Why lockdown is leading us to appreciate the little things

The events of recent weeks and months have taken a toll on our mental health, but as our individual worlds suddenly shrunk - for many of us to the confines of our homes and local neighbourhoods - a renewed appreciation seemed to collectively establish: for the simple things in life.

Friday, 22nd May 2020, 5:00 pm
Sunshine in the garden becomes a thing of heightened joy

On social media and in conversations with loved ones, people in their millions have been regaling the small joys they’ve found in things like reading a book, taking a long bath, or spending an afternoon baking. We’ve been taking photos of particularly pretty trees on our daily walks, feeling truly thankful when the sun is out, and longing for a hug from a close family member much more than we’re missing holidays, parties and dining out. The coronavirus crisis has brought us firmly back to basics.

So why has it taken a global pandemic to make us really see joy in the little things?

Why now?

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One answer is the pace at which many of us ordinarily live, often rushing from place to place, ticking off to-do lists, attaining targets and coping with daily stresses. “It’s sad that an invisible virus has forced humankind to look deeper into themselves and appreciate the small joys in so called ‘simple things’,” says Dr Balu Pitchiah, consultant psychiatrist and scientific advisor to Cannaray. “Perhaps it’s time to define what is ‘simple’ and ‘important’ - we find simple things joyful because they matter.

“We realise that being healthy and alive is more important than being accomplished in the eyes of others around us.”

But the events of the last few months haven’t just forced us to slow down and reframe what’s important, they’ve also brought about a huge amount of uncertainty - about the present and for the future. Psychologist and co-founder of mental wellbeing platform Remente, Niels Eek, actually credits this uncertainty to the discovery of small joys.

“Historically, uncertainty has negatively impacted our survival chances so, consequently, can lead to feelings of being unsettled, fearful and stressed. A study [by University College London published in] Nature Communications actually found that our fear of uncertainty is so great, that we actually prefer pain over uncertainty.”

He says, as a coping mechanism, we’re looking for small escapes, like reading a book or binge-watching a show.

“[People are] looking to do things that they know the outcome of, thus allowing them to feel more in control. We’ve seen a huge surge in people baking or taking this time to deep clean their homes; the repetitive tasks feel familiar to us and therefore can help us feel calmer.”

Finding more joy

If you are finding it difficult to find joy in the small things though, that’s also understandable. Plus, some people will be coping with ongoing mental health difficulties, including depression - so no one should beat themselves up for not feeling joyful all of the time.

“It is easy to feel stagnant at the moment and it can be hard to find meaning in the day-to-day,” says Eek. “If you’re struggling to find happiness in the mundane right now, [perhaps] start by working on changing your mindset.”

Reflecting on the things this situation has provided you with - like time with a loved one or the ability to pot a new plant - rather than what it has taken away, is a good place to start, he says. “You can practice daily reflection by journaling - start by listing three things each day has given you.”

Another way to find joy in the small stuff is meditation. “Take a few minutes to focus on your breathing. As you breathe in, concentrate on your senses - what you smell, what you feel - and as you breathe out, focus on being - if your mind starts to wander, bring it back and focus on your breath. Concentrating on the present moment, and yourself in that moment, is key,” Eeksays. If you can do it in a park, “notice the birds chirping and the dogs barking, or take in the smell of the grass. These small moments with nature can allow you to feel truly joyful.”

And it’s great for our mental health to think more in this way, he says. “By practising mindfulness, you can start to declutter your brain, making it more creative and alert. This will provide you with the space to focus your attention on what nurtures and sustains you in life, rather than on the factors you can’t control at the moment.”

Post-pandemic

So will we revert back to old ways of thinking when our lives finally find some sense of normalcy, or can we continue this pattern of finding joy in smaller things?

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to reset our lives and restart, to build a way of life filled with gratitude and happiness,” says Pitchiah.

Instead of going back to exactly how busy, and possibly more stressful, your life was before, perhaps take some of the lessons forward from this enforced change of pace.

“Slowing down can start a virtuous cycle in your mind that influences how you think and see the world,” Pitchiah says. “If you focus on the positives, then you notice there are more positives than you previously realised and you become more grateful for these positives. When you practice gratitude, your brain also releases hormones that encourage this cycle to continue.

“I would encourage all of us to think about this period as a ‘maintenance break’ for our overactive, over-achieving, target driven, tired brains, helping us improve on attention, enthusiasm, energy, and determination.”

And the next time we’re faced with obstacles and adversity, we might be able to use these skills of appreciating the simple things to help us remain resilient.

So what are just some of the little things that have been adding joy to our day to day lives under lockdown?

The list of joyous little things

It might be finally finding a toy that keeps your child entertained for longer than five minutes; Dua Lipa releasing her album a week early; freshly baked bread; having a Harry Potter marathon; hanging out with your family; a hug; noticing the spring flowers blooming in your garden; enjoying not dressing properly and working in your PJs wearing fluffy socks that don’t fit into shoes but you don’t care because you no longer wear shoes.

Or it could be finally getting that particular recipe just right, reading the classics of literature you never had time for before; finally walking or running your way to fitness; Google hangouts, Zoom quizzes, virtual parties, the sunshine when it appears from behind the clouds; finally getting to the bottom of that seemingly bottomless laundry basket.

Walking the dog used to seem like a chore, now, like the weekly trip to the supermarket, you actually look forward to it. Who knew the shopping aisles in Tesco could be so fascinatingly colourful?

Maybe you have discovered a newfound love for quaffing wine in your favourite armchair while watching black-and-white movies or can now have breakfast in bed since it’s only five steps to your working desk from the comfort of your bed.

Colouring in with your child might make for vital and enjoyable bonding time; doing the crossword puzzles to be found in daily papers may give you immense satisfaction; the joy of a funny meme you can share with others online might make you smile in a way you didn’t before; Face Time with your grandparents; catching up on sleep; rewatching 80s movies; suddenly having new respect for the art of conversation; ordering a takeaway from your favourite restaurant; bingeing on Netflix while eating donuts; debating Tiger King theories with your friends; virtual workouts with Joe Wicks; having the time to really brew tea properly. Other simple pleasures might entail making elaborate playlists for those you love; starting to grow vegetables in your backgarden; finishing a 1,000-piece jigsaw that you were absolutely positive you didn’t have the skill to complete; mowing the lawn and enjoying it; taking your laptop outside and working on the patio; online shopping; discovering a newfound genius for Monopoly; and perhaps most importantly, waking up and realising that feeling healthy is the greatest gift.