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  • Jan Flynn

Gratitude: It’s Contagious

There’s a reason for the bunny photo; I’ll get to that

For now, let’s acknowledge that we are all feeling a little — maybe more than a little — weirded out right now. In the U.S. as in everywhere in the world (at least all the parts of it that weren’t already riven by war or famine or both), life has undergone a head-spinning transformation in the past two weeks. The boundaries of our lives keep contracting to the point where we all feel like Luke and Han and Princess Leia when they got stuck in the giant trash compactor in the first movie. Please tell me you get that analogy.

But for now, the walls have closed in about as far as it seems they’re going to. And so far, we remain unsquished. Assuming you, like me, are subject to a shelter-in-place (or “safer at home” if you prefer) directive, we’re going to be here for a while. Maybe a long while. It’s bound to feel long, in any case.

But the grocery stores are still open and there is still toilet paper in the world, I promise, so let’s make the best of it. Our situation, I mean, not the toilet paper, although . . . never mind. My point:

Happiness is still possible. In fact, it’s essential

That may sound preposterous or even selfish at first blush. I’m supposed to be happy? you may be thinking. People are suffering! Dying! And I’m going broke! All that may be true. But hear me out.

I’m not suggesting you ignore or discount all the bad things that are going on. For one thing, it’s important to stay informed these days, and you can’t do that without receiving a heaping dose of negativity and hysteria from the news media, who can’t help themselves. And depending on the state of your personal health and finances, it’s a tossup which is scarier, the viral threat or the economic meltdown.

It’s a counterintuitive truth that one crucial component of inner peace and thus happiness is accepting the feelings we label as negative, without judging them. Emotions come, and as long as you don’t dam them up by fixating on them, they go. You can’t slap a happy face sticker on your worried brain, but what you can do is adjust your focus.

Hence, gratitude

If you don’t have a daily gratitude practice, I suggest that now is the perfect time to begin one. It could be in the form of a journal, a daily bullet-point list, a meditation, or taking 5 minutes to declare to yourself the three or five or ten or whatever things that pop into your brain to follow the words “I am grateful for . . .”

This might be the last thing you feel like doing right now. That’s a sure sign you’re in need of it. As much as you may resist it at first, forcing yourself to pay attention to the things that are good in life, however seemingly small and inconsequential they may be, has surprising power to clear up your mood and lighten your heart. And it works even if you’re not exactly in the tip-top of mental health.

You can just trust me on this, or you can check out some of the studies that reveal the benefits of conscious gratitude, like this one described in Greater Good Magazineorthe ones referenced in this article from Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health Publishing. I’m not just whistlin’ Pollyanna over here, people.

Here’s why I care about your happiness

Full confession: it’s not because I’m a wonderful person. Well, sometimes I am, but sometimes I’m definitely not, just like most of us human beans. The point is, your state of mind has an effect not just on you, but on all the people in your sphere.

This doesn’t just include your family members or whoever you’re hunkering down with these days. Thanks to technology and the Interwebs, your sphere is pretty darn enormous. And everyone in it has their impact on everyone in theirs. Eventually, your sphere is likely to affect, however tangentially, me.

How you respond to life in the time of coronavirus, therefore — on an emotional as well as a behavioral level — depends greatly on your attitude, which is reflected in all your communications. And that’s more catching than the virus.

The more we each shore up our individual mental health, the more we can support others, even if we do it at a physical remove. We’re all bound to experience dips in our spirits over the coming weeks, and when we do, we will need those who are feeling relatively positive to lift us up and remind us that life, as baffling and frightening as it sometimes is, is still good.

About that bunny

Here’s another gift of practicing gratitude and thus broadening your awareness beyond all the dismal news: it allows you to see what’s happening right in front of you. Especially if you’re less preoccupied with your normal routine these days, you have a better chance of registering the wonders with which life surrounds us and which we often fail to notice.

Yesterday, feeling the need for some fresh air and exercise, my husband and I went for a hike in a nearby state park, still an okay thing to do under the current guidelines (walking my talk, I am grateful that we live close to a state park, I am grateful the state park was open, and I am grateful that the few people we ran into on the trail were as careful as we were about keeping space between themselves and us).

We hiked about four miles, much of it uphill, scrambling over shale and boulders as we reached the top of a ridge that overlooks the lovely valley we call home (and for that I am grateful, believe me). Lungs and legs burning, we plopped down on a low, natural bench created by a tree root to catch our breath and take in the view. It was just us and the trees and the sky and an occasional turkey vulture soaring overhead.

As we were considering rousing ourselves for the hike back down, we caught a small movement in the undergrowth about ten yards away. “Is that a bunny?” said my husband.

“Gotta be a ground squirrel,” I replied, as we watched the tiny critter scuttle through the brush.

Whatever it was moved, surprisingly, toward us. Spellbound, we watched its progress. As it crept into a patch of sunlight, it revealed itself to be, in fact, a bunny. Other than jackrabbits, I had no idea little brown rabbits lived in our neck of the woods, so to speak. This one was no more than six inches long, with wee bunny ears, and ridiculously cute.

“Hey there, bunny,” we said softly, not wanting to frighten it. The little rabbit, instead of fleeing, lippity-lopped its way closer to us until it was less than an arm’s reach from where we sat. There it paused for a moment and regarded us with mild curiosity for a moment before it calmly headed off into the brush on the other side of the clearing.

I am grateful we were there in that place and at that moment. I am even more grateful we were paying attention. And I can’t even tell you how grateful we were, and are, for our tiny miraculous bunny encounter.

If it weren’t for us having to cancel all of our other plans, it wouldn’t have happened.

As we all make our way through these extraordinary days, I wish you health and all the happiness you can discover. And maybe a bunny sighting.

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