“If it makes you happyyyyyyy….” First off, let me clarify that beyond this point, there will be no Sheryl Crow in this post. Sorry, Sheryl fans. She is, however, an excellent muse. Full disclosure: I have not been happy this week. Not at all. It’s been as fucking miserable inside my head as the weather outside my window. And although I know full well that the dark moods will pass just as the dark clouds do, the rain has brought a downpour of depression and despair. Since lockdown began, I’ve prided myself on managing to stay pretty positive overall, and relied on the fact that I have medication, and therapy. And they make me happy, so it can’t be that bad. Right? And yet, this week I’ve found myself mired in a misery which has silently seeped into my bones and metastised throughout body and brain. The drugs don’t work. Therapy hasn’t shed its usual light. So I’ve been wondering: what exactly is it that makes us happy? How can we find happiness in the dark, in a time when many of the things that usually make us happy aren’t available to us anymore? And do we need to reset, and revalue what truly makes us happy?
I’ve felt strangely guilty and weirded out by feeling so low this week. When in fact, it’s weirder that I haven’t felt worse before now. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling a need to put on a brave face. I know that I’m in an incredibly privileged position right now, compared to so many others who have lost, suffered, endured and done so much. And believe me, I really am deeply, madly grateful for that privilege. But it also comes with a nagging feeling that I should be happy all the time; that I’m failing if I’m not.
Happiness is not a destination
I guess that’s not surprising. In our society, we’re taught to chase, celebrate and cherish happiness and success, and happiness. Happiness is a prize to be won. Failure and misery is something to feel guilty about, and be ashamed of. We identify with success, and let ourselves be defined by failure. But happiness isn’t a destination; it’s a never-ending journey. It isn’t something you unlock at the end of the game. It’s something we have to continually work on, learn about, and choose with intention. And the lessons we learn along the way about what makes us and others happy are invaluable.
If you’ve also been hearing a self-critical voice recently, whether for not being happy enough or for any other reason, please turn the volume down. And tune into other voices instead. This week, I listened to Dhru Purohit and Dr. Andrea Pennington’s discussion on how to go from self-criticism to self-love and compassion. Pennington explains how, when we use self-critical language, it triggers our physical stress response, and puts us in fight or flight mode. Given how much stress we’re all already under, it’s no wonder that we end up sliding down a negative spiral. Many of us are programmed from a young age to overachieve, and fear that we’ll lose our edge if we don’t continually push ourselves. But as Pennington points out, if we can stop listening to the self-critical voices trying to propel us towards constant overachievement, we’re finally able to tune into ourselves. A different side of our brain, a different inner voice, this time the one which tells us who we really are. And it’s not enough to listen to that voice; we also need to express it in order to be truly happy. To find happiness in the dark, we need to be able to show ourselves compassion, and allow ourselves to be adaptable. Instead of being rigid, and demanding overachievement of ourselves, we should try practising flexibility, and cutting ourselves some slack.
We can start with small steps. As I listened to Dr. Rangan Chatterjee and Dr. Tara Swart discussing life after lockdown and coping with emotions, they reminded me of the power of micro habits. These micro habits can help you to build emotional and physical resilience to stress. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have an hour to do yoga every day. Even lying on a mat for five minutes sends a signal to your brain that your needs matter, that you’re important and worth looking after. In fact, making tiny changes is the secret to making new habits stick. Dr. Chatterjee dove into this recently with BJ Fogg, the world’s leading expert on behaviour change. Fogg explains that the key to changing your behaviour lies in emotion and identity. If you make a tiny change, and you succeed in achieving what you set out to, that positive reinforcement makes you start seeing yourself as someone who does yoga, or meditates, or whatever floats your boat. And that feeling of success makes the new behaviour more automatic.
OK, but isn’t it selfish and egotistical to be thinking about happiness when we’re surrounded by so much suffering? That’s something else my inner critic has been questioning. But when we are happy in ourselves, we can better serve others. As lockdown continues to be lifted, many of us are in a uniquely privileged position to reconsider how we want to live our lives given what we’ve learned over the past few months. And those decisions have the potential to positively impact on so many people beyond ourselves. If the events of this year serve to remind us all of one thing, I hope it’s this: that we are all connected, no matter who or where we are. Dr. Chatterjee and Dr. Swart reminded me of Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious:
“Just as the human body shows a common anatomy…so, too, the psyche possesses a common substratum transcending all differences in culture and consciousness. I have called this substratum the collective unconscious. This unconscious psyche, common to all mankind, does not consist merely of contents capable of becoming unconscious, but of latent dispositions towards certain identical reactions.”
The key to happiness
And while all too often we’re programmed to prioritise external validation, work, individual success and achievement, what really makes us happy is our relationships with others. Another podcast episode worth your time is one where Dr. Laurie Santos, Professor of Psychology at Yale University, dives into why the things we think make us happy don’t. And what really does. Santos explains that having time for ourselves, spending time with others, prioritising our relationships, looking after others, and being community-minded is what really makes humans happy.
She points out that what we need for happiness isn’t just about what’s good for our individual wellbeing, but should cause us to think about what kind of society we want to live in. So often, we’re fed messages that self-care and treating ourselves will make us happier. And yes, that’s very important. But in fact, focusing less on ourselves and prioritising others is key to happiness. However, none of that is built into our capitalise societal structures. Those of us who are in that privileged position of reassessing how we want our lives to look after lockdown have the opportunity to start questioning those institutions. As I wrote recently, now is the time to reimagine how to cultivate health and happiness in a post-pandemic world.
None of us are really OK
I know. Not much of this is new. Except it’s all new, because we’ve never found ourselves in this collective situation before. And the only way we’re getting out of it is together. Personally, though, I find this challenging. Finding happiness in the dark is like wading through treacle. Because when I’m depressed, it’s like being physically weighed down so that you can’t even pick up your phone to reach out. But if you can free yourself from those mind-forged manacles, connecting really does help. Especially now, when most of us are still physically cut off from our loved ones. And when you’re desperately trying to resist stabbing yourself in the eye with a fork after your fiftieth Zoom call of the day, seriously, don’t suffer alone. Reach out, check in, offer support, get help. Have a laugh, a whinge, a cry, a gossip, a drink, a dance. Ideally, all of the above. Don’t give into that inner voice that tells you it’s not OK to not be OK. None of us are really OK, no matter how brave a face we put on. But it’s definitely more than OK to focus on what makes you and others happy.
To really be able to do that, though, to truly look after yourself and others, you need the time and bandwidth. I’m going to dive into that in more depth next time. For now, I’ll leave you with someone who knows a thing or two about finding happiness in the dark.