12 Ways to Find Joy in 2021

As the pandemic and stay-at-home orders continue

Asha Noel Iyer
11 min readJan 14, 2021
Image by United Nations COVID-19 Response on Unsplash

A pandemic. Stay at home order. Civil unrest. Vicious police brutality. The American West on fire. RBD passing. Unemployment at an all-time high. Businesses tanking. Death tolls rising. And now a new strain of the virus. Could these times get any worse?

For so many people, the answer will be yes in the form of being in the ICU, an unexpected funeral, months of homeschooling continuing, having to move, or not knowing how to get out of bed. 2020 was a year of tremendous loss and sadness. And while there are so many things to be grateful for, there are so many more to be mourned. Moments of joy feel at best inappropriate and at worst fiercely out of touch with the world. But it’s been nine months of this. And while the virus is getting worse, and hope is continuing to dwindle, how can we charge forward in the new year?

Image by United Nations COVID-19 Response on Unsplash

First of All: If you haven’t taken the much-needed time to mourn everything you and our world has lost, stop reading this and go feel your feels. I can’t say this enough. If, however, you are like me and have cried for months, watched hours of Netflix, and are now sick and tired of feeling sick and tired- carry on.

1. Carry the Candle for Ruth Bader Ginsberg

That marvelous, force-to-be-reckoned-with did not do all that work for us to stay in bed, scroll through our phones, and say, “This year can just suck it.” We can be enraged, we can be terrified, we can be devastated, but we cannot be hopeless. We just can’t afford to be, not with the state of the world. We have to fight to make it better. We have to call our reps. We have to talk to each other. We can even volunteer remotely! But we have to believe things can get better. If we don’t, we give up. If we give up, we die. I think we’ve had enough deaths in this last year. So let’s not choose that.

2. Find a Semblance of Normality

I have found that visiting anchors of my pre-Covid world makes my whole day better. Things like getting a cappuccino from my favorite coffee shop and catching up with the owners (with masks, 6 ft away) or having game nights with friends (over Zoom) make my whole day so much brighter. They aren’t the same, but it’s like using stevia for sugar. Not the same, but still sweet and hits the spot. Find your anchors- they make everything easier.

3. Slow Down on Doom Scrolling

Doom scrolling is the best. It validates why we feel so sad and lost. But it also perpetuates it. Reading those terrible headlines, feeling enraged at our current government, scrolling through Facebook comment thread fights- we get off on it. And rightly so. Because it’s stupidly validating. And also, with the exception of Facebook drama, it’s our civic duty to be engaged in what is happening in the world. But I’ve found that as long as I’m aware of what’s happening, giving myself a little distance from social media and every new headline flung my way does wonders for my mental health. If we can absorb the terrible stuff out there just a little bit less consistently, and maybe limit our nightly scrolling time to say Pinterest or some other app without news (or better yet, a book!), I think we’d be surprised at how much more energy we have to fight, reflect, and get through our days with much more ease.

4. If You’re Unemployed, Bored, and/or Sad- Find a Goal.

I’m mostly talking to folks who have the privilege of staying at home and aren’t on full time hospital/parent/teacher/front lines duty. Because honestly there are so many people who the idea of a “goal” or “finding the silver lining” is a cruel joke: “Oh, in between working from home 9–5 on Zoom and then trying to be a good partner/parent right after? Oh cool I’ll get right on that. Right after finishing the funeral arrangements for my sister.” To everyone in the midst of an overwhelming amount of responsibility and tragedy, I have the utmost respect for you and please tell me to shut the hell up right now.

But to those of you who are at home, on unemployment, not having places to go, feeling sad, bored, disconnected, finding it hard to get out of bed: find a goal. Any goal. Finish a book. Start that hobby. Finally listen to your friend’s podcast. And when that gives you some steam and you have more bandwidth, go for bigger goals! Ones that give you more purpose. Start with what you love doing. Set up that Etsy shop for your water colors. Create a U-Demy course and make some passive income. Write that book. Do 30 days of yoga. I don’t care if it’s cliche or feels frivolous. A reason to wake up and a sense of purpose is something we all desperately need right now.

Image by Estée Janssens on Unsplash

5. Move Your Body

Ah, 2020. The year we all gained twenty (or more). Between depressed Netflix binges and the whole world moving to Zoom, getting up to get a glass of water felt like a marathon. But for better or worse, our minds and bodies are inextricably linked. The less we move, the less endorphins we get, the more our brain chemistry gets out of balance, the more we want to do nothing and die.

I’m not saying go on a run every day. A lot of people have chronic pain, unbreathable air, or three kids to feed, teach, and keep alive. So moving will inevitably mean something different to everyone. But do what you can, start where you are. Stretch for ten minutes before bed. Go on a twenty minute walk with your dog after breakfast. If you’re dealing with an old injury, get into physical therapy if you can afford it. If you can’t, find some very gentle yoga on Youtube. Or if you’re healthy and feeling the buzz, do that work out program you’ve always wanted to try!

As this pandemic is reminding us, having enough health to move in any way is an enormous privilege. Move in a way that feels good, and build up to doing it as much and as often as possible. Your body and mind will be endlessly grateful.

6. Find Things to Do OFF Screen

Yes, the whole world has moved to Zoom. If we want to make money, or see family, or be entertained in any way, a screen is, unfortunately, the answer. While hacks like “Cut your screen time in half!” feel far fetched, I think a more doable goal is just finding a couple of things per day that don’t require a screen. Take a walk. Make masks for your family. Go camping. Smother your cat. Clean out your closet. Make a recipe from an index card shoved in the back of your Pinterest board.

Image by Image by Heather Ford on Unsplash

7. Get Out of Victim Mode

And figure out what’s next for you. Again, I’m not talking to those who have just lost someone or whose lives are melting down. Mourn, be sad, cry in your bed every chance you get. Let yourself do what you need.

I’m talking to people who when asked how they are, reply with, “Well, I lost my job in March. And I can’t go anywhere. So yeah life is pretty shit.” This is a sensitive topic, so if I step on some toes I’m sorry. Everyone mourns in their own way, in their own time. And if you need a long time to be upset and angry, do it. Because depression and anxiety and the process of mourning is a very real thing.

But at a certain point, we can’t let what the world did to our lives continue to rob us of hope and joy every day unending until the day we die. The world has taken so much from so many people before us, and they moved on. They had to. And they didn’t have the luxury of getting lost in a Netflix show while having Postmates deliver their dinner.

My grandmother grew up in poverty in India, was married off to a man eighteen years her elder, lost three children, raised eight more, immigrated to America, and dealt with severe heart problems for years. The world robbed her of so much and gave her more hardship than most. Yet she was indelibly strong. She moved on, poured her heart into her family, and took joy in everything she possibly could. I think if a woman who dealt with starvation, racism, classism, sexism (all the isms), poverty, a forced marriage, life-threatening health issues, and the loss of not one but three kids could find intense joy in life- we can.

8. Find One Mental Health Thing to Do Every Day

If meditating is your thing, awesome! But if not, that’s cool too. Caring for your mind goes beyond classic, zen practices. It’s about finding a thing that calms your brain and helps you feel okay. Maybe that’s a jog with your dog. Maybe it’s playing records and cooking. Maybe it’s coloring in an adult (or children’s) coloring book. Just find the thing that allows your brain time to decompress and lets your heart feel a little bit lighter.

9. Take a Historical Perspective

This is not the first pandemic. Or the first time the world has been severely scarred by a terrifying government, natural disasters, or the loss of great leaders. While the build up of all of these things makes it seem like 2020 was the cursed year that will make or break the rest of life forever and ever, that’s simply not true. More people will die. More homes will burn. More pain and suffering will ensue. And I’m not saying any of this lightly. It’s beyond devastating. But the world will rebound. As the world always has.

That said, I hope we can all take a hard look at global warming. That is the one thing different in these times. We are the first generation to feel the effects of global warming and the last who can do anything about it. The world could be a very scary place in one to two generations if huge changes aren’t made now. Electric cars and less AC isn’t going to slow down global warming at the rate the world needs. Do your research and fight.

As for the rest? Stay educated, keep fighting, and dear god don’t get complacent. But know the rest has historically been overcome before. The world has cycles of pandemics and disaster. This is a natural course of history, and there will be an after.

Read this fabulous article published in the Wall Street Journal that discusses the history of pandemics, disease, and how natural a part of life they are- despite it feeling so shocking and abnormal to this generation. It was a great source of comfort to me.

10. Take a Break From Alcohol

Ah 2020, the year we all became alcoholics. I know that for myself drinking creeps up in the sneakiest ways- would I like a pre-dinner cocktail? Sure! Would a glass of wine go well with reading on the porch? Absolutely. Should we have rum and cokes with our movie night? Shake ’em up! A drink can be a lovely companion to nearly every activity, especially at a time when most of us are usually home and have nowhere to go.

But taking a break is surprisingly great. Remember alcohol is a depressant, and the build up of alcohol can tremendously affect brain chemistry and therefore mood. Find a delicious sparkling water (I love mango), get some fresh fruit or rose extract to drop in, and shake it up! You could also shop from one of the MANY delicious alcohol-free cocktail/liquor companies (I love Seedlip and Curious Elixers). There are so many alternatives, and taking a short break from alcohol can do your body, mind, and mood so much good.

Image by Wesual Click on Unsplash

11. Find a Great Therapist

A fantastic therapist is a game-changer. An unbiased professional who can give you practical tools to navigate the year from hell and your plans going forward is an unequivocal pathway to joy. If you have health insurance, go on their website and see what providers your insurance covers. Call up that list and see if they have any openings! If you don’t have coverage, it’s still possible to find a therapist. Many therapists will work with you on pricing or payment plans, and many non-profits have counseling services available as well.

I found a fabulous therapist six months ago and my life has taken a 180. I already had incredible relationships in my life with wonderful advice from my loved ones, but adding a therapist to my support system has given me a consistent place to work out any and all demons every week without bugging everyone on my phone’s Favorites list. It’s incredible.

12. Don’t be Committed to Being Grumpy

Over this last year, I found myself trying to figure out some new goals. I work in the performing arts, and my industry got all but shut down. So I started to think, what were my other goals over the years? As I tried to connect to those goals, I didn’t feel inspired or excited. I felt devastated by all that’s happened in the world, and just… grumpy. At best. I was annoyed at everything and everyone. I didn’t feel like catching up with folks. I didn’t want to hear how good or bad they were faring. I’d try to get revved up to start working on stuff… and then I’d feel even more annoyed. And then angry, and then sad.

And then I realized, damn. I am COMMITTED to being grumpy. The idea of something being magical or exciting makes me downright pissed. I have my claws dug into being mad all. the.time. And how sad! Because this world is already melting down. And the world needs driven people with hope to keep fighting. To create good. To spread good. I felt so self-righteously angry, but I had to remember that the world doesn’t owe me anything. And if I wanted to actually help change things that my pissed-off, pessimistic attitude needed to change. The world needs something, anything good right now. We have to keep creating that goodness. We can be terrified. We can be enraged. We can be devastated. But we can’t go negative. We won’t survive if we choose that.

Image by United Nations COVID-19 Response on Unsplash



Asha Noel Iyer

Writer, Coffee Lover, Cat Mom. Writer for Society19 & @thriveglobal. Sign up for my mailing list: https://tinyletter.com/ashanoeliyer