2020 was quite the year, and it surely needs no introduction or explanation. While the last couple months or so provided me some respite and many reasons for joy—autumn, my birthday (Sagittarius, baby), the holiday cheer, and the hopefulness of a new year—recent events that transpired quite literally in my backyard have brought me down to a new low.
Until, I read a post by writer and artist Martine Thompson featured on my Friday Girls’ Night In newsletter, “These 5 Things in My ‘Joy Toolbox’ Are Getting Me Through Winter,” which inspired me to reflect on what has been in my joy toolbox this past year. So I wanted to share the things that I have been returning to over and over again whenever I’m feeling down, and as a result, they have subconsciously been incorporated into my routine to not only keep my joy but also sustain it in these challenging times.
In building my toolbox, I thought about the four main chemicals in our brain that are responsible for the emotions that we associate with happiness: endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. (An idea summarized in this video; also discussed here.)
Endorphins are what we usually associate with a “runner’s high”—the kind of elated feeling that we get after exercising. Exercising can also stimulate the production of serotonin, as well as exposure to sunlight and eating a balanced diet. Serotonin, in general, is the chemical responsible for regulating your mood, whereby an abundance of it will lead to happiness and its scarcity can lead to anxiety and depression. Dopamine, the “chemical of reward,” is released when you complete a task. Our brain loves it when there is a beginning to an end sequence. And finally, we have oxytocin, the “friendship” chemical, which is associated with deep affection and strong bonds. This is the hormone/neurotransmitter that is produced in abundance during childbirth.
Of course, this just a general summary. There’s a lot more involved in human happiness than these four chemicals, and these chemicals can also be produced from certain activities that aren’t necessarily good for our bodies or make us happy in the long run. But as I introduce the five things in my joy toolbox below, I’ll discuss how the above chemicals may be at play and how certain activities are inducing at least one of these chemicals.
I’ve always loved watching movies and TV, but I’ve never watched them more than I did while staying at home from the pandemic. In 2020, I watched all of the MCU movies from the first Iron Man to Infinity War, all of the Lord of the Rings movies, and way too many Netflix series to count.
It’s no secret why we’re all tuning in to movies and television, and that’s escapism. Honestly, the more outlandish or unrealistic the story the better for me—I wanted no semblance to reality to remind me of real life!
One of my most cherished activities born out of quarantine was Netflix Party-ing Korean dramas with one of my best friends. When we were in high school, we first bonded over our love for K-pop, and it eventually included K-drama as well (Boys Over Flowers, anyone?). Back then, we were watching shoddy English-subbed videos on YouTube and
obsessing over discussing them during free periods. So we thought it’d be a good idea to bring back the tradition as something we could do together, despite being apart. We started with Crash Landing on You; three K-dramas and three ugly-crying selfies later, we are starting our fourth series: Start-Up.
I look forward to our K-drama Netflix Party every weekday. On particularly tough days, knowing that I have this to look forward is my silver lining. Finishing a Netflix episode gives my brain a hit of dopamine while spending some quality time with my best friend releases oxytocin. My favorite part is when we’d FaceTime each other in between the series, where we get to actually catch up and talk about life!
Other than movies and TV, I’ve also fallen back in love with reading this past year (finishing grad school would do that to you). Here are a few books that I highly recommend off the top of my head:
- Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
- An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
- Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
- Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
- The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett — currently reading right now and it’s SO GOOD!!!
- More Than Enough by Elaine Welteroth
- The Culture Map by Erin Meyer
- Becoming by Michelle Obama
Activity + Vitamin D
I was never an athletic person, but I used to really enjoy running for a few years when I was a senior in college, and when I lived in Jacksonville. But after discovering I’m flat-footed and years of wearing bad shoes, I now have a pretty bad case of plantar fasciitis. So I’ve had to pivot a bit and focus more on low-impact activities that still give me those good endorphins.
Afternoon walks, for instance, have been my jam during quarantine! Give me a dopamine hit from finishing a walk, some serotonin, and a little bit of endorphin if I’m feeling a little snazzy and walking more briskly. It helps that I also have a dog who keeps me accountable (she does have to go outside at least twice a day), and going on walks with her has made me discover a walking track in my neighborhood that is conveniently one-mile long and has a great view of the sunset.
Recently, I invested in a bike. On sunny days, I like to make the most of those Vitamin D rays and bike from Old Town Alexandria all the way to D.C. and back. On Mount Vernon Trail, I’m able to see views from the Potomac River, to planes taking off and landing at the Washington National Airport, to all of the national monuments. These bike rides never fail to remind me of how lucky I am to live in this city.
Speaking of sunny days, D.C. winters can be especially harsh, with frigid cloudy days aplenty and sunshine far and few in between. Seasonal affective disorder aka S.A.D. is real, and because winters are devoid of sunshine and therefore Vitamin D and serotonin, I’m especially prone to feeling down. So on days where I see even a hint of sunshine, I make the most of them and try to plan outdoor activities ahead of time. I also loved this NYT article about how Scandinavians embrace a “positive winter mindset” (featuring, of course, our favorite word hygge).
Yoga is another low-impact activity that I’ve enjoyed during quarantine, which serves a dual purpose of exercise/stretching and a moment of mindfulness. I highly recommend Yoga with Adrienne for easy-to-follow, free yoga videos on YouTube.
I don’t really adhere to any specific kind of diet, and I think that the idea of depriving myself of foods that I’m craving or really wanting to eat at the time (i.e. stress-eating) is not healthy. It tends to have this negative effect on me where I’d start to spiral from thinking why am I eating this, the answer being usually stress, to me thinking that the function of me eating is non-nutritional and therefore bad because all it’s doing is making me gain weight and that’s going to make me feel worse, etc., etc., and… well, we can see how that’s no good.
After bouts of stress-eating and not much physical activity when the pandemic first hit, I began to have earnest conversations with myself about my relationship with food (yes, I really did this, sometimes even out loud). I would notice the days where I’d eat fruits or vegetables and they would taste so delicious, that I’d realized that I had gone days without eating fruits or vegetables. It was almost like the feeling of water in your mouth and throat when you’re really, really thirsty and finally had something to drink. On days where I’d gone out of my way to prepare balanced meals for the week, there was a noticeable difference in my mood. As it turns out, our meals do have some kind of impact on our serotonin level.
And so on days where I feel like I’m a bit moody, I usually first ask myself, “Have I eaten today?” And if so, what did I eat? If I noticed that I had eaten a lot of carbs and protein, which usually happens by lunchtime, I try to eat a banana or yogurt. Then, I’ll make a mental note to include vegetables for dinner. In the summer, I like making smoothies where I can incorporate a healthy serving of fruits and vegetables that I may have missed in my meals.
At the same time, I still don’t deprive myself of something sweet or salty snacks. I simply have them in moderation. And on days where I relapse and stress-eat every now and then, I don’t punish myself for it. Instead, I give myself grace and tell myself that I’ll try better tomorrow. Sometimes, what it takes to reconfigure our relationship with food is by first working on how we communicate with ourselves.
Calling a loved one
The people I love are constantly at the top of my list of anything reminiscent of the word joy. Having a support system to turn to and the technology that can help sustain human relationships better than ever before, despite being apart, is really something to behold.
I’m an extrovert by nature and my love language is overwhelmingly quality time. Oh, and I tend to ruminate thoughts in my head a lot and have a repository of most likely non-useful information gained from hundreds of movies, TV shows, and YouTube videos that I’ve been consuming, so I like to talk. And while the pandemic has put some strict limitations on our social interactions, I felt that I’ve been able to be in better touch with the people I love simply by calling them up to talk randomly or scheduling a FaceTime session that was supposed to only take an hour or two and end up being four or even seven hours long (yup, that really happened). I realize that it’s because I’m not the only one who’s been harboring a ton of information from a lot of screen time, and whether we’re trying to process things or sharing weird internet rabbit holes we went to during quarantine, I find joy in learning about all of the things we’ve tried, adapted, and learned as a society during this crazy time from the perspectives of the people I love.
Sometimes I also find joy in simply listening—taking a backseat and not talking for once, just taking in another person’s life and hearing about all the good and the bad. Oxytocin and serotonin, according to Simon Sinek, are also thought of as “selfless chemicals.” They can strengthen our bonds with other people by way of personal connection (oxytocin) and the feeling you get by caring about other people and have other people care for you (serotonin). At the same time, as an empath, I’m always aware and careful that I’m in the right headspace to be able to practice empathy without overwhelming myself.
Gratitude as a practice
A practice of gratitude, for me, is the important ingredient in sustaining joy and the foundation of my joy toolbox.
It’s widely known and researched that gratitude has a myriad of health benefits. The idea is simple: a practice of gratitude is all about appreciating life, whether it’s a specific thing or an event, and/or just having an outlook of appreciation in general. By practicing gratitude, we can shift our attention from what’s missing in our lives (scarcity mindset) to the present and what we have right now, which is enough (abundance mindset).
I have been journaling off and on, rather unsuccessfully, for the past two years, and last year I tried to bring it back by starting a quarantine journal by listing 3-5 things I am grateful for at the end of each day. I only lasted two days. I realized then that practicing gratitude without much reflection can be a challenge. And so in lieu of quarantine/gratitude journaling, I’ve taken some time reflecting on what gratitude means to me and what it looks like in practice.
Gratitude can sometimes be misconstrued as comparison and even gaslighting. Being appreciative of life does not come from thinking about how bad other people have it compared to us (though I’d argue that it’s important to keep things in perspective to inspire us to take action). This line of thinking invalidates our internal struggles and may reinforce negative self-talk from feeling guilty about thinking about our own struggles (e.g. “Who am I to complain about x when y is dealing with z.”), which not only doesn’t solve the issue at hand, but could also make us feel even worse.
Oftentimes, this kind of problematic thinking is also sprung upon us from other people in our lives. When I’m talking to someone when I have a bad day or am going through a tough time, I’d remember hearing something like, “Well, at least you have/still have/are [fill in positive thing/attribute].” I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of a single time where this line of thinking has actually helped me or made me feel better. I find this to be gaslighting because it renders certain struggles invalid unless they meet a certain threshold set by the person who utters the words, “at least.” And after years of hearing this, that person could very well be me!
It was important for me to break that cycle and redefine what gratitude means to me by centering its definition on just me, and not on me in comparison to other people or situations. It’s difficult to do this when there are a lot of voices—literally and digitally—constantly around me and influencing my inner thoughts, so I started by taking a much-needed break from social media. In that time off, I suddenly had so much more time to spend talking with my family and my best friends. I started to notice little things that I love in my daily routine—something as small as looking forward to blueberry waffles in the morning and a fresh cup of coffee. I had time to cook instead of heating up my lunches, for longer morning walks while finishing a podcast episode. I finished a book in one day!
I began to feel more gratitude about time, more specifically about having time. With time, I started looking at people and things that are in my life more earnestly. I look at my 16-year-old dog, how despite Cushing’s disease and old age, she is still happy, spunky, and healthy enough to able to go on walks and picnics with me. I look at my family and cherish my talks with them, despite me being literally half a world apart from my parents and an entire country away from my brother on the other coast. I look at my partner and close friends, and feel lucky to know them and to have them in my life, and cherish the love that I give them that is continually reciprocated, for years now.
It was then that I realized gratitude is about things that are already in my life and appreciating them, and not paying any mind to things outside of my life, like what I don’t have, what I can’t do, what I could’ve had, or what I would’ve done. Gratitude is behind the four other things in my toolbox that bring me joy—they are all about the here and now and making the most of the time that I have. More importantly, a true practice of gratitude is one that doesn’t invalidate internal struggles or the crazy state of the world that we’re in right now, nor is it an end-all-be-all solution to all of our and the world’s problems. Rather, a practice of gratitude simply helps to reclaim our space amongst the chaos and injustice, and there’s something powerful and even revolutionary in continuing to live our best lives, within the limitations set upon us due to the pandemic and other things, despite the things that continuously try to steal our joy and break us down.
I hope that my reflections on the last year or so helps to inspire you to think of all the things in your joy toolbox and what you can do to sustain your joy in the coming year. May we see more sunshine and positivity in the year ahead.