The events of recent weeks and months have taken a toll on our mental health, but as our individual worlds suddenly shrank – for many of us to the confines of our homes and local neighbourhoods – a renewed appreciation for the simple things in life seemed to collectively establish.
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?
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 adviser 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 past 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 Eék 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, such as 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 Mr Eék. “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 practise daily reflection by journalling – 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,” Mr Eék says. 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.”
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 Dr 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,” Dr 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 practise 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, to help 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.
Where have you been finding joy over the past few months?
– With PA
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