it feels like nothing is going your way, find one small thing that did go your way: you are alive, you talked to your sibling which was fun, or you pet your dog or cat. These little things that bring small amounts of joy tend to go unnoticed in daily life, but identifying them and enjoying them will actually change your mindset and make you happier.
Now that gratitude is understood, how does this apply to the start of this year? Most of us were unable to see our family members and friends this holiday season, and this obviously weighs you down. Many families cancelled plans last minute because of the recent spike in COVID-19 cases over the past few weeks, and after a lot of planning and anticipation, it is disappointing to cancel, even though everyone knows that it is for the best. In that case, scheduling ZOOM meetings or FaceTime calls at the start of 2021 with trivia, snacks, or even simple games can slightly fill the whole left by the lack of family festivities. The idea that family traditions are unachievable this year is negative and underestimating the power of technology. If you have a family cookie recipe, call at the same time and bake together while not mixing germs and risks. Doing one of these ideas or coming up with your own can bring joy and gratitude in a usually joyful time of year.
This year could be one of the strangest yet, but being able to see the good, the kindness shown by others, and all of things that you do have can create a better atmosphere wherever you are quarantined. Though much has been lost this year, we have gained so much: better and more consistent connections, new ways to communicate, and the ability to love from afar. Holding our values close, our family dear in our hearts, and being grateful for all that we have is crucial to a joyful new year.