Something interesting happened to me the second time I clawed myself out of an all-consuming major depression 10 years ago: I was struck by awe almost every day.
I’ve lived with some form of depression and anxiety since I was a child. Occasionally, the illness becomes life-threatening, as it did during this particularly nasty episode.
But as I emerged from the heavy malaise, I found myself — still bleary-eyed and battle worn — mesmerised by an abundance of natural minutiae.
Plants appeared more vibrant in colour. I noticed tiny birds and tracked them as they flew to their mother. The gentle breeze I’d so often taken for granted was a balm I breathed in deeply.
Sad, slow-paced walks up the road became sad, slow-paced walks with a side of wonderment that, even when not exactly rendered hopeful, helped me feel a lot less dead.
I’ve noticed something similar seems to be happening to people in Melbourne during the city’s stage 4 COVID-19 lockdown. In the middle of justifiable sadness, anger, despair and despondency have come flashes of delight, often during their state-sanctioned hour of daily outside exercise.
In this second, harder lockdown, social media posts of Friday night Zoom drinks have been replaced by pictures of pretty leaves, bugs and bees, and magnificent trees. In a moment where so much has been stripped away, many seem to be finding hope and joy — and the strength to carry on — in little wonders.
Although Armadale local Ella Loeffler is “starting to feel tired in the drabness of the city”, she uses her allotted hour of exercise to wander around her neighbourhood in search of tiny treasures.
“Our urban spaces are filled with pockets of magic if you look close enough,” she says. “I’m enjoying the moments of calm when I find a nice beetle or learn the name of a native flower in my neighbourhood.
“It’s definitely making me slow down and appreciate the small things.”
Awe is a focused type of noticing
For me, the study of awe began with flowers.
Roses, of course — because who hasn’t told you to stop and smell them; huge unfurling magnolias that become their own cream-coloured stamen-catching receptacles; fluffy pink blossoms that surely signal the start of spring.
What I had previously paid no mind to became a revelation and salve after living in a world stripped of colour.
Awe, I think, is a focused type of noticing. But how often are we still enough to realise?
The pandemic, then, might have forced on us lifestyle changes much like poor mental health, chronic illness and disability can. In fact, so much of living in “these times” reminds me of what it’s like to live through a rough depressive episode.
From the mindless hours spent cooped up inside, to the rare contact with friends and family and the steady decline of personal hygiene and grooming standards. Once easy tasks become daunting. Sometimes cooking two-minute noodles feels like an endurance test.
Even jealousy finds a way to creep in. Jealousy of others not having it as hard as you; of going about their lives as though nothing is wrong at all, when everything — 100 per cent, can’t you see the sky is falling? — is wrong.
It hurts. And I’ve never really found a way around that. But awe helps. Noticing beauty and being present with the ordinary helps.
Exposure to beautiful nature scenes may also boost positive emotion, trust and people’s willingness to help others.
In one 2015 study, participants who stared up at a grove of huge, awe-inspiring eucalyptus trees for just one minute were more likely to demonstrate “helpful” and generous behaviours than those who spent the same amount of time gazing up at a tall building.
The reason, the researcher explained, is that awe produces “a reduced sense of self-importance relative to something larger and more powerful that they felt connected to”.
The tiny things are the big things
According to Helen O’Dare, who lives in inner Melbourne, loud birds also help.
“Recently when checking the letterbox, I heard some very shouty birds in the jacaranda tree,” she says. “I looked up and they were shouting at a Boobook owl! It was such a thrilling moment to see an owl in the Inner North.
“It stuck around in that tree for a week, and the excitement and pure joy it gave really sustained me during all the horrible news.”
Another Melburnian, Lucy Cochran, is taking solace in slightly bigger, furrier, things.
“I’m usually in awe of the little things, so I’m finding this lockdown tough,” she admits. “But a new thing we do is go to the local dog park — even though we don’t have a dog of our own — and watch how happy they all are.
“Seeing them play and tear around so freely reminds me of normal times, and we try to steal pats with any of them, too.”
As the pandemic wears on, it’s becoming clear we may never return to “normal times”. But just as one readjusts to illness or tragedy, slowly we integrate new ways of living.
Why does awe happen? I regard it now as a reward for enduring pain.
It’s probably the best gift depression has given me, because even though I still suffer from the illness (and likely will continue to in some capacity), feeling buoyed by the world’s small things helps me remember the largeness of life.
In many ways, then, these tiny, simple things we’ve been savouring lately — a flower, a bird’s pitch-perfect trill, how the sun hits the wet grass after a night of heavy rain — are the big things.
There are silver linings in all this.
Jessica Martin is a freelance writer.