Lately, I’ve seen many usually-resilient people finally call it quits and have mini-meltdowns. Trust me, I get it. I just want to yell “isn’t this over yet!?” But I know I won’t like the answer, so I don’t.
Then again, finding resilience and dealing with change is exactly what I preach, so here I am to say we’ve had our tanties and now it’s time to take back control of our emotional health. But before we move into problem-solving mode, it’s worth quickly looking at why many of us feel like we’re not coping with life right now. The simple answer is that many of us are grieving.
“Our world as we knew it has died and we are feeling the sadness,” according to grief expert, David Kessler. Pre-Covid, we had cups full of resilience-building activities: social activities, projects and work that brought us meaning and purpose and a full calendar of healthy mind and body habits. The problem is that a lot of those activities have been put on hold – or rudely cancelled – and so many of us responded by putting our lives on hold too… and low and behold, our mental health is starting to suffer.
Not only that, but for 18 months, we’ve yo-yoed between lockdowns and semi-normal life. For a while, we had hope for a return to normal. We tried to book holidays, concert tickets and social gatherings. We made plans for a few months away, because “surely things will get better, right?”
We now know the truth. We’ve waited for hours on the phone to airlines to get credit for cancelled flights and felt the disappointment as event after event was cancelled or postponed. Now, we know better than to hope, and sadly, many of us have just stopped bothering. We’re resigned to it: at least for now, this is our new normal.
I get it. It’s tough when experience tells you it’s not worth planning for anything in the future because it will just be cancelled, but this thinking can have significant impacts on our mental health. As researchers at the Erasmus University in the Netherlands have found, “this loss of normalcy and the grief over what is no longer possible can lead to a sense of emptiness, and even a loss of meaning in life.”
In short, this grief over what was, coupled with a lack of interest in making plans for the future, is a slippery slope for mental wellbeing and resilience. Cue the mini-meltdowns.
Taking back control of your emotions
Life gave us lockdown lemons and we all said ‘meh,’ put on track pants and extended our Netflix subscriptions.
Thankfully making lemonade comes down to choosing to prioritise your happiness and resilience by making some plans or ‘life crafting.’
Life crafting is a structured way to finding meaning and purpose in your life. Psychologists Schippers and Ziegler say it’s “a process in which people actively reflect on their present and future life, set goals for important areas of life – social, career, and leisure time – and, if required, make concrete plans and undertake actions to change these areas in a way that is more congruent with their values and wishes.”
There are many models and tools to assess your life and help to find meaning, but one of the most popular in recent years has been the Japanese art of Ikigai.
Ikigai comes from the people in the small Japanese community of Okinawa, a remote island with a remarkably high number of centenarians (people over 100 years old). Although their impressive age has been attributed in part to their diets, the practice of Ikigai has also been noted as a major factor not only in their longevity but also in their happiness and mental wellbeing.
While working for National Geographic, author Dan Buettner travelled the world to explore the communities where people live the longest, which he calls “blue zones.” Buettner says the older generations in Okinawa not only have an understanding of their Ikigai, but most importantly they put it into practice.
For some, this means regular catch-ups with friends to sing and dance, for others this is by regularly giving back to the community and finding ways to be useful in society – which brings thanks from colleagues and boost self-esteem. This is backed up by all the latest science: people who are happy and fulfilled lived longer. And not only that, they live better lives too.
It’s Time to Prioritise Your Happiness
While there are many things we cannot do in this new Covid world, there are still many things we can plan for and goals we can achieve. Yet, many of us are spending too much time looking back at what was or ruminating in the present. If we want to move past this grief, we need to dig up that hope for the future, make some plans, and set some goals. We need to bring meaning back into our lives.
To do this, we need to start by reflecting on our lives. You can try Ikigai, or get a journal and do some free writing on the topics recommended by Schippers and Ziegler:
- Discover values and passion, ask “in my life, when have I been happiest?”
- Reflect on current and desired competencies and habits
- Reflect on present and future social life
- Reflect on a possible future career
- Write about the ideal future
- Write down specific goal attainment and “if-then” plans
- Make public commitments to the goals set
Once you have done some soul searching, you have to put your newfound knowledge into practice…. Find virtual ways to be social. Plan events and lock them into our calendars to bring back some hope for fun things in the future. Kick off DIY projects or learn how to knit, speak a new language or code. Find new ways to exercise and have fun with the people in your house – plan a charades night or have a dance-off to burn some calories and have a laugh (or do it virtually if you live alone). And finally, forgive yourself for the emotional ups and downs of the CoronaCoaster – we’re all going through this grief, and it’s OK (and even healthy) to mourn.
To move forward with resilience in this uncertain new world now is the time to plan the things you can do while in lockdown or with reduced certainty about the future and find something that will give you purpose, direction or meaning.
Marie Skelton is an author, podcaster and the founder of Happiness for Cynics, a site dedicated to helping people find happiness in life. She is a mental wellbeing advocate and is passionate about helping people to find resilience and happiness in the midst of change.