My emergency plan was not, I admit, airtight. I dithered about everything: what to pack, the best way to get cash, which routes were the safest, where to go next. Time was of the essence; I had to get my family away from the chaos of complete societal collapse, but somehow I kept forgetting to fill the water bottles. When I finally woke from this choose-your-own-misadventure, there were two clear takeaways. No more four-hour news-devouring sessions before bed. And given the interesting times we’re living in, I need more coping strategies.
The news lately has been relentlessly grim. The tragic events, epic disasters and vile examples of humanity’s most hateful tendencies filling my social feeds are enough to make anyone want to power down and assume the fetal position. But hopelessness isn’t going to change anything, and despair saps motivation. So I was curious to see what effect, if any, looking on the bright side might have. Would taking the time to appreciate the small stuff help restore some kind of faith in the world? (Or at least make me less tempted to move to Iceland?)
In study after study, researchers have found that gratitude is strongly associated with happiness. Grateful people also tend to be healthier, they experience less pain, depression and insomnia, and they’re better at dealing with adversity. (Bully for them, I thought grumpily before reminding myself that pessimism breeds resentfulness). To foster a greater sense of thankfulness and generosity though, you need to first be aware of all the good things around you. And as happiness expert Jaime Kurtz of James Madison University told me, seeking beauty in everyday things is an easy way to start.
My initial attempt at living life like it’s an art appreciation class, however, did not go well. I went on what happiness experts call “a savouring walk”–basically, you go for a stroll and try to see, hear and smell all the beauty around you. It was a disconcertingly warm winter day. There were smears of thawing dog excrement on the sidewalk, the organic waste bins were especially fragrant and too many drivers opted to express their feelings with horns. I tried to find the beauty, and when that failed I went back to ruminating about current events.
At first, this month’s challenge felt a little silly. With a good job, a kind husband, healthy children, a safe neighbourhood, I have less than nothing to complain about (unlike others, I can wake up from my nightmares). It seemed overly indulgent to play with filters on Instagram or look for pretty birds. Shouldn’t I be doing something better with my time?
But I stayed the course, and over the next few days I started to see beyond my own black mood. It helped when I didn’t try so hard—dog poop really isn’t abstract expressionist art in its most natural state—but simply recognized the truly good things for what they were. For instance, when I took my daughters to a gallery, we saw many incredible things, but the best part was when we all huddled together on a bench and surreptitiously ate granola bars. Beauty can be Monet’s Water Lilies and it can also be the weight of a little body leaning into yours. Whatever the form, the effect is restorative. And when I started to pay attention, I realized that these flashes of beauty—tree branches glistening with ice, a co-worker laughing hysterically, a bowl of pomegranate seeds glowing in the candlelight—are potent reminders that everything isn’t awful.
Worrying can be a fabulous survival tactic—zero in on all the potential risks and worst-case scenarios and you’ll never be caught off guard. But as someone who often worries I’m not worrying enough, I know that fretting also constricts the mind and closes us off from seeing the whole picture. So sometimes it was more effective to do things I had no idea how to do–so that my brain is completely occupied. Snowshoeing was a revelation. Embroidery, not so much. One afternoon I took a pottery class and wrestled with a slab of clay for three hours. I’m not sure I fully appreciate the results—I now have a misshapen vase, a slanted espresso cup and a weirdly angular bowl—but the process was fantastically freeing.
Slowly, I came to realize this challenge wasn’t an exercise in ignoring and running away, but in embracing the whole messy ball of wax. And as the weeks went by, I felt better equipped to fully absorb the news and not be inured to the fresh horrors. These spontaneous moments of grace aren’t going to solve anything, but, at the same time, they remind us what is possible and what is worth fighting for. And that, as a certain world leader would say, is huge.
Kathryn Hayward is a fortysomething mom of two.