Here’s what happens when I get sick, or when my life gets so hectic that it seems like a remake of “Fast and Furious,” but without the cars, because God forbid I have to parallel park often. A lightbulb goes off in my head!
What do you equate with strength? A strong person handles what life throws at them. The more life throws at them, the stronger they become, and the more we think of them as “strong” because strength is their only choice.
This is how I thought strength worked.
Something bad happens to you. If you’re weak, you crumble, but if you have a strong character, you push through, persevere, and make it out alive, stronger. I used to think that the way to build strength wasn’t during everyday tasks, but during personal catastrophes, sickness, breakups, layoffs, instabilities.
Yet, as I mentioned, when I’m sick or when life gets wild and uncontrolled, that light bulb goes off in my head.
The light bulb tells me that the reason I, a self-proclaimed strong person, feel generally happy most of the time and ready to deal with difficulties, isn’t because I persevere in the face of emotional storms or knockout blows. The reason I’m strong and happy is because I’ve built a healthy baseline optimism.
A healthy baseline optimism is the general level of optimism you’ve built and that you maintain even at times when things are kinda shitty for you.
Earlier this year, I got infected with COVID-19. Typing “19” reminds me of the fact that this virus was first detected two whole years ago.
It’s surreal that we’re collectively going through this. But as every infected person could tell you, while we’re all going through this together, you go through the virus alone, sometimes, very, very alone.
I had the “luxury,” and I’m laughing at the thought of considering it a luxury, that my partner and I both got infected. I’ve always found the phrase “At least you have each other” thought-provoking.
- No matter what happens, at least we have each other.
- Moving to a new country where you know no one? “At least you have each other.”
It’s just one of those phrases that my writer self can’t get enough of.
We have each other in many ways and this was just another way we now “had each other in.” Fortunately, we never felt severely ill and we’re now healthy and back to normal.
By the end of isolation, though, I started to feel bad. The fear of battling something we still know little about got to me. But it wasn’t just that. This virus wasn’t letting me do the activities that are the reason behind what I do, who I am, and the way I think.
Here are some of my healthy baseline optimism activities.
Some of these are universal and you’d find them in any other article about “things to do to feel happier.” Actually, look no further, a few of them are in my own article, 10 Non-Cringey Hacks That Changed My Life.
I went to a dark place because COVID-19 implied I couldn’t do these things at all, or not to the extent I usually do.
In no particular order, here are some of the activities that truly hold my life together, in ways I only remember and re-realize when I can’t do them:
I meditate every day. I’ll be honest, when I’m in a rush or still sleepy, I do these 2-minutes guided meditations or meditate lying down in bed. Both these methods are terrible for me and if I’m being honest with myself, it’s like I haven’t meditated at all that day. Sure, sometimes I can get in the zone in just two minutes, but that’s a rare occurrence. Meditating regularly (a.k.a with a 15-minute timer and not lying down in bed still half-asleep) has changed my mind (literally, it changes your brain’s gray matter) and the way I handle life.
I try to work out three times a week, and I think, I’ve kept this going, on and off, but mostly on, for like a year now. Yeah! I did sports regularly since I was a kid, but I added this habit to my life because I love exercising. I love the way it makes me feel. Why wouldn’t I want to prioritize things that make me feel amazing? If I skip workouts, my body is like “??????” and will send me signals that it’s missing the endorphins and dopamine and all that good stuff moving your body provides. I swear to God, this never happens when I’m on vacation not working out, my body is like “it’s okay, we’re relaxing, I will allow it.” Weird, and I love it.
3. Quality time with loved ones
I still don’t know if I identify as an introvert or an extrovert. And no, I don’t like the word ambivert because it reminds me of frogs. I have nothing against frogs, I just don’t identify with them.
Apparently, the way we think of extro- and intro- verts is flawed. The correct—and simple, which convinces me even more that it’s correct—distinction is this:
Introverts recharge when they’re alone. Extroverts recharge when they spend time with other people.
I recharge when I spend time alone, so I guess I’m an introvert, but God damn it, do I love people! There are fewer things that I enjoy more than sharing a bottle of wine with my boyfriend; drinking two espressos each with my mom; talking to friends for an hour or two.
I’m blessed to have quality time is engrained in my relationships, not an afterthought. If we’re hanging out, I’m gladly giving you my undivided attention and vice-versa.
- Enjoying a good drink- This is more of a 3.b.) point. I find great joy in enjoying a good cocktail or drinking elaborate caffeinated products. Because I had COVID-19 and wanted to give my body as many chances as possible at a quick recovery, I avoided alcohol (besides the one single shot of Tequila I took before an important meeting, but more on that another time) and I tried to avoid coffee. That was surprisingly hard.
I absolutely love cooking. I’m wary of throwing the word “therapeutic” around, but it is just that for me. The flavors, the smells, the process of chopping and steaming and sautéing and all of that. If I’m out and about, I look forward to cooking something good when I get home. The only problem is that I love the simple dishes I make so much that I don’t try new recipes.
One of my New Year’s resolutions was “cook something new every week.” I would love to try all of Smitten Kitchen’s vegetarian recipes. Not there yet, but getting there. I’ve also started trying my best to eat without watching YouTube or having the TV on, just so I can focus on the incredible tastes in front of me.
5. Feeling focused and productive
I used to say this in my cover letter, and it’s true- I take pride in my organizational skills. Time management is an art as much as a science, and feeling in control of how I spend my day (“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”) and pleased with my daily achievements is crucial to my wellbeing.
Journaling and just sitting in the grass, looking at the sky, feeling grateful about the life I have, are activities that matter a lot to me. I feel gratitude about a pizza so delicious I want another, a kind stranger, a delightful waitress.
This is what I struggled the most with during isolation. I felt ashamed of how ungrateful I was being.
Theoretically, I knew that this would pass and it was normal to feel sad, confused, or empty. You have a potentially deadly virus in the middle of a global pandemic, oh, and your boyfriend has it too. Theoretically, I knew that I had to be immensely grateful that we were recovering quickly and had no severe symptoms.
But in reality, I felt ashamed. Thousands of people had died because of this virus, we only had mild symptoms and the privilege to medicate if needed, and I couldn’t feel thankful about it, despite knowing how incredibly lucky we were. I couldn’t feel grateful because I was feeling bad?
I felt like this guy. No one has to guilt-trip me because I do it myself.
Yeah, I guess I could say gratitude is important to me.
COVID-19 affected my meditation practice because achieving mindfulness (which is an oxymoron since mindfulness is literally about anything but “achieving” and having an attachment to the outcome, but anyway) is hard. You’re only thinking about how your symptoms are today, the way you feel, how many days are still left.
Similarly, you can imagine how it affected the other activities. I couldn’t work out or sweat without fear of suppressing my immune system. Quality time with loved ones or productivity were out the window for the most part. Not only could I not work as much, but I couldn’t even read books, I’d get headaches.
According to a report published late last year in The Lancet, using data from 9 million people, 62354 of whom had a COVID-19 diagnosis, researchers found that 18% of Coronavirus patients developed mental health issues (anxiety, depression, etc.) within three months of diagnosis.
I take my research seriously and I try to be as informative as possible. However, this information may not be suitable for your specific situation, it is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional, and shouldn’t be used to diagnose, treat, prevent or cure any disease or condition. If you have or suspect that you have a mental health issue, please reach out to a licensed therapist.
But now that it seems like a bad dream, I can reflect on this incredibly important concept, building a baseline optimism.
“It took a few days for my baseline optimism to return. My optimism is like an old cat that likes to disappear for days, but I always expect it to return.”How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life, Scott Adams
These little things that I do every day have helped me tremendously to become the person I always envisioned I’d like to be.
It’s like if you wanted to start a business and someone just gave you $100,000! But the business is your life and you gave yourself that 100K, by investing every day. Building a baseline optimism is like investing in your future. If, God forbid lmao, something bad happens to you, you already have a myriad of goodness on your side: a positive and mindful outlook focused on solutions.
A healthy baseline optimism looks different for different people.
Maybe you’re naturally bubbly and hopeful and unlike me, you don’t have to do any activity to have a healthy baseline optimism. That’s just who you are. Awesome!
On the other hand, maybe negativity and feelings of hopelessness are what come naturally to you. I speculate it won’t be the road less traveled and you won’t be alone. In this case, you might need to go the extra mile, by including more optimism-boosting activities and doing them more frequently. That might sound like:
- Keeping a list of things you’re grateful for that you can refer to when feeling pessimistic.
- “Much of the time we respond to our thought processes as if they reflect facts about the world, whereas they more often represent opinions or assumptions.” Do this CBT exercise to identify facts and opinions.
- Just as little as entertaining positive thoughts when they enter your brain, thinking of ways that could work instead of ways they won’t.
- I’m a firm believer that Hard Conversations Help You Grow & You Should Have Them as Often as Needed. You can make it a point to communicate assertively, not passively or aggressively, once a week.
- Seeking therapy.
I don’t know what building a baseline optimism looks like for you. Maybe you despise cooking, but really enjoy playing online games.
I don’t know if you think strength is only built in the face of adversity and there’s no way that how we handle our mundane everyday tasks is how we handle disasters, whether natural, at work, in our families or our relationships.
But I believe that, like many other good things, building strength is a marathon, not a sprint. There’s no one size fits all cure. I’m always investing in that metaphorical bank account because I know that the magic is in the little things, and I know that when I’ll look back, the dots will connect to form a spectacular view.