When seeking true happiness, the advice we always hear is to ‘just be yourself’, ‘do what makes you happy’ and ‘follow your dreams’. We already chatted about the complexities of being yourself in the last post, so we already know that this advice isn’t so easy. And what about if you don’t know yourself very well or know what makes you truly happy, or have established dreams? Taken at face value, this advice can be frustrating, making us feel like we’re behind or lacking something. I can tell you right now that you aren’t lacking or behind on anything my little lightbulb, and this post is going to help you realise it.
I’m going to help you to navigate the tricky territory of finding happiness by identifying what actually makes you happy. Then we’re going to see what we can do to access that happiness. We’re also going to chat about when things that would usually make you happy don’t have that impact on you anymore. I’m not writing this post as a happiness guru who uses the beaming rays of my constant grin to power my levitating abilities, but because I’ve struggled to be happy myself, especially over the last few years, and I’ve learned a lot on my way to becoming a consistently happier person. Our journey towards happiness is kind of like crossing the mossy rocks of a riverbed – I’m not a rope bridge over the river, but a friend holding your hand while we both slip, fall, get back up and keep going together.
If you’re reading this it’s likely that you aren’t feeling great at the minute, or are at least hoping to boost your mood in some way. When things don’t feel great it might seem like you’re in a bubble: the world is a bit less vibrant, people feel more distant and you might struggle to feel anything at all. When life’s like this, we usually tend to retreat.
Retreat looks different for different people. Some people might spend more time inside, or self-sabotage relationships, they might sleep in, they might go out and drink more than usual, they might fill up their schedule so they won’t have a minute to think. Take a second to think about how you tend to retreat.
However you do it, it’s normal. Your body is your overprotective boyfriend, noticing that you’re not well, carrying you into bed and insisting you stay there until you feel better. The downside of this boyfriend’s well-meaning actions is that it puts us into a cycle of lethargy, low energy and guilt about our lack of activity. It actually makes it harder for us to feel better in the long-term.
The way out of a slump lump is by resisting our overprotective bodies, saying ‘I appreciate your concern, but I need to be proactive to get better’. This is a psychological solution called Behavioural Activation, and it’s a common method in UK therapy practices.
The first step to feeling better is to focus on yourself. You’re getting to know a happier version of yourself so treat it like a first date. Ask yourself questions like you would ask a crush who you want to find more out about. Throw in a cheesy chat-up line, ask about your favourite food. What was life like growing up? What are your hobbies and interests? Once you’ve stopped blushing, hone in on that last question and answer it with a list. It might be short at first, but that can be exciting, it means you can try and find new things and see if they interest you.
Some of my hobbies and interests, and more broadly the things that make me excited for life, are:
-Playing D&D with friends
-Watching the sunrise/ sunset’
-Being out in nature
-Meaningful conversations with people I care about/ feel safe with
-Travelling (especially solo travelling)
-Night drives with Synthwave soundtracks
-Talking to people in languages other than English
-Watching interesting films – I recently watched The Wailing which was really good
-Running – especially out in nature/ with a good view and motivating music
-Cooking food from scratch
-Feeling loved and appreciated
-When someone holds my hand/ gives me a hug
Believe it or not, but this list is the essential beginning of a very well-established psychological method- Behavioural Activation (BA).
A great resource for understanding BA can be found at Rogersbh.org, where you can find BA defined as ‘a treatment for depression and other mood disorders… the goal of treatment, therefore, is to work with depressed individuals to gradually decrease their avoidance and isolation and increase their engagement in activities that have been shown to improve mood.’ The article lists some of the activities that might start to slip when you start to feel low, and they’re often activities that may have been routine and taken for granted, with more value than we realise. Some common ones could be exercising, meeting up with friends, showering regularly, washing the dishes, keeping up with a skill that you’re working on.
You can see from my list that things like watching Netflix for hours isn’t on my list. I do this, sometimes a bit too much, and it relaxes me and makes me feel alright and safe. But it’s passive, it doesn’t make me feel good and excited about my life. It’s important to be aware of this difference when making your own list. It’s also possible that some of the things that excite you will fluctuate and change. There are times in life when doing these things will make you feel exactly how you expect. For example, during a trip out to the woods or for a hike in the mountains I might feel really happy, present and active.
There are other times, when life is a little more complicated, where it’s harder to feel happy. You might have lost someone, be feeling stressed out or anxious about a big decision, be unhealed from a damaging trauma or there could be something physically causing this barrier to happiness. Your diet might be lacking certain vitamins, you might be on your period or going through the menopause, you could have an injury that is stopping your ability to take part in your usual daily activities or your favourite sport. You might have changed job roles, living situation, you might feel claustrophobic because your car broke down/ you can’t drive yet… there are so many complications in life and they’re all significant and worthy of recognition. The key to making what usually made you happy make you feel happy again is to be consistent. Hone in on a small amount of activities that you’re sure make you feel good. The next step is to keep doing them.
Anyone who knows me knows that I love onsen. My last onsen experience was in Aso, a week before I left Japan. I sat in one of my favourite outdoor baths, in the rain (literally peak conditions) but I felt nothing. Then I felt frustrated and upset with myself for not being happy and grateful for the experience. There was nothing wrong with the onsen and the next time I go I might/ might not feel happy. But overtime, as I learn myself and what inspires me, grow meaning and purpose, there will be a time that onsen will feel as good as my first time. I’ll feel the soft water on my skin, look out over a Japanese city’s night view, feel grateful for the acceptance of the female body in all its shapes, ages and sizes and I’ll feel happy in the present.
It’s the same for you. If there are things that you were passionate about, that passion won’t be gone forever. It’s just covered over by your mood. Keep digging until you get back to it. And be kind. You’re digging up your passion because it’s a passion and it makes you feel alive and in flow- not because you want to be the best at it.
‘The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.’