How to invite more grateful thinking in our self-talks and conversations to cope with the social isolation

This Tuesday, March the 24th, I took my kids for a bike ride around the neighbourhood. It was a sunny but windy day in Helsinki. There were 10 meters wind per second. A plastic bag and a magazine were swerved by gusts of wind from the sidewalk to the street and back to the sidewalk.  

The streets were empty. Every now and then, we would bike past by some pedestrian or another biker. I felt a mix of nostalgia and gratitude. I am the kind of person that I used to feel good seeing people in the streets. When someone would look in my eyes, I used to feel joyful for a transient connection. I used to enjoy hearing voices and seeing clutter in the restaurant on our street. The restaurant was empty that day. On the other hand, I felt grateful that people are staying indoors.  

Gratitude has been on my mind more than ever. Feeling sincere appreciation of the wonderful people and projects in my life. Deep reverence for life itself. After 14 days of self-isolation, one of the best outcomes is an increased ability to be present in the simple moments of the day, like baking home bread.  

Have you noticed any changes in your ability to feel grateful since the outbreak of coronavirus?  

Grateful thinking comes more naturally to some of us. Some others have to make a bit of an effort. In moments of uncertainty, it’s beneficial for all of us to invite more grateful thoughts in our self-talk and conversations. Here’s why. According to positive psychology researchers, there are at least three benefits:

  1. Gratitude is a skill that can help us become aware of the kindness, help, love, opportunities that come from outside us, from the environment where we live. The more goodness we perceive around, the higher the sense of physical and psychological safety
  2. Robert Emmons, a scientific expert in gratitude, describes gratitude as a relationship-strengthening emotion because it helps us see how we are supported and validated by others.
  3. Gratitude makes us more resilient. Now when we are in one of the worst times for this generation, every little thought of appreciation of what is, can foster our emotional resilience.

There are 4 levels of depth in grateful thinking. Let’s go through each one of them and see where you find yourself at the moment. 

1. In the same way I felt grateful for my neighbours who self-isolated themselves, maybe you are silently observing the good things that others do for you – family members and friends. More than quietly acknowledging their contribution in your days, in what ways do you show you appreciate them? Like explicitly thanking them for doing a particular thing for you? For instance, as we parked our bikes in the bike shed, I thanked my kids for joining me on the trip. I specifically told them that their company warmed my heart. 

Are you feeling grateful for the positive events that happen for you now? A friend of mine mentioned that after a week in isolation she started to feel good about her time at home, with her family. It dawned upon her that she actually needed a break. Yet, being the empathetic woman that she is, she felt guilty over feeling that staying home was beneficial for her.

Nobody wanted the coronavirus outbreak. Staying at home started as an imposed action for my friend, who initially felt it as a punishment or as a conspiracy against her plans. If you are like her and you are growing aware of the need to slow down, how about allowing yourself to connect with yourself and your needs. How about giving yourself time to come up with new personal goals? 

However, in case the physical isolation drives you crazy, in the lowest moments of desperation, could you please remember to ask yourself, “What is one good thing that someone did for me today?”. 

Each person brings a hidden gift. Look closer and point out the good things that family and friends do for you. Allow yourself to enjoy the positive things that happen to you as you stay home. This is the first level of gratitude. Do you find yourself here? What other forms of grateful thinking might there be?  

2. Appreciate the good things institutions, communities and societies do for you.

During the coronavirus outbreak, we have opportunities to see clearer the interdependencies of the world. Each one of us, in accordance with our professional roles, can affect the quality of life, the wellbeing, the productivity and innovativeness of others. We all must have experienced the tangible impacts of disrupted services. Like never before, I felt how important the toilet paper production was when I went to the supermarket two days in a row only to find an apology poster where the supermarket personnel wrote that they do their best to bring new supplies every night.

In this web of dependencies, we are like pieces on a chess board. Unlike the classic game, the social game of chess is an agile game of collaboration, where each one of us can change roles and can make unique moves that can help the moves of some other players in the game. The other day I invested in a year long subscription to a poetry magazine. In times of crisis, we may be thinking that we need to keep the expenditures for the strictly necessary needs: food and shelter. And that’s what the artists, poets, writers, need also: food and shelter so that they can keep on creating and feeding our souls. Feeding our souls may be a luxury for some. But for others, it’s a necessity so that we keep on building pockets of energy to cope with the new reality. I thus invested in the poetry magazine as a token of solidarity for the cultural and artistic communities. 

Today I consider investing in a scientific magazine. These are my moves on the chess board. What kind of moves are you considering to make? What are the business activities, big or small, you care about to support by sharing a tiny bit of your income? 

If we can’t offer financial support, what other kinds of support could we offer to institutions and communities we care about?

Let’s think about the medical specialists. In the last few days, this group of professionals have been at the centre of my grateful thinking. The medical doctors, the nurses, the ambulance drivers, the hospital cleaners are exposed to the coronavirus as they are doing their best to take care of the people who were unlucky to get the virus. Do you have friends who have any of these professional roles? 

In what ways could we surprise these people who are now in the front lines of the battle and thus contribute to their wellbeing? They may be hungry. They may be missing their kids.They may feel discouraged. What can we do for them? Other than staying home?

If nothing else, how about praying for them or doing loving kindness meditation? May they be well. May they be healthy. May they have strength.

What is one thing that you’ve recently benefited from society? Observing some good things that institutions and societies do for us. This is the second level of gratitude which may inspire us to take further the ripples of goodness with new acts of kindness of our own. 

3. Accepting that life comes with challenges. Life comes with good and bad moments. Even if it’s hard to accept the bad we’re going through, we can look at the coronavirus disruption as an opportunity to test our integrity and humanity, i.e., controlling our emotions in tense moments; bring in more empathy and compassion to heal others; bring in more creativity in using our skills and competence to contribute to recovery plans and new development projects. The third level of gratitude is about valuing the discovery of the best sides in ourselves when life takes us through thick and thin. What might the fourth level be about?

4. Many of us are likely to experience existential anxiety when we get updated on the coronavirus situation, like the number of victims in Italy, Spain, in the country where we live. When we experience mortality salience, we may see how precious now is. Upon realization of the inevitability of death we may come to terms with the present. The peace may settle when we feel truly lucky to breathe, to love, to suffer, to panic or to hope in this second. This is the fourth level of gratitude when we live in awe of the miracle of life. 

At what level of grateful thinking do you see yourself? As we advance towards the fourth level, we may be noticing a shift in thinking, from “The world owes it to me.” to, “I owe it to the world.”,I owe it to the world to pay attention to the goodness that there is in it.”

I don’t know about you, but upon waking up, I smile to the new day. 

A new day is a gift.

A new day is a sign of generosity. 

A new day is our responsibility to make it worthwhile.  

Special thanks to the programmers and IT experts who work hard to maintain the internet and the online communication. 

Special thanks to groups of professionals, like the individuals in logistics, who continue to work so that our economies and societies can function in crisis.

May you be well. May you be grateful.




How are you reacting to the COVID-19 pandemic?

“Is this an overreaction?”. This is the question that I have often heard and asked myself often, in the last two weeks.

Each morning came with this question, “What decision should I make?” about things which yesterday used to be routine. Things like, taking your kids to hobbies, meeting a friend for a coffee, having the usual business travels, etc

“Is it an overreaction to cancel face-to-face social gatherings?”

“Is it an overreaction to postpone my travel plans, whether abroad or within the country?”

“Is it an overreaction to self-isolate in our home, which will become home office and school?”

The world has always been polarised on different issues, in each culture and society. The outbreak of COVID-19 has brought the most global polarisation, so far. Some individuals under-reacted, “This is a flu like any other. Why panic?”. Up until 2 weeks ago, I was one of the people who underrated the spread of coronavirus. “Death happens every second. Seasonal flu deaths happen yearly. Let’s stay calm and carry on.”

Some other individuals, like my husband, overreacted by compulsively reading coronavirus updates. Every hour, he’d resort to reading some piece of news about the cases in China and Italy.

Change, especially the life threatening kind that coronavirus is bringing, is something the human brain dreads. Underestimating such a life threat, we postpone thinking about proactive measures. By overreacting, we bring so much panic and anxiety upon us that we fail to see the most constructive ways of action. What would be a constructive reaction?

What the human brain loves is the predictability and hope for a future. So, how about helping the brain do what it loves most instead of allowing ourselves to go down to an apocalyptic mode of thinking?

The new reality is that we are facing a dramatic and disruptive moment in our lives. How can we work with ourselves to identify some things to focus on towards a future that will bring back the sense of safety and certainty. Other than under-reaction and overreaction, we have a third option. We can choose to take this virus seriously and focus on adaptive strategies.

What can we do? How can we help ourselves and the communities we are part of?

Here are some ideas about how we can learn to manage ourselves, our thoughts and emotions under uncertainty.

1. Accept the change. How do you know that you haven’t come to terms with the new reality? Do you have a feeling of loss? We all had planned events we were looking forward to. Events that were about to bring joy and other positive feelings are now cancelled. Of course, we experience loss. Over the night, hugs and kisses turned into a sign of unfriendliness. How about giving ourselves a big hug instead. We are together in this pandemic. What else can we do?

2. We can learn to accept the change by practicing gratitude for the now. The explosive contamination brought a disruption to our daily routine. While new practical arrangements need to be sorted out, there is a feeling of chaos and confusion.

In my family, considering one of us is in the group risk, we chose to homeschool our 8 year old son. This decision led to spending more time on figuring out and doing the teaching. Consequently, I have less working time and I am tempted to fall into lamenting. Yet, in all the chaos of the 5th day of new routines, there is also a warm feeling of reinforced connection with my children who mentioned, “You’re the best mom teacher!” 

Instead of lamenting the things we cannot do anymore, we can appreciate the new things we’re doing.

Gratitude for closer connection with people we thought we were connected already.

Gratitude for finally having the time to do the thorough house cleaning and reorganising we kept postponing.

Gratitude for being able to breath!

While we’re cleaning our homes in self-isolation, we can take this opportunity to rethink our lives and envision other ways of living. What are the activities we could stop doing to make room for something new? What positive changes could we initiate, i.e., studying for an online degree, learning a new skill? What else could we do?

3. Take care of our immune systems, SEE: Sleep well, Eat well, and indoor Exercise. Have you been accumulating deficit hours of sleep? Now it’s time to bring back some balance. The time spent on commuting can now be time spent sleeping. Do you have a waiting list of healthy foods? Start eating blueberries, broccoli, garlic, ginger, honey, lemon, eggs, etc. When the gym is prohibited for the time being, how about checking up the online exercise offers on YouTube? What else could we do?

4. Stay close in spirit to family and friends, by phone, email and social media. Social media addicts, now it’s not a good time to quit the addiction. Quite the opposite, it’s high time we abused online communication channels. Fingers crossed for apps like WhatsApp, Skype, Slack, etc, to support all the users.

5. Lead yourself and your community through the lowest moments of panic by using your personal abilities. Are you a funny person? Please come up with humour and spread it abundantly. Are you a poet? Go ahead and read poems to others. Are you a musician? Sing or play cheerful songs to the rest of us. Whatever strength you have, start using it to bring positive emotions and connection.

An African proverb says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Now it’s the time to walk together fast to the farthest possible futures. To adapt, we need to learn to be alone and reassess what we can do and how we can help. It’s time to learn how to co-create through social isolation.What if social isolation were the norm? What kind of communities, supply chain systems, education, life, would we build?

The faster we adapt to the unwanted crisis, the better for everyone.

How about you? What proactive measures did you come up with? And, in case you’re wondering if we stock piled toilet paper, the answer is no. We wanted to leave some for others.