Have you hugged your cat today?

“Unprecedented” should be retired from the dictionary after the COVID-19 pandemic has passed. Of the many terms used to describe this year, “dumpster fire” is by far my favorite. One of the latest headlines to hit is the recommendation by most mental health professionals to accept that normal (as defined by pre-COVID standards) will not return, at least anytime soon, and that we should accept this sooner rather than later.

Tough love. Maybe? At the start of the pandemic, mental health professionals were saying that it’s okay not to be okay. Initially I was hesitant to admit it, but now I’m here to say that I am not okay. I will be, but depending on the time of day you ask, I might not be okay at all. And I’m okay with that because I’m trying to do something about it.

Grading is much better with Pippin at the keyboard.

Currently I am taking a free 10-week class through Coursera called “The Science of Well Being,” which is taught by Yale psychology professor Dr. Laurie Santos. For fellow PBS nerds, Dr. Santos has been on several NOVA specials. What the course has revealed has been surprising to me in terms of our constructs of happiness. I find myself wondering how my viewpoint would be different had I taken this class last year.

Since I’m always behind on homework for this course, I’ve taken to calling it “that dumb happiness class” much to the amusement of my husband and daughter. Perhaps I need to re-channel my angst or acknowledge that I’m embarrassed that as an educator I’m not practicing what I’m preaching to my students about being prepared.

I have a good friend named Lennie who is the ultimate optimist. We all need a friend like Lennie, because he gently reminds those around him, sometimes through words but mostly through deeds, that having a positive outlook is possible in most situations.

Here’s one story I like to share about Lennie’s sunny outlook. Our band was practicing one Thursday night for an upcoming gig the following Saturday. The banjo player had developed a habit of canceling at the last minute when it was too late to easily find a replacement (insert banjo joke here). When the phone call came through during practice that he wasn’t going to make the gig, the guitar player and I looked at each other. No words were necessary to express our frustration and disappointment. Then we looked at Lennie, who smiled cheerfully and said,” Well, at least he called to let us know!”

How can one argue with that logic?

Lennie is one of the rare people cited in the Happiness class that is born with an innate sense of optimism and happiness. Take heart: happiness—or rather how we rethink what happiness is and how to achieve it—can be learned and cultivated. Not surprisingly, social connections and friendships, such as the ones I share with Lennie and my other bluegrass buddies, figure large into our level of happiness.

In addition to the aforementioned helpful articles that could succinctly be named “Get over it. Life will never be the same,” further articles have pointed to the physical changes we are experiencing due to COVID, such as muscle loss and poor posture from this immediate and magical shift to working from home. Physical contact has been limited or curtailed completely. My husband and daughter are both Taurus Bulls. They were never big on hugging and they certainly aren’t now. Me? I’m an unabashed hugger. Of all the things I miss; my family, live music, and band practice in particular, hugs top the list. How have I been coping? By hugging my cat.

Yes, I have deepened an existing co-dependency with our cat Pippin. He might be what keeps me somewhat sane through this pandemic. Each morning, he greets me by running down the hall when he hears the bedroom door open. Since he is not food-driven, I will continue to blissfully read his actions as genuine affection. While the other cats are more “meh” about the hugging thing, Pippin doesn’t mind. He even provides helpful tips for dealing with stress by attempting to displace my laptop so he can sit in my lap. He doesn’t mind if I tell him the same story repeatedly, and he the best little hugger a cat could be. 

As I continue through the remaining work on the Yale course, surround myself (virtually) with positive friends and energy, and make peace with not knowing what lies ahead, I wish anyone reading this genuine calm and happiness. Reach out to someone if you’re not okay. Find something in your life that will bring you joy during his time. For me, at this time in my life, I will continue to unashamedly hug my cat.

Stay safe and stay well.

Photos courtesy of Tim Clark.

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