Open Mind:Practicing gratitude

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed how we live, work, and connect. What may have felt like a novelty nine months ago has now become isolating, boring and mundane.

Many of us are fed up and want things to go back to the way they were. Perhaps we thought that life would get back to normal a lot sooner, and now we are left wondering if it ever will.

Those moments of connection, hugging a friend or loved one, and gathering to celebrate special occasions all seem like distant memories. We long for what used to be. Unfortunately, all the hoping and finger crossing in the world cannot bring us back to those times, or catapult us into the future when COVID-19 is hopefully a distant memory.

The impact is especially difficult going into the holiday season, when many of us look forward to connecting with extended family and friends. It is easy to understand why we might be focused on all we have lost and continue to lose with additional restrictions due to the pandemic.

We can’t be anywhere but where we are right now, in the current moment. Yet many of us spend our days wishing we were somewhere else or hoping for something better. This leads us to feeling discontent and dissatisfied with our lives.

Spending the holidays wishing things were different will rob us of the opportunity to enjoy what is actually happening.

This year, we might have to ensure we are creating special moments for ourselves, even if it means wrapping up a gift for ourselves to open, cooking a feast for one, or preparing a meal for an isolated neighbour and dropping it off on their porch.

It can be helpful to approach each situation mindfully, be fully present in it, and feel grateful for the moments that bring us happiness. This means that we try to focus our attention on what we are doing, without judging it, or allowing thoughts of the past or worries about the future to interfere with our mood in the present.

When we pay special attention to what we are doing, it provides us with an opportunity to also reflect on what that moment brings to our lives. Our survival-based brains are hard wired to focus on the negative. We tend to focus on the things we don’t have, and think we need, in order to be happy, successful or fulfilled.

People who regularly practice gratitude by taking time to notice and reflect upon the things they’re thankful for experience more positive emotions, feel more alive, sleep better, express more compassion and kindness, and even have stronger immune systems.

Each time we express gratitude, our brain’s “feel good” chemical, dopamine, is released as a reward.  The more we express gratitude, the better we feel.

The holidays will likely look and feel a bit different for all of us this year, and may leave us feeling more isolated and lonely due to physical distancing.

We practice gratitude not to minimize our struggles, but to help us see what those struggles might be casting a shadow on. There is always something to be grateful for: a warm cup of tea, a call from a friend, a sunbeam shining through the window.

Start a gratitude journal, either in a notebook, on an app on your phone or on a collection of post-it notes stuck on your wall to read and reflect on daily. Practice this twice daily, first thing in the morning, and last thing before closing your eyes to sleep. I’ve done it … the results were wonderful!

Laura McShane is mental health promotion and education coordinator with CMHA Waterloo Wellington. The “Open Mind” column is sponsored by community partners who are committed to raising awareness about mental health, reducing stigma and providing information about resources that can help. For local mental health resources/information, visit or call 1-844-HERE247.

Laura McShane