Mental Health

Be Grateful! Be Productive! Or Maybe Just Be Good to Yourself?


“Take in what’s useful, of course, but don’t forget to consult with yourself to assess your actual needs.”

In times of great stress, we are often told to remember to be grateful for what we have and to be as productive as we can be. OK, I actually can’t think of any times like these, but I am seeing a lot of people on the internet tell me to be grateful for what I have and to be productive during social distancing. These concepts can be extremely helpful, but they can also backfire, especially when the end of the stress remains unknown. I can be an Olympic gold medalist in gratitude and productivity for a week, maybe two, but I need a deadline to keep me going strong.

For the chronically stressed (which most of us are now in one form or another) with no deadline in sight, intensely focusing on what you’re grateful for in your life can bring on powerful feelings of guilt for complaining at all. If I have loved ones who care for me, a comfortable living situation, the freedom to listen to great music and enjoy great movies, and I’m still feeling unhappy, then I’m just a terrible ingrate! Similarly, while being productive, task-oriented, and creative certainly reduces rumination and increases satisfaction in life, the pressure to pump out new accomplishments in the face of a global pandemic can be exhausting or panic-inducing. I propose we take these otherwise good ideas and modify them to reduce our suffering during this absurd and terrifying moment in history.

Be grateful! (for yourself)

It should go without saying that people working in hospitals and other essential fields right now deserve a mountain of gratitude. And one would hope that being home has opened many of us up to recognize how grateful we are for any comforts we have and any loved ones we are near to. A little time off may have increased your gratitude for your favorite foods or entertainment as well. It’s good to notice what contributes to your happiness. But it’s also good to notice that you noticed it. This is one of the key skills in mindfulness meditation, to notice the noticing itself as an object of attention in consciousness. What’s that he said? Just a fancy way of saying you’re pretty cool for recognizing what’s good in your life. Not only that, what you’ve recognized is something that’s pretty cool about you. I have some admittedly peculiar tastes in music and movies, but when I find a sound or a scene that brings me joy, I also try to find joy in the finding of it. It was my ears and my eyes that picked that up, and me who embraced it. That kind of gratitude positions you to notice the good things in life, the things that have not changed for the worse due to COVID-19, and you can be one of those things.

Practice being grateful for any time you treat yourself with kindness and patience in these stressful times. Practice being grateful for how you chose to handle a situation that actually worked out for you. Practice being grateful for who and how you are. No, you’re not perfect. Maybe you have a lot of problems. But there are things about you that you wouldn’t trade for anything. You can even try writing a modified gratitude list, an “I’m grateful for me” list. For example, I’m grateful that I chose to do something nice for myself today, I’m grateful that I still have my sense of humor, I’m grateful that I responded to an urge to be compulsive with a behavior that strengthened my uncertainty tolerance (while still following CDC guidelines!).

Produce! (states of wellbeing)

Right now, somewhere on the internet, a well-intended person of privilege is sipping a fancy tea and writing a meme about how you’re supposed to come out of this pandemic having written your screenplay, learned 3 languages, and painted your house (unless you lack discipline!). That should keep you busy, but being busy is not the same thing as being productive. They are both useful (during quarantine and in general), but they are not the same thing. Being busy simply means doing things frequently. Being productive means generating something of value that did not previously exist. So while writing your movie about the trilingual house painter may keep your mind occupied, it’s not a given that you or others will truly benefit from the result.

What’s always guaranteed to be productive? Self-compassion and self-care. Consider a moment where you become upset about being stuck at home, anxious about the future with the pandemic, or frustrated trying to perfectly follow conflicting safety recommendations. Now imagine recognizing and making space for what you’re experiencing in your body in that moment, reminding yourself we’re all having a hard time with this, and then choosing to engage in an act of kindness towards yourself. Now that was productive.

If you’re a parent suddenly thrown into online homeschooling your children while simultaneously teleworking or maintaining a functioning household, sometimes the most productive thing to do when you get a moment to yourself is simply take that moment. Instead of doing that “one more task”, consider the wellbeing you may produce from just cutting yourself some slack. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being busy, but look for projects that end with you having produced a sense of self-appreciation, not just things that have burnt through some time. Sometimes, doing less can be more productive.

Be Good! (to yourself)

I am not an expert in coping with pandemics. I can’t imagine anyone really could be. If you struggle with OCD, anxiety, or a mood disorder, you may be really grateful for all the blogs like this, all the videos and town halls with mental health experts offering helpful advice. You may also be completely overwhelmed by the sheer volume of it and the constant reminder that there’s something you need to do to keep from falling apart. Take in what’s useful, of course, but don’t forget to consult with yourself to assess your actual needs. Maybe you’re navigating this situation well already, or maybe you just need one or two adjustments to feel more grounded through it all. If I may add to the pile of wisdom that’s being dumped on you these days, consider that you are the expert in coping with a pandemic. You are the one to determine which tools work for you right now. Be good to yourself and take it from there.

  • Jon Hershfield, MFT

    Director, The Center for OCD and Anxiety
    Anxiety Disorders, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)