Many people around the world are dealing with uncertainty over the coronavirus pandemic and wondering when life will return to some level of normalcy.
You might find yourself asking the same questions: When will this pandemic end? How much worse will it get? Can I make plans in the next few months or even next year? When will I stop working from home and go back into the office?
No one has the answers to these questions, which can induce anxiety and fear. But what if, rather than fighting that uncertainty and getting anxious about it, we just accepted it — or even leaned into it?
That idea is something author Gretchen Rubin has been thinking about as well.
The key to leaning into this uncertainty is to think critically about what you are learning from it, says Rubin, author of books including "The Happiness Project" and "Happier at Home," and host of the podcast "Happier with Gretchen Rubin.”
“Think to yourself, 'OK, well, one day everything is going to go back. Let me acknowledge the gains that I have. This is the silver lining. And how might I think about what I need to change in the future that's going to help me hold on to this?' ” she says. “Because if I feel like I'm learning something useful out of this time, I'll be comforted by that.”
Rubin acknowledges that this is hard work because uncertainty itself is difficult to confront.
“One of the things that I'm really doing is trying to understand, like, well, there is so much uncertainty, there's loss, but what am I learning? What am I gaining? What insights am I having?” she says. “Some things are working worse, but some things are working better, and can I gain from that?”
To help her stay focused, she is reminded of the line from the Roman poet Ovid where he says, “Be patient and tough. Someday this pain will be useful to you.”
“I think we all just have to hang in there and hope that one day this pain will be useful,” she says. “In whatever way, we'll get through it.”
On how her mindset has shifted throughout the pandemic
“It really has changed because at the beginning, there was just the shock of the new, and it was sort of everybody was running around and it was all about the toilet paper. And now I think we're really settling into this different state, as you said, where we realize it's going to be uncertain for a long time and that we don't really know what the horizon is and things might move forward and they might move backward. And things that seemed impossibly far in the future, like oh, September school going back, it seemed like, oh well, we'll worry about that later. Well, now that's all coming real, and so I think people's feelings are changing.”
On how to replace travel in our lives
“Well, it's funny because I think it took a while to kind of wrap our minds around the idea that, like, we could be anywhere, you know, because this idea of being freed from having to show up [to work]. And I think for a lot of people to [not] travel also is a relief because maybe they were traveling a lot for work and now they're not doing that, so that's opening up other time.
“If you love travel and you're frustrated because you're not able to travel, one thing you could do is be a tourist in your own hometown. Now, you may not be able to get to a museum, but maybe there's a national park or or just like a local park that you've never visited. A lot of times there's things that we ignore just because they're in our own backyard. Even if you're going to go for your walk, go to a different neighborhood and explore it and get that sense of something new and novel and really learn more about where you are and take advantage of this time.”
On how to balance the need to be productive with compassion for ourselves
“I think there's a real tension there because I think on the one hand, we absolutely want to show ourselves compassion. This is a global pandemic. We've never gone through this, so you want to be kind to yourself. On the other hand, everything has consequences. And so I think sometimes people are like, well, nothing counts. Well, unfortunately, everything does count. And so you don't want to come out of this period feeling worse because of having decided that this doesn't count. So I think we want to remember that. But I do think some people are sort of like, 'Well, if I'm not going to do it now, what am I going to do it? This is the time. Like, how is it possible that I haven't cleaned every closet or got deep into meditation or learned Italian or whatever it is?'
“So I do think we need to be realistic, but it's also true that one of the ways that we can feel better about what's going through is if we do feel like we've made good use of the time. And if you feel like, 'Well, I was safer at home, and so I did organize my basement or I did update my resumé or I did take that online course or I did learn how to use that new software,' that will make us feel better going forward because it's something good that came from this. We were able to make good use of it. And that's comforting because there's so much we can't do. But again, it's with the idea that it may not be a productive time for you. You may have so much uncertainty and so much chaos in how your household is running or what you're up against. I think each of us has to decide for ourselves. Like, am I going to ask more of myself or am I going to cut myself some slack?”
On scheduling time to worry
“For many people, just constant rumination is very draining, and all day long, you're sort of revisiting questions and worrying. So when you schedule time to worry — and don't schedule your time to worry right before bedtime — but maybe you say at 11:00 a.m. every day or at 3 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Friday or whatever it is, you schedule time to worry. And so if you find yourself worrying outside that time slot, you can say to yourself, 'It's not time to worry about that now. But I'm not ignoring it. I'm not trying to push it aside. I'm going to address my worry when the time comes.' So what that does is it frees up your other time. You don't have to worry. You're not constantly ruminating and being dragged down by these circling thoughts in other parts of your day. Then when you sit down to worry, you can sit down, have pen and paper or whatever you want and really think through, 'Well, what am I worried about?' And a lot of times when we really address our worries in kind of a systematic way, they seem more manageable.
“One thing that I'm facing and I think a lot of people are facing is that sort of what we're supposed to do or what [are the best practices] changes. And I think for some people, that becomes very decision fatigue, like, should I do this? Should I do that? Do I need to be doing this? Am I wasting my time by doing this or am I being completely irresponsible by not doing that? So one way to schedule time to worry is say, 'OK, periodically I'm going to check in and I'm really going to do my research and I'm going to see like, what is the best advice right now [from] the experts that I respect and what are they saying about can I do this? Is this safe? And I'm going to follow that advice. And I'm not going to rethink it or re-question it until it's the next periodic check in time.'
“Now it might be once a week. It might be every three days. It might be every three weeks, depending on how quickly things are changing sort of in the scientific community and in our own communities. Because I think sometimes, again, it's this decision fatigue. It's the constant questioning of what we're doing is very draining. And yet we're not really learning anything new or moving anything forward. It's just the nagging sensation of am I doing things right? By periodically checking in you assure yourself, 'Knowing what I know now, I'm doing the best thing that I can. And I'll update that when the time is right.' ”
On how strong relationships can help ease anxiety
“If you're going to think about happiness, the key to happiness is strong relationships, if you had to pick one thing. So as you're going through this time, really pay attention to your relationships. Staying connected with other people, going out on the street and smiling at people, your neighbors, over the masks, looking for ways to feel connected to other people, and also, you know, to do good in the world, to feel connected to your larger community because maybe you can't control the virus, but you could do virtual volunteering or you could do virtual babysitting for somebody who's got little kids at home and can't get any work done. If we do good, we feel good, and that will make us feel closer to the people in our lives and closer to our community. And so that is something that's within our control that will really boost our spirits in a tough time.”
This segment aired on July 15, 2020.