I’ve been having a tough time these last few months. Thanks to COVID, I’m sure I’m not alone in that.
Times are strange, and even when you get a handle on how they’re strange they can still affect you: lockdown stress can quickly magnify anything else you’re already going through.
We’ve all come up with our own coping strategies; here’s part of mine.
These last few months have occasionally seen me as emotionally low as… well, a particularly tough spell a decade ago. But this time around I’ve benefited from the self-awareness and experience to put some solid self-care into practice!
By way partly of self-accountability and partly of sharing what works for me, let me tell you about the silly mnemonic that reminds me what I need to keep track of as part of each day: GEMSAW! (With thanks to Amy Blankson for, among other things, the idea of this kind of acronym.)
Because it’s me, I’ve cited a few relevant academic sources for you in my summary, below:
Taking the time to stop and acknowledge the good things in your life, however small, is associated with lower stress levels (Taylor, Lyubomirsky & Stein, 2017) to a degree that can’t just be explained by the placebo effect (Cregg & Cheavens, 2020).
Frankly, the placebo effect would be fine, but it’s nice to have my practice of trying to intentionally recognise something good in each day validated by the science too!
I don’t even need a citation; I’m sure everybody knows that aerobic exercise is associated with reduced risk and severity of depression: the biggest problem comes from the fact that it’s an exceptionally hard thing to motivate yourself to do if you’re already struggling mentally!
But it turns out you don’t need much to start to see the benefits (Josefsson, Lindwall & Archer, 2014): I try to do enough to elevate my heart rate each day, but that’s usually nothing more than elevating my desk to standing height, putting some headphones on, and dancing while I work!
Understandably a bit fuzzier as a concept and tainted by being a “hip” concept. A short meditation break or mindfulness exercise might be verifiably therapeutic, but more (non-terrible) studies are needed (Vonderlin, Biermann, Bohus & Lyssenko 2020). For me, a 2-5 minute meditation break punctuates a day and feels like it contributes towards the goal of staying-sane-in-challenging-times, so it makes it into my wellbeing plan.
Maybe it’s doing nothing. But I’m not losing much time over it so I’m not worried.
During my 20s I gradually began to suffer more and more from “winter blues”. Nobody’s managed to make an argument for the underlying cause of seasonal affective disorder that hasn’t been equally-well debunked by some other study. Small-scale studies often justify light therapy (e.g. Lam, Levitan & Morehouse 2006) but it’s possibly no-more-effective than a placebo at scale (SBU 2007).
Since my early 30s, I’ve always felt better to get myself 30 minutes of lightbox on winter mornings (I use one of these bad boys). I admit it’s possible that the benefits are just the result of tricking my brain into waking-up more promptly and therefore feeing like I’m being more-productive with my waking hours! But either way, getting some sunlight – whether natural or artificial – makes me feel better, so it makes it onto my daily self-care checklist.
Acts of kindness
It’s probably not surprising that a person’s overall happiness correlates with their propensity for kindness (Lyubomirsky, King & Diener 2005). But what’s more interesting is that the causal link can be “gamed”. That is: a deliberate effort to engage in acts of kindness results in increased happiness (Buchanan & Bardi 2010)!
Beneficial acts of kindness can be as little as taking the time to acknowledge somebody’s contribution or compliment somebody’s efforts. The amount of effort it takes is far less-important for happiness than the novelty of the experience, so the type of kindness you show needs to be mixed-up a bit to get the best out of it. But demonstrating kindness helps to make the world a better place for other humans, so it pays off even if you’re coming from a fully utilitarian perspective.
I write a lot anyway, often right here, and that’s very-definitely for my own benefit first and foremost. But off the back of some valuable “writing therapy” (Baikie & Wilhelm 2005) I undertook earlier this year, I’ve been continuing with the simpler, lighter approach of trying to no more than three sentences about something that’s had an impact on me that day.
As an approach, it doesn’t help everybody (Zachariae 2015), but writing a little about your day – not even about how you feel about it, just the facts will do (Koschwanez, Robinson, Beban, MacCormick, Hill, Windsor, Booth, Jüllig & Broadbent 2017; fuck me that’s a lot of co-authors) – helps to keep you content, and I’m loving it.
Despite the catchy acronym (Do I need to come up with a GEMSAW logo? I’m pretty sure real gemcutting is actually more of a grinding process…) and stack of references, I’m not actually writing a self-help book; it just sounds like I am.
I don’t claim to be an authority on anything beyond my own head, and I’m not very confident on that subject! I just wanted to share with you something that’s been working pretty well at keeping me sane for the last month or two, just in case it’s of any use to you. These are challenging times; do what you need to find the happiness you can, and hang in there.
When I was 20, a man I barely knew proposed without a ring.
I said yes.
Our friends were alarmed about our fast decisions to marry and move from Tennessee to New York City. I got a handwritten letter from an elder at church suggesting I wait to get to know my fiance better. His friends held a tearful intervention. One of our beloved professors questioned the decision. My mother referred to my fiance not by his name — David — but by the nickname “rank stranger.”
But we were in love. After refusing premarital counseling (we didn’t need it, we insisted), David and I got married and moved to Gramercy Park. We could see the Empire State Building at night when it was illuminated, if we craned our necks while sitting on our creaky fire escape.
My life was as romantic as a love song. Then, after one week of marriage, the phone rang.
Delightful story full of twists and turns on The Washington Post (warning: their adwall has a less-than-ethical/probably-not-legal approach to GDPR compliance for those of us in Europe so you might like to obfuscate your footprint or at least use privacy mode when visiting); seems like it’s going to be much darker than it is but turns out surprisingly uplifting. Give it a read.
Apparently the NCSF (US) are typing to make 28 February into Metamour Day: a celebration of one’s lover’s lovers. While I’m not convinced that’ll ever get Hallmark’s interest, I thought it provided a good opportunity to sing the praises of my metamour, JTA.
I first met JTA 15 years ago at Troma Night XX, when his girlfriend Ruth – an attendee of Troma Night since its earliest days the previous year – brought him along and we all mocked his three-letter initialism. Contrary to our previous experience, thanks to Liz, of people bringing boyfriends once but never again (we always assumed that we scared them off), JTA became a regular, even getting to relive some of the early nights that he’d missed in our nostalgic 50th event. Before long, I felt glad to count him among my friends.
You have a fantastic temper which you keep carefully bottled away and of which you draw out only a little at a time and only where it is genuinely justly deserved. Conversely, your devotion to the things you love and care about is equally inspiring.
…[A] marathon church service, which started more than six weeks ago, and hasn’t stopped since, can never take a break.
Under an obscure Dutch law, the police may not disrupt a church service to make an arrest. And so for the past six weeks, immigration officials have been unable to enter Bethel Church to seize the five members of the Tamrazyan family, Armenian refugees who fled to the sanctuary to escape a deportation order.
The service, which began in late October as a little-noticed, last-gasp measure by a small group of local ministers, is now a national movement, attracting clergy members and congregants from villages and cities across the Netherlands. More than 550 pastors from about 20 denominations have rotated through Bethel Church, a nonstop service all in the name of protecting one vulnerable family.
Beautiful story of the Dutch church that’s been running a non-stop service (with over 500 pastors from various denominations contributing in shifts) for six weeks and counting in order to protect from deportation a family who’ve been taking refuge inside. The whole piece is well worth your time to read, but aside from the general joy and good feels that fill it, I was also impressed by how widely it’s inspired preachers to try things that are a little different:
Some preachers simply reuse services and sermons they gave at other churches. But others have used the opportunity to try something new, turning the church into a kind of greenhouse for liturgical experiments.
Ms. Israel read from a modern reinterpretation of the biblical story of King David and his wife Bathsheba, told from Bathsheba’s perspective. One minister incorporated meditative song into her service, and another interspersed prayers and hymns with sermons from Martin Luther King Jr. During one all-nighter, Mr. Stegeman even brought along a harpist.
Of course, let’s not forget that this is another one of those happy-news-stories-with-an-underlying-sad-story. Given that the family in question, according to the article, have successfully appealed against their deportation twice, and furthermore the duration of their stay so far should at least grant the children amnesty under Dutch law, it sounds like their deportation shouldn’t really be happening in the first place! It’s great that a community has come together to protect them, but wouldn’t a better happy story be if the country that’s supposed to be protecting them were doing so, instead, so that the community didn’t have to?
Melbourne gave 70,000 trees email addresses so people could report on their condition. But instead people are writing love letters, existential queries and sometimes just bad puns.
In an effort to facilitate better tracking of the health of their trees, the city of Melbourne assigned an email address to each of them and allowed them to be looked-up using a map. The thinking was that people could email if a tree needed attention by the council, and the human that processed the email would automatically be able to determine the location of the plant.
But people started emailing the trees themselves. And not just people who’d seen them in person: people from all over the world. From “You are just outside my work and you make me happy :)” to “I love the way the light looks through your leaves and how your branches come down so low and wide it is almost as if you are trying to hug me. It is nice to have you so close, I should try to visit more often.” Delightful.
There is an American principle that success is more about what you are making than what you are worth, and even less about being able to stop working. This is a brilliant cultural driver for a strong economy as it celebrates working billionaires. In Britain, the dream is more about making money then cashing in and going to sit on a beach somewhere. Maybe there is also a third way where, when you no longer worry about where the next meal is coming from or you family is reasonably secure, you then turn down the money-making drive to ‘maintenance’ mode, ease off on stress, and put your energies into what you like rather than what you must.
I got my degree from a small, public college in upstate New York.
People went there, got their degrees and then went off to have quiet and sometimes boring lives. Although a degree from the State University of New York (SUNY) system is a valuable commodity outside of New York, when you’re surrounded by hundreds of thousands of graduates in your home state, it doesn’t get you very far. And for most of the people who got a degree from my school, and others like it, that was OK by them. A comfortable, unadventurous life was something they wanted. In part, that’s why they went to a state school in the first place. As SUNY Potsdam will tell anyone who asks, most of their students come from within a two- to three-hour driving distance because they want to be close to home…
[this was originally posted to a private subreddit]
So I just had an amazing day. Let me tell you about it:
Doughnuts: There were doughnuts left in my office. Free doughnuts are the best doughnuts.
Victory: After three years of bureaucracy, a couple of years of fighting, months of planning, and weeks of testing, I’ve finally finished a project I assigned myself shortly after I started my job: upgrading our web servers to modern, powerful ones. It may not sound like much, but when you’re working against hundreds of years worth of academic red tape in a very traditional institution, this is a great victory.
Car: I finished making arrangements for my family and I to get our new car: orders have just gone to the factory now, and it should be built for us by early November.
Dating: At lunchtime, I went out for a drink with a lovely lady I’ve been dating recently, and we had a wonderful time. Her kid just started school and this – coupled with her imminent house move (just as soon as she and her husband can find somebody to buy their flat!) – are likely to eventually mean that we can see more of one another (right now we only see one another about once a fortnight).
Cycling: Cycling home on a beautiful clear evening, Grooveshark pretty much read my mind and played exactly the music that I felt like I needed to celebrate such a fabulous day. I made great time… and as I bombed down the final streets back to my house, I did so to the sounds of Queen’s Driven By You, which was exactly what I needed.
Others: I got home to find that everybody else had had a great day too: my partner had just had her first half-day back at work after her maternity leave, and it had gone very well, her husband had been commended for his pioneering social media work at his workplace, and even the baby was happy and cheery (despite having skipped a nap).
So yeah – I had a flipping marvellous day. And my first thought upon getting home (and grabbing a celebratory beer) was to tell the awesome people of /r/MegaLoungeVI about it. Hi, guys! How’s your week going so far?
Last night was fun. After spending most of a day hacking into the BBC’s weather centre (I wanted a weather forecast XML stream, but couldn’t find a free one, so with Kit’s help I stole one instead), he, Claire (recently returned) and I went down to the beach after midnight with a bottle of Caern O’Moor Bramble Wine and enjoyed the first cool air the town has seen in most of a week.
I had a weird dream last night. Apparently, so did Kit. Must’ve been something in the wine.