How to be happy - anxiety and depression and the quest for happiness
Posted on social media alongside a picture of a smiling person, possibly at the top of a mountain or surfing at the beach, you might come across the phrase 'living my best life!', possibly accompanied by a hashtag. You'll probably find yourself searching your inner photo album to see if YOUR life qualifies for such a hashtag. The thought is terrifying - what if you're NOT living your best life?!
For some people, the sense of not being able to access happiness and that everyone else is having a great time is a sign of depression or anxiety, particularly if it is permanently affecting your mood. For many, even without that diagnosis, there is a sense of unease and disappointment such comparisons bring. It begs the question – how do we become happy?
Anxiety, depression and the quest for happiness
What is happiness?
Being happy is commonly accepted as the sign of a good life; if you're not happy you must be getting life wrong, surely? When we try to describe being happy, however, it soon becomes clear just what an elusive feeling it is. It seems like happiness is something that is forever unreachable, associated with hope for the future or memories of the past.
To be happy we need more money, or time, or friends; less work or different work. For some this means striving to have a bucket-list lifestyle; travel, restaurants, exciting or novel experiences, especially ones that can be captured on your camera, or spoken about at dinner. 'Happy' might also conjure up being socially active, having friends and going to parties, being 'popular'. Not everyone can stretch to foreign holidays and glamorous meals out, but if you did have that unattainable disposable income, would you be happy?
It can make you feel such a failure if your life doesn't match up to your friends, family, people in books and films or virtual strangers online. It can make you resent those people and bring out a restless competitiveness in you. Even leaving aside the question we are all familiar with, that what people show of their lives isn't a true representation of their lives, another question remains - does doing that stuff make them really feel good? Would it make us feel good? What does make you feel good and is feeling good the same as being happy?
Often these things aren't as straightforward as they might seem. For example, the dream holiday that you look forward to all year seems so often to be a source of stress rather than the bliss you'd imagined. The party you were so excited about left you feeling lonely and flat and longing for your bed, a special day out with your partner is full of tension; yet these are all typical photo opportunities for the “#happy post”. They should have made you happy, surely?
A richer life
Perhaps we need to question the very idea of happiness and instead focus on things like fun, growth, satisfaction, challenge, self-acceptance, contentment, connection. Most people can understand and identify each of these feelings and where they come from in their lives. Using these ideas, rather than 'happiness', to quantify and assess your life, can help you work out which areas are working to make you feel good and which areas need change.
For example, you may have too much 'challenge' if you're job is demanding or you have a new baby to care for. You may also be lacking in 'fun' because there is less time for hobbies and socialising. Yet someone like this could have plenty of 'satisfaction' and 'connection' through their professional or caring role. Each person will be different and need different amounts from each area. Once you have recognised the imbalance in your life, you can start to address it.
That party you didn't enjoy? Maybe it was because there was a lack of 'connection' with your friends or family. Most people long for relationships with more connection but this can be confused with wanting more friends when in fact the best times are when you really 'connect' with the friends you have. This might be through sharing your vulnerabilities or having experienced something difficult or funny together.
Figuring out which areas of your life aren't giving you what you need can be complicated and confusing on your own. Working with an experienced therapist is helpful as it allows you space to really unpack and think through each aspect of your life, your work, relationships and home life. Things that other people seem to enjoy might not be what you need or want but it can be hard to see through the glossy sheen of “#livingmybestlife, #happy”.
It may not be possible or desirable to make changes right away, but counselling could help you plan ways to gradually build-in more of the things that really make you feel good in your life and let go of the unhelpful striving for an idea of happiness that's always just out of reach.
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