Canadian winters on the farm can be tough at the best of times. The dark and the cold and the isolation can leave anyone feeling down. And this winter, of course, we also have the added stresses and restrictions of a global pandemic to make us feel battle-weary and burned out.
The good news is that there may be things we can do to help us cope and handle the difficulties from the pandemic, the weather, and the lack of connection, says Lauren Van Ewyk, a Courtright, Ont. registered social worker.
“Mental health is on a continuum,” Van Ewyk says. “If we’re in the middle of the continuum, we may want to try to prevent ourselves from going to a place where we require more assistance, more intervention.”
Country Guide reached out to Van Ewyk and others living in northern climes for their tips on maintaining mental health during a challenging winter.
It can help if we separate what’s in our realm of control from what we can’t change, says Van Ewyk. “Instead of focusing on things you can’t control, like the weather, you can think about what you can appreciate about what’s happening right now.”
Van Ewyk, who works with many farmer clients, suggests some simple ways to practise mindfulness as you go about your day. This will help you recapture that sense of wonder you had as a child, she says.
“Go outside and appreciate the intricacies of a simple snowflake on your glove.”
While you’re outside in the cold and can see your breath, take a few deep breaths and stop to appreciate feeling all of that air move in and out of your lungs.
“Before you do chores, schedule 10 minutes to be with your livestock, to sit and be in a place of ‘wow’ like a child; be purposeful about appreciating.”
You can also take a few minutes to explore prayer, whatever that means to you.
Van Ewyk encourages farmers to let go of the guilt that can come with taking a break. “Guilt is pervasive in the ag community,” she says. “There is so much demand on producers that work has become synonymous with productivity.”
She encourages farmers to realize that times of quiet, peace and sitting have equal value, especially when the days are shorter. “There is value in reading a story to your kids.”
We also need to make the effort to maintain our connections with others, says Van Ewyk. “Organize a Zoom breakfast. Reach out to friends, especially if you know they are prone to suffering in winter.”
A lesson from Denmark
What can we learn from the Danes, who despite their long, dark, wet winters, consistently rank near the very top in world happiness surveys?
Copenhagen is the home of the Happiness Research Institute where Meik Wiking and his colleagues aim to answer the question, “What makes some people happier than others?”
The Danish people are well known for practising Hygge (pronounced Hoo-guh), says Wiking. “Hygge is about making the most of what we have every day.”
Some of the key ingredients of Hygge are togetherness, relaxation, indulgence, presence and comfort, says Wiking, who, in 2015, wrote The Little Book of Hygge, now available in 38 languages. “The true essence of Hygge is the pursuit of everyday happiness,” he says. “It’s basically like a hug, just without the physical touch.”
“Hygge is about simple things that don’t cost much, and about living in the moment,” says Wiking. Candles, cozy blankets and fireplaces are Hygge. So are comfort foods and hot drinks served in favourite mugs. Spending time in nature, watching a favourite movie, reading a book, or playing a board game are activities that are all considered Hygge too.
Listening to music that’s linked to happy memories can also be a mood lifter. Wiking suggests creating a Happiest Moments Soundtrack. His research has shown that for most people, the music they loved as teens continues to be favoured throughout their lives.
Photos can also open a vault of happy memories, says Wiking. Select a hundred of your favourite digital photos, what Wiking calls the Happy Hundred. He suggests retelling the happy stories associated with these photos so you don’t forget them, and printing the pictures so they aren’t lost to changing technology.
Research has consistently shown that regularly reflecting on what we have to be thankful for also makes us happier. You may even want to send letters of gratitude to those who have helped you along the way, says Wiking.
We feel good when we do good so Wiking also recommends finding ways to spread a little kindness.
Regularly stepping away from our digital devices will also help us stay more positive.
In Canada’s North
For Gurdeep Pandher, Bhangra dancing helps him cope with the long, harsh Yukon winters. “When I feel down, I dance. It lifts my energy and creates joy. And it’s good exercise,” says Pandher.
Bhangra is a folk dance that Pandher learned growing up in a remote farming community in Punjab, India, where his family grew wheat, rice and other crops. Farmers developed Bhangra dancing to create joy, happiness and entertainment as a break from the hard, manual labour of farming. Tractors were not used until Pandher was a teen.
Pandher aims to bring happiness and positivity to fellow Canadians through his Bhangra dancing videos. They have gone viral, and collectively have been viewed more than 20 million times.
Bhangra is the dance of happiness, Pandher says. “Joy doesn’t come from outside. It comes from the inside. Try to keep your heart happy, your soul happy.”
By collaborating with performers from other backgrounds in his videos, Pandher also aims to promote unity, inclusivity and diversity.
Growing up in India, Pandher had heard that Canada was a welcoming place. After arriving in 2006, he explored and lived in many parts of Canada (including Saskatchewan where the wheat fields reminded him of home), finally settling in the Yukon where he has lived since 2012. Canada has so many cultures, and every single one has its own unique beauty, he says, noting that he especially appreciates the smaller communities which have so much caring and compassion.
When the pandemic shut things down, Pandher took his Bhangra dancing lessons online on a pay-what-you-can basis. Across Canada and beyond, more than 3,000 have signed up to try at least one class.
Pandher believes we must look “beyond religions, backgrounds, nationalities or other personal preferences, and instead reach out to those in need, share what we have and develop a culture of care.” He has donated a portion of the proceeds from his virtual Bhangra classes to many good causes including Care Canada in support of COVID-19 patients, Every Child Matters Orange Shirt Day, the Whitehorse Food Bank and the Canadian Red Cross.
Says Pandher, “We are all in this journey of life together and share in our defeats, victories, losses and gains… the whole universe is our family and it’s our responsibility to try and repay it.”
Well-being in a time of COVID-19
Denmark’s Happiness Research Institute studied the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on well-being during the first wave. Here are the highlights of a six-item action plan containing day-to-day activities to boost happiness levels during the pandemic based on the survey’s results. The full report is available on the insitute’s website.
1. Spend more time outside. Even 15 minutes per day outside can significantly increase life satisfaction.
2. Engage in arts and crafts or DIY projects. Knitting, painting, baking, gardening and renovating can play an important role in well-being.
3. Meditate and experience mindfulness. Even short daily meditation exercises can have a notable impact on well-being.
4. Lend a helping hand to friends and family. Reaching out to friends and family who may be in need can not only help to make their lives easier, but can actually have a positive impact on individual well-being as well. Keep an eye out for opportunities to help.
5. Keep in touch with those close to you. While face-to-face social interaction with others can be challenging or even dangerous, virtual connections with friends and family via phone or video chat can lead to significant improvements in well-being.
6. Remember to stay fit. Engaging in physical exercise is important not only for physical health, but our mental health too!
- University of Guelph’s Dr. Andria Jones-Bitton and her students developed a resource designed to help stimulate ideas for well-being activities during the COVID-19 pandemic (opens as a PDF).
- The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living, The Little Book of Lykke: The Danish Search for the World’s Happiest People, and The Art of Making Memories: How to Create and Remember Happy Moments by Meik Wiking at the Happiness Research Institute and Happiness Museum.
- You are Awesome: How to Navigate Change, Wrestle with Failure and Live an Intentional Life by Neil Pasricha.
- Podcasts: Feeling Good by David Burns and What Happens to our Minds during a Pandemic by Dr. Steven Taylor.
- University of Toronto’s Managing your Mental Health during COVID-19 course (three hours, available online, may be free).
- Learn more about Gurdeep Pandher of Yukon’s virtual Bhangra Dancing classes at Gurdeep.ca. You can find his short Bhangra dancing videos on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, LinkedIn and Instagram.
- Do More Agriculture Foundation offers mental health resources for farmers.