How to hold onto post-lockdown joy: Practice gratitude

Family and friends celebrate Opening Day of the Dodgers’ season in Los Angeles on Apr 9, 2021. Allison Zaucha/The New York Times
When pandemic rules began to loosen earlier this year, I felt a small burst of joy each time I did something that had been off-limits for months. With the rollout of the vaccines, once-mundane activities became almost wondrous.

Hugging my parents and friends. Getting a haircut. Wandering the aisles of the grocery store.

But as my new routine became, well, routine, that extra boost of pleasure faded away.

This, for better or worse, is human nature. We tend to adjust quickly to change, with our happiness levels returning to baseline even after major setbacks and achievements, Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, told me.

It’s key to our success as a species. Adapting makes us resilient in the face of challenges, such as divorces and injuries, and keeps us striving for more after good things happen, she said.

But there’s a way to replicate that post-lockdown delight — by practicing gratitude.

Here was Lyubomirsky’s advice: Once a day, stop and appreciate what you’re able to do now that you weren’t last year. You can make a mental note, tell your partner, text your friend or write it down in a journal.

The method doesn’t matter, as long you’re making a deliberate effort to acknowledge that things have improved. This is a version of what psychologists call “savouring” — appreciating small things around us to try to increase happiness.

Over Labour Day weekend, while celebrating a friend’s birthday at a park in Los Angeles, I started a conversation about what we were doing at the same time last year. We realised that last September in LA, there was a record-breaking heat wave, dangerously smoky air and the pandemic felt much scarier.

For a few moments at least, I felt thankful for what my life looks like now.

So while 2021 did not deliver the wild, carefree summer for which we’d hoped, chances are that you’re still leaving the house more than you were a year ago. And there’s room in that to be grateful, and happier.

Practicing gratitude is linked to fewer health problems and less depression, better sleep and higher levels of happiness. Feeling thankful for the little pleasures in our lives can add up to make us happier people overall, Lyubomirsky said.

Months from now, we might not be able to feel quite as good as we did the first time we returned to a restaurant or visited our relatives after being apart. But the pandemic can teach us how to find joy in small things that, without it, we may have overlooked.

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