Category Archives: Mental Health

Happiness


I start most days with a nice cup of tea and a scroll through the various news and social media platforms to see what is going on in the world of wellness.

This morning it was twitter that caught my eye with the hashtag #InternationalDayOfHappiness which was trending as I started planning the day.

When I say caught my eye, this hashtag was one of those things that immediately invoked a response, something I felt I had an opinion on. Of course the problem with snapshots like this is that they don’t give you any context so on the surface my interpretation of this hashtag is that the intention is that everyone should be happy today. As someone who changed their career to the pursuit of better wellbeing I feel that there are few problems with such a simplistic view, however well intentioned. My intention here is not to pour salt all over happiness, but to explain why I feel its pursuit as a life goal is potentially flawed and offer a different perspective that will enhance our sense of wellbeing.

So is International Day of Happiness all about making people happy?

Its not that simple. The principle is that the world is such a negative place, for one day, it is nice to flood our periphery with joy and happiness.

 

Sounds great, what wrong with that?

All over the world, thousands of people will feel the benefit. There are many others who wont. For some people, happiness is simply not within their grasp and certainly its not going to happen by telling them to be. The problem with flooding their world with happiness is that it simply reinforces their own unhappiness. We see this already at Christmas time, when our community feels an overwhelming pressure to feel joyful. Its well documented that those suffering from depression, loneliness or isolation will feel the effects particularly at this time of year.

 

Let’s just make them happy then!

If someone is unhappy, no amount of tom foolery or coercion is going to make them happy. The problem is that happiness is not a perpetual state of mind, its an emotion just like anger, fear and worry. Emotions when expressed appropriately are a normal response to situations we find ourselves in. For example, we feel fear when faced with danger. This is entirely appropriate and triggers a hormonal response in our bodies that alters how we function in preparation for responding to the threat. The natural expression of a broad range of emotions is normal, healthy and part of living a well balanced life. It becomes a problem when these emotions cant be switched off or become overly expressed. Happiness is no different. It would be highly inappropriate to feel happy when faced with a dangerous situation or grief.

So you don’t want people to be happy then

That’s not what I’m saying. I think people should express happiness, sadness, anger and all of the other emotions freely and appropriately without fear of judgement or ridicule. Setting your sights on “acquiring” happiness however is fundamentally flawed in the same way as being motivated by money.

What I consider to be problematic is how we define happiness. In our modern world, driven by consumerism and, lets be honest here, greed, happiness as some understand it is inexplicably intertwined with the acquisition of goods. There are other extremes too. For example, some people feel happiness when they are driving a vehicle at break neck speeds or from stealing other peoples possessions. Happiness in itself is not an exclusively virtuous or wholesome pathway and it is by no means an absolute right to feel happy if there is a cost to others.

So what do you suggest instead

I believe in a values based approach to setting life goals, working to the best of our ability to do what we feel is right and aligns with the person we truly want to be. Self compassion and compassion for others, if we follow this path, happiness may reward us along the way but we will achieve an overall sense of contentment and personal wellbeing, in my opinion a more achievable and sustainable goal.

We all know what the intention of the day is. Your making a bit of a big deal out of a few words aren’t you?

I don’t think so. The hashtag I saw this morning invoked an immediate response from me because of the language used. As humans have evolved, particularly over the last few years, our language and use of it has developed enormously. The addition of new words into our vocabulary and the change in culture have affected how we interpret language. We have a duty to take care over the choice of words we use and at very least to discuss and rationalise how we interpret themes. This isn’t judging something as right or wrong, simply opening the opportunity to broaden our discussions and consider different perspectives. That is why I offer this opinion, not to spoil the fun.

I’m sure people will disagree with me. This is what makes us develop as human beings and I welcome the variety of opinion that supports or contradicts my own. That is after all what keeps the conversation going and the human mind developing. I hope you have enjoyed reading this and if so, or if not, please comment.

Mental v Physical Health – A disparity that is feeding stigma


On Friday I was fortunate enough to attend a fascinating presentation on Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a keen interest of mine, particularly as I have become more emerged in holistic wellbeing and the part that lifestyle has to play in our overall health.

For those not in the know, SAD is an illness which see’s sufferers mental health plummet at a particular point in the year, usually as the days become shorter.  I have written a more detailed piece on the condition which you can read by clicking here.

The event was attended by a broad cross section of peopled despite being a presentation from one of the world leading authorities became a well managed interactive exchange of perspectives.  One of the conversations had me particularly interested, an attendee who was interested in the potential of building light therapy into existing light sources as apposed to the existing methods which usually require a sufferer to sit in front of a light for up to 30 minutes.

To be clear, I think this is a great idea.  Anything that can help alleviate suffering without ingesting chemicals can only be a good thing.  What interested me however was some of the rationale that sat behind the market for such a product which was aptly summarised as, “people don’t have 30 minutes to sit in front of a light in the morning”.

What immediately struck me from this statement is the disparity with which mental health is held next to physical health.  So lets be clear, SAD is a serious mental illness.  Mental illness is a serious medical complaint that can lead to disabling symptoms and death.  In certain demographic groups, the mortality from mental illness exceeds that of any other illness.  Yet if we had a physical illness that necessitated 30 minutes of physical therapy a day, we would move heaven and earth to make sure that person received.  Would we see dialysis or chemotherapy as a choice?  Of course not, nor should we.  So why when the problem is a mental health one do we suddenly feel that we just “don’t have time” for a 30 minute treatment so it can hit the cutting room floor?

Theres the wider issue.  For me I wonder if one of the defining features of SAD is actually not lack of light or bodily changes, but the fact that we don’t adapt.  In some species, the behaviours of taking on more fuel (carbohydrate craving is an early symptom of SAD) and resting is part of their seasonal rhythm.  In humans however, our bodies start adapting and our modern instinct is in fact to resist and fight to maintain the same levels of productivity.

In my utopian world of optimal wellbeing, I would see people following a more seasonal approach to life.  I am however a realist and I know that the western world is going to be a long time bending to this ideal.  If however we continue to invent new ways of ignoring our bodies and circumnavigating basic needs, the mental health crisis thats slowly gripping society can only deepen.

 

Im glad to say that in the event I was at, the majority of attendees agreed that actually, we should be finding ways to secure 30 minutes of our day to attend to our mental health, not more ways of disregarding it.  That isn’t a sign for complacency however.  These small conversations and comments are symptomatic of a type of unintended stigma that, taken with ignorance and discrimination, is crippling the wellbeing of millions of people.

If you want to find out more about challenging the stigma of mental illness, please follow my new charity, Talking FreELY or get in touch with me.

Finally, if you are suffering from mental health problems, be assured, you are not alone and there is non judgmental help when you feel able to reach out for it.  Again, check us out at Talking FreELY

Mental Health – Strong for too long?


One of the things I see on social media a lot is this statement

“Depression isn’t a sign you are weak, its a sign you have been strong for too long”

Its a well intentioned way of re-framing how we perceive mental illness but what does it actually mean and is it accurate? For me the language creates some problems!

Firstly, its a bit of a sweeping statement because mental illness is completely arbitrary, affecting people from all walks of life and for any number of different reasons.

What it refers to more specifically is a commonly encountered cause of depression. The curse of modern western society. Stress!

The “strength” to which it refers describes the capacity of a person to cope with stress. In so called “strong” individuals, stress acts as a motivator, an impulse to push harder and harder to overcome the adversity and achieve. When the drive goes beyond the bodies limits there comes a point where it has to break, like any system that is overloaded. At that point depression takes hold.

If you are one of these individuals (its fine by the way, I’m a lot like that myself) you probably feel better knowing that in spite of your mental health, society views you in positive terms as a go-getter. In some cases, it may encourage the perception that mental illness is simply a consequence of normal life if you want to “get on”.

But what if you aren’t “strong”? By implication, if not in actual language, this statement suggests that the opposite, people who fold at the first sign of stress and therefore don’t push their body through the same level of trauma, are unlikely to suffer depression. Apart from this (of course) being absolute rubbish, the implication is that these types of people are “weak” (it is after all the opposite of strong), a term most of us would consider to be an insult. Society after all has little regard for this approach to life.

Am I over analysing? Well certainly if the message that we value strong over weak is not implicitly carried in this statement on mental health, it is one that is heavily implied and indeed replicated across society, particularly in the workplace where I have repeatedly encountered the attitude that “going the extra mile” is pretty much compulsory.

Of course the path you decide to follow in life is an entirely personal choice. Where it becomes problematic is when society guides these choices through negative stereotypes. When people push themselves because they feel that is what is expected, not what they want.

Can a statement intended to make people feel better about themselves really do this? I think it can. I think the stigma of mental illness is driven by thousands of stereotypes, cultural norms and poorly used language. In this example, you could as easily change strong and weak for stupid and wise and tip the entire statement on its head. Language is a powerful tool and tackling what has become accepted norm is a huge challenge. If however we ever hope to have a lasting impact on the merciless onslaught of mental illness its one we have to take on.

It all begins by talking which is why Talking FreELY invest so heavily in facilitating simple and honest conversations about mental health. Because it is these conversations that will drive change.

If you are struggling with mental health there are a number of useful links on the Talking FreELY website. If you want to know how you can help to keep the conversation, check us out on Facebook and Twitter

www.talkingfreely.org