9 Simple Ways to Create a Burst of Joy in Tough Times

Woman listening to music
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These days, it’s so easy to become discouraged. Between the still-rising number of coronavirus cases and the political turmoil, many days, it’s tough to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

I’ve been trying to focus on the good. Sometimes, I find it takes just one small moment of happiness to brighten a gloomy world, to create a burst of joy in tough times.

These small and simple ideas won’t solve our current situation, but sometimes they provide enough strength and uplift to help me get through the especially sad times.

Some help others, and some are just an encouraging bump for yourself, a brief break from “doom scrolling” through the bad news of the day on your phone. And, as a plus, many of them are free or cost only a small amount.

1. Share an old photo

A box of vintage family photos
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Printed photos are a rare find these days, but somehow they feel more special than iPhone images. Find your favorite vintage image — Halloween as kids with your cousin, or that 1980s friend group photo with the huge feathered hair — and mail a copy to whoever’s in it with you.

I use a free iPhone app called Scannable, which helps me snap a high-quality image of the photo. You then can print the image at home or via any number of photo services, such as those of Walgreens or Target.

2. Listen to some calming sounds

Woman listening to music
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Used to be that you needed a special device to play nature sounds in your home. Now, there are plenty of smartphone apps and skills for virtual assistants such as Amazon's Alexa, and many are even free. My daughter loves to fall asleep to the crash and clatter of a thunderstorm, but I’ll take a purring cat or distant train sounds.

3. Invest in one tiny product

Woman washing dishes
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You don’t have to go broke. But indulge yourself in one small way. Splurge on the fancy shampoo. Snag those crafty earrings you’ve been coveting from Etsy. Pre-order the new mystery from your favorite author.

I paid more than I normally would for a lovely pine-scented dish soap, of all things, over the holidays. And every time I wash a plate, the Christmastime aroma lifts my spirits for a few seconds. Worth it.

4. Light your favorite candle

Woman lighting a candle
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I’m not an aromatherapy person, but the gentle waft of scent from a favorite candle calms me down almost instantly. My favorite is Hot Cocoa & Cream from Bath & Body Works, but my husband prefers anything pine-scented.

If live flames aren’t your style, consider wax melts in an electric warmer, which is a flame-free option.

5. Pass down a family recipe

Mother baking cookies with her son
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I was the lucky one who inherited my mom’s file box jam-packed with recipes. Those in her handwriting are especially beloved. Once in a while, I dig out a special recipe and send a photo of it to my three sisters.

Whether or not they choose to bake Grandma’s Crunchy Cookies or Mom’s Meatloaf, I know they love remembering those delicious dishes, recorded in her own distinct handwriting style.

6. Thank someone

Thank you note for essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic
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Not to be all corny here, but lifting someone else’s spirits will do wonders for your own. A chalked sidewalk message or window sign thanking delivery people or your letter carrier, a larger-than-normal takeout tip, a dashed-off email to a work colleague who helped you navigate a tricky issue. Or just a sweet, random note to the sister or parent or friend who’s virtually holding your hand through it all — maybe even from many miles away. Small kindnesses can travel a long distance.

7. Build the best playlist ever

Businessman listening to music on his smartphone
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I’m a child of the 1980s, so once upon a time, I was a pro at making cassette mix tapes, usually taped off the radio. There was a lot of Prince music involved. Now, I use Apple Music to build themed playlists for various activities and moods. If you’re not an Apple fan, there are plenty of other music apps like Amazon Music and Spotify out there.

You can create a workout list, a calm-me-down list, a pep-me-up list, whatever you prefer — or all of the above. And unlike in my mix-tape days, now there’s no DJ blabbing over the first notes of the song.

8. Sneak a smile into someone’s junk mail

Woman checking her mailbox
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Not everyone still subscribes to print magazines and newspapers, but I love them. And before I recycle old issues, I’m always tearing or clipping out articles or ads that I think would appeal to a friend. Recently, I sent a friend a magazine page because the girl in the photo looks eerily like her daughter, scribbling a note about how I miss seeing them. It’s so uplifting to get something in the mailbox that’s not a bill.

9. Make YouTube your tube

Woman reading on a tablet
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Is there a short video out there that constantly makes you smile? Maybe it’s a personal one — I laugh every time I rewatch my then-4-year-old daughter’s ballet recital. Maybe it’s some witty mashup — the Charlie Brown characters boogieing down to Outkast’s “Hey Ya!” song is a classic.

I also highly recommend anything from RiffTrax, the group of comedy alums from “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” Some of their riffs are just 99 cents, and their YouTube channel offers short previews of their longer films. Need a place to start? “At Your Fingertips: Cylinders” makes me howl in memory of the cringey “educational” films we watched in grade school.

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