The end of 2019 found me in a difficult season. A breakup, underemployment, and swirling anxieties about the future led to spending a lot of time in my own head. Worrying, for me, was a familiar way of interacting with an uncertain world, and during this season, I began to feel it closing in again.
To help reorient my perspective and to prepare for the December holidays, I gave myself a challenge. From December 1 to December 25, I would write a letter at the end of each day, in which I’d express gratitude for the small joys that happened that day. The goal was to break out of the worried mindset that set the already grey days of late fall in shades of emotional monochrome. Having to write down the good things caused me to slow down each evening and acknowledge that, even amid the worries, there were moments of joy.
Utilizing a letter format was helpful. I associate letters with positive feelings—delight, comfort, rest, the feeling of curling up with a cup of tea to read someone’s words addressed to you. Though the letters were ultimately meant for me, I addressed them to someone else to create a conversational spirit and also to help me step back a little from myself. The result was that the things I wrote down were often less emotionally involved than my swirling thoughts. Writing letters allowed me to be reflective, to observe the day’s events from a slightly removed perspective.
As I went through the process of writing these letters, I noticed a few things. The first was that my mood improved. It wasn’t that I was only writing about happy moments; in fact, most of the letters acknowledged fatigue, worry, and struggle. Writing these letters challenged me to hold both the difficult and the good together, reminding me that a season, and even a couple years, of struggle does not cancel out the lovely moments of each day. This practice of turning toward the good developed into a habit in which I was more easily able to express gratitude.
As daily letter-writing became a habit, I realized I enjoyed choosing a card from among my stationery, coming up with a poetic line or two to summarize my day (which is how I addressed each of the envelopes), and simply writing down a few things that I was thankful for that day. I’d then leave the envelope on my nightstand so I could see the poetic lines throughout the next day.
I wrote those letters in 2019 with the intention of opening them again. And so, last month (December 2020), I opened a letter each day until Christmas. In revisiting those letters, I rediscovered a part of myself that had been lost in the dramatic transitions and deep depressions of 2020—the part that sees and relishes the beautiful details of life. A blanket of ever-increasing worry had again drifted over me in the course of the year, and this time it was the act of reading the letters that led to a gradual shift in my perspective. My voice from the year before laid out a reality that still rang true to my December 2020 self—that joys and sorrows often come together, and that where I choose to focus my attention is important to how I interpret my life.
It turns out that creative acts influence what psychologists call “positive affect,” which psychologist Brad Brenner defines as “the extent to which people experience positive moods, such as joy, happiness, and optimism.” He continues, quoting wellness coach Elizabeth Scott, “Higher positive affect lowers stress and ‘expands our perspective so that we notice more possibilities in our lives.’”
Brenner also describes why creativity (which encompasses much more than craft projects and writing, including visual arts, exercise, coding, gardening, learning a language, playing music, and just about any hobby you can think of) leads to improved mental health: when creating, “brainwaves slow down, and original thoughts are better able to form. Additionally, the prefrontal cortex temporarily deactivates, or ‘goes quiet,’ making us less critical of our ideas and more courageous.” He adds that neurochemicals like endorphins and serotonin are also released, making the process of creativity pleasurable.
This is perhaps why I was better able to engage with my thoughts during the activity of letter writing. Because this activity involved creation (not only a letter but 2-4 lines of poetry), I was able to enter a slightly different headspace than I did when I was simply alone with my thoughts.
If the January blues are already creeping up, try writing to yourself for a month or practicing some other kind of daily act of creativity that fits you. This might involve keeping a journal, taking a daily photo of something that inspires you, adding to an art or sewing project, making a short video recording to document a lovely moment each day. In some cases, you may decide to share the fruits of your creativity with others (e.g., if you’re taking a photo a day, you might decide to share on Instagram or Snapchat), but the goal is to turn your attentiveness toward the good that you find in what you’re doing.
In six months or a year, go back to what you’ve created. What does your past creative self have to say to you now? In my case, I was not only reminded of what I enjoy, but also received some of the positivity I had activated during that time. I’m now more motivated to turn to creativity to center my mind when the anxiety returns. My hope is that in this small daily activity you will discover joy.