Quarantine: A Blessing in Disguise?

Unless you work in the medical field, it’s likely that you’ll be spending a lot more time than usual at home over the next few weeks. And if you’re like a lot of other people, you’re probably wondering what on Earth you (and your kids, if you have any) are going to do to stay sane.

Watching videos and movies might help relieve the tedium at first, but it doesn’t take long before a steady diet of sitting around staring passively at screens makes you feel physically and mentally dull, grouchy, and irritable. So how to stay sane while self-quarantining? (Or as a stay-at-home-mom on a regular day. Has anyone else noticed that life is not really all that different for a lot of people? It’s just now there’s lots of stay-at-home parents.) Here’s a few ideas that might help ward off boredom.

 

Step 1: Clean Your House

You’re going to be spending a lot of time there so you might as well spend some time trying to make it more pleasant. (Besides what else are you going to do?)

Think about rearranging your furniture to facilitate the activities you actually want to do and discourage the activities you want to avoid. As an example, if you want to do more crafts and watch less TV, you could consider rearranging your living room so that the chairs don’t face the screen, and setting up a permanent craft station.

Also, take a walk-through of your house for things that have been irritating you, like clutter piles, much-delayed repairs, and half finished projects, and make a list of them.

 

Step 2: Make a Plan

The problem with free time is that you don’t know what you’re going to do. So a vital step toward avoiding insanity is to make sure that you have a plan. In one large family I know, a couple of the older siblings took inspiration from summer camps they had attended and when school was cancelled, decided to set up “St Corona camp”  for their younger siblings. They divided them up into three teams and arranged activities for them, including basketball, a bonfire, and household chores.

Now most families don’t have enough children to organize a “camp.” Some people live alone, but whether or not you have kids, planning out your day in advance can really help you be productive and make you feel happier. Whatever the cause of the current situation, and whatever the outcome will be, let’s take this time right now as a “reset moment.” Life is on pause for many of us, and it’s a good time to reassess our schedules, our habits, and our goals. We want to become better and stronger as individuals, as families, and as communities, so now is a good time to determine whether we are currently heading in that direction or not, and make a course correction.

So turn off the news, get off Facebook, stop worrying about the past and the future that you can’t control, and look at your own life: what can you do to live well this hour, this day, this week.

Schedule activities

Schedules help. And I don’t mean scheduling every minute of every day. Some people might enjoy that sort of thing, but most find it stressful to maintain and therefore ineffective. A better method is to focus on a few “anchor activities” each day. These will help your day have structure and prevent you from drifting into a morass of idleness, boredom, and despair.

Regular mealtimes are a good place to start. They can serve as a framework for the rest of your day. Next, think about planning at least one major activity in the morning between breakfast and lunch, one between lunch and supper, and one in the evening after supper. I personally find it helpful to plan the day the night before, but other people might find it works better to plan the whole week in advance or to plan first thing in the morning.

There’s an endless list of activities to choose from, but a good place to start would be to make sure to get one of each of the following categories each day. Of course these categories overlap. Fixing a meal is a chore, but if you pick the right recipe you might find that cooking is also fun, and if you do it with your child, or if you are learning a new skill, it also classifies as self-improvement. And I suppose you could even call it exercise depending on what you’re making. Rolling out tortillas or pie dough can be quite strenuous. (If you don’t believe me, try making pie crust for 200 mini quiches some morning. I did it once and I was sore for the next three days.)

Chores

This can include meal preparation, cleaning and repair projects around the house. These are things that have to be done but which can either be put off indefinitely or end up taking up all of the available time; neither of which are good options. Scheduling these sorts of activities helps keep them under control. (Here’s where that list you made in step one comes in handy)

 

 Fun

Anything that you do that’s enjoyable. It’s important to plan fun this could include watching movies, playing card games or board games, dancing to music, playing with your children or any other activity that you particularly enjoy. (I’ll post some idea resources at the end)

 

Exercise

Exercise is extremely important for maintaining mental and physical health. It helps to ward off depression and makes your immune system stronger. You don’t need a lot of equipment to exercise. Even though you can’t go to your gym and work out on the machinery, you can do bodyweight exercises at home, look up a workout video online or go for a walk if the weather is good. Making exercise a regular part of your day will help you avoid frustration and make you stronger and healthier.

 

Self Development

If you are unable to do some of your usual work, you might find yourself feeling useless and frustrated. But now is a good opportunity to engage in self-development, to learn things you’ve always wanted to learn how to do things that you’ve always wanted to do. Read a good book you’ve always wanted to read, take a free online course in a subject you’re interested in, learn a new skill or craft, start writing a book or story, or teach one of your kids one of the skills that you already have.

There are absolutely unlimited options in this category. Potty train your toddler. Start a family custom of reading out loud (This is supposed to be the absolute best thing you can do to encourage literacy in your children) But whatever you choose to do will be especially helpful if it’s big and ambitious. Don’t read just blog posts, read real books. Take a real course. Learn how to draw, and practice practice practice. Start a personal business. If you can commit to a big project, and keep progressing on it, it should ward off frustration and make you feel like you are going somewhere and doing something worthwhile, even if you can’t go to work.

(Coursera offers piles of online courses, many of which are free. Some even have college credit. (This is not an affiliate link and I do not necessarily endorse all of their courses)

 

Social Interaction

You might not be able to go visit your friends, or meet them for coffee at Starbucks, but you still need to talk to people and keep in touch with your friends. It’s also perfectly fine to invite a friend or two to go for a walk with you. Scheduling time to call friends and relatives helps build your social capital and also alleviates cabin fever. Texting, emailing, and good old fashioned letter writing work too. (When was the last time you wrote a real, handwritten letter, and sent it to a friend?) You can even host conference calls and have virtual parties over Skype or FaceTime.

And if you have family with you, now is a great time to build stronger relationships with them.

 

People are worried, and that’s understandable. Scary things are happening, however you look at it. But the important thing is to not let fear or worry keep us from the things that are important. As Gandalf says, “All we must decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

They say if you’re given lemons, make lemonade. But what we have been given is time. Time is a measure of change, so with the time that has been given us, let’s make positive changes in our own lives, so that when this is all over, whenever and however that occurs, we will be better, stronger and happier as people, as families, and as communities.

 

 

Just a couple ideas for fun with your family:

I know, I know… But this is one of my favorite board games ever.

 

 

This is a fun and brainy game. You get to learn a lot about how your family members think. I have spent many hours playing this game.

I haven’t used this exact kit, but I remember really enjoying it when my parents did these with me when I was little.

Change your Life with Gratitude

Last time I talked about how we have a choice of stories to tell about our lives. We can tell the negative version or the positive version. It’s the difference between saying “Ugh! I have piles of dirty dishes to wash! Woe is me! ” Or “Wow! I have a sink, and a countertop and dishes to eat off of, and apparently food to eat as well, because otherwise my dishes wouldn’t be dirty! I am pretty fortunate.”

The difference between the two stories is not a question of accuracy but of attitude.

But as I mentioned last time, it’s often very hard to notice and remember the positive things, since as humans, we are programmed with a negativity bias which is great for staying alive the jungle, but less great for being happy and content.

 

Why so negative?

As humans we’re also really good at pattern recognition. We like seeing patterns, and things that don’t fit with the pattern stick out a mile. As an example, if you were to walk into a beautifully painted and furnished room that happened to have an ink stain or a small tear in the middle of the rug, you would almost definitely notice and focus on the stain rather than the pleasant effect of the rest of the room. And that’s not wrong. It’s a good thing that we especially notice things that don’t fit in. It makes us very good at locating and solving problems.

It’s a cliché that people who don’t have much appreciate what they do have more than people who have a lot. It’s also usually true. But it’s not something to be ashamed of if we happen to be blessed. It’s normal. It makes sense. The good things that make up the fabric of our lives form a pattern of peace and plenty. It makes sense that we should be accustomed to that and see any deviation from that pattern as an aberration. Similarly, a person whose life’s pattern is made up of danger and want will see good things as unusual and notice them more. If you’re starving and cold all the time and you are offered a warm delicious meal, a hot shower, and a cozy bed, you will definitely appreciate those things more than someone who has them every night.

But that doesn’t make you better than someone who has more blessings than you. For the moment, you could say that you are more aware of the goodness of your situation, but it would be equally true to say that they are more aware of the badness of things in their situation.

So the solution isn’t shaming ourselves for not noticing our blessings. (I’m imagining the stereotyped parent scolding his child for not appreciating dinner when children are starving in Africa.) Shame is neither appropriate nor helpful. What we need is gratitude.

How to change

Gratitude and happiness are very closely linked. If we want to be happy we need to notice our blessings and be grateful for them. But how?

Well, fortunately, there is a simple way to get better at seeing the good things. And it’s surprisingly easy.

Positive psychologist Shawn Achor author of The Happiness Advantage discovered that keeping a simple gratitude journal for just three weeks improved people’s levels of overall happiness and productivity, precisely by helping them see the good things that so often become invisible.

And it’s about the easiest thing there is. All you need is a paper and pen, and sixty seconds a day. (A smartphone or computer could work too, if you can’t find a pen and paper.)

Every evening you take one minute to write down three things you are grateful for that day– and they have to be three new things each day. You can’t write the same three things every day. If the first day you are thankful for coffee, chocolate and wine, you have to find three other things to be grateful for the next day. (Such a bummer, I know) They can be events, (I’m grateful my daughter didn’t scream all day) things, (I’m grateful for my new chair that makes my back happier) or states (I’m grateful that I’m married to my amazing husband.)

At the end of three weeks, you will have thought of 63 wonderful things about your life and written them down. It might seem like too small a thing to make much of a difference, but I can tell you from experience that it really does change the way you think about your life. All day long, your brain is remembering that you have to come up with three things to be grateful for. So instead of just looking for the things that don’t fit, or the potential threats, part of you will be looking all day long for good things to notice. It’s a whole new state of mind. And the effects last a lot longer than you would expect. Give it a try! Get a friend (or family member) to do it with you. It might even be fun.

 

Nothing kills the joy in writing like a bad pen. These pens make writing (and drawing) fun. I use them every chance I get. (Affiliate links. Purchases made through the links below give me a small commission at no cost to you)

And writing a gratitude journal is so much more fun if you actually have a journal to write in. Journals also make great gifts. I love blank books a rather absurd amount.

The classic notebook.

 

Fun and nautical:

 

And just pretty:

Antibiotics for Christmas and Focusing on the Positive

 

It’s been several months since I last posted. I really didn’t want to be that blogger–the one who writes for a few weeks or months and then gets bored or runs out of ideas and stops, leaving yet another dead website littering the internet. But sometimes life happens and interferes with plans and goals; in this case I had to take time off to have a baby. (Totally worth it.)

Christmas is already a couple months away, and I usually try not to share too much of my personal life here, but today I want to talk about how I spent my Christmas, not because that story is important, but because the way we tell our stories is so much more important than we realize.

I woke up on Christmas morning feeling really miserable. I just hurt. It was a week after I had my baby, and I thought I would feel better soon, but I just kept hurting. I ended up spending most of the day laying on the sofa groaning and feeling sad that I was ruining my husband’s Christmas. Finally that evening I started running a fever and we ended the day by going to the emergency room where I was diagnosed with a postpartum infection and given antibiotics.

As I was laying around in the hospital having antibiotics pumped into my veins, I realized that there are two different ways to tell this story–and just about any other story in our lives–and the version we choose has a profound effect on who we are and how happy we are.

Versions of our story

So here’s the two versions of the story of my Christmas.

One version of the story goes like this:

My Christmas was totally ruined! I didn’t get to eat dinner with my friends like I was supposed to. I felt awful, and to top it off, I had to spend half the night in the emergency room. And half of that time was spent waiting around for people to show up, for tests to be done, or for medicines to be delivered. I didn’t even get to open any presents! Such a lousy Christmas.

And then there’s the other version:

Despite the fact that I got an infection of a sort that people used to die from, I got to spend Christmas with my caring husband and my healthy, adorable, good-tempered newborn. Not just one but two kind families agreed to take care of our toddler while we dealt with my illness. And we got to drive our own car to a well-staffed, well-equipped hospital within a few minutes of our home, where trained professionals (who were polite and cheerful despite having to work on Christmas) diagnosed and quickly treated my condition with medications that didn’t even exist a century ago. As a result I recovered quickly. We opened our Christmas presents the next day, and no one really minded waiting the extra day.

 

So what is the difference between these two stories? They’re both true. They both tell a factual story of how I spent my Christmas. Both take about the same amount of effort to tell. But the first story focuses on the negative while the second recognizes all the wonderful things that happened that day.

Every day things happen that we can’t control. People get sick, things break, plans fall through. Sometimes life is genuinely hard. I really wouldn’t care to repeat the experience of spending Christmas in the emergency room. But even if we can’t control the situation, we do have a choice about how we tell the story, both to ourselves, and to others.

We hear about being positive so much it can get old after awhile. It tends to sound like an invitation to self deception. But focusing on the positive doesn’t mean ignoring the negative. It just means looking at the whole picture. Yes, your car is broken and you can’t get to work, and yes, this is a major difficulty that you can’t ignore. But the fact that you had a car to begin with is such an incredible thing from a historical perspective that it does deserve some appreciation. Then there’s the fact that you have a job, that you live in a place where there are roads to drive your car on, and that you have the freedom to drive your car to your workplace; these are things which employed Americans take for granted every day, but so many people around the world don’t have these blessings.

Of course, as humans we do have a cognitive bias towards anomalies, especially negative ones. You will survive better in the savannah if the most salient thing is not the way the wind ripples through the golden grasses under the glowing sun, but the lion that’s about to eat you.

In the jungle, noticing the negative things will save your life, but in a world where most anomalies are not life-threatening, noticing only those things will make you waste emotional energy, and, if you aren’t careful, your whole life.

Remembering to tell the story of our lives positively changes our perspective on everything. So many of our inconveniences are actually just the backside of blessings. Maybe your house doesn’t have enough storage space. I can sympathize. It’s definitely a trial. But the fact that you have insufficient storage space presupposes that you have lots of belongings that are worth keeping–definitely a good thing. You could say that first world problems are the jagged edges of our blessings.

The Tapestry of Life

We’ve probably all heard life referred to as a tapestry whose pattern we will see only when we die. Here on Earth we only see the backside, and it doesn’t make much sense. But after we die we’ll see the beautiful pattern God has drawn with the various threads of our lives. It’s a nice metaphor, if a little overused.

But I think that on another level, we can see the front of our tapestry, if we take the effort. The car breaking down, the lack of storage space–these are the loose ends on the back of the tapestry. They don’t look nice, but who says we have to live on the backside of our lives all the time? Occasionally we should take a moment to look around at the front of our lives and see all the beautiful colors and patterns there.

It’s not a denial of reality–we know we have problems and if we try to ignore them, they will certainly remind us of their presence–but we have a choice: we can live our lives in a constant state of resentful irritation at our difficulties, or we can live in a permanent state of awed gratitude for what we have been given. I don’t know about you, but I think that awed gratitude sounds more pleasant.