Our Obsession With, And Misunderstanding of Happiness Is Damaging To Our Mental Health

The increasing focus on mental health awareness and support is a wonderful thing, but there are still enormous obstacles to overcome. And one of these is our obsession with, and misunderstanding of happiness.

I attended an event last night that was hosted by the Agency Collective called Good Mental Health for Agency Owners. The Collective deserve credit for organising the event, as does each of the three panelists who were highly engaging and brave enough to share their own difficult journeys.

I have had personal experience of a breakdown and depression, as have members of my family, and some of my close friends too. Over the years I have become comfortable with talking about my own battle, which happened mostly when I was at university, By opening up I have encouraged others to as well. But because of that, and because of who I associate with, and what I read and watch, and believe, it’s easy to fall into the bubble trap. That is thinking that your bubble represents the whole world. And in this case it certainly doesn’t. And just because more people are talking about mental health now doesn’t mean that we can all start patting ourselves on the back for a job well done, because there is a long way to go. And, when you really think about it, there will always be a long way to go.

The question of happiness often goes hand in hand with mental health. Happiness was mentioned a number of times during the talk, one of the panelist’s had hires a Head of Happiness for his company (their most important employee, he said), and there was even a slide as part of Agency Collectives’ intro that said something along the lines of: Let’s all try and leave the event with a smile on our face.

I have to admit that I cringed when that slide appeared.

One of the biggest challenges that we face around mental health, in my opinion, is around giving ourselves, and others permission to feel. To feel sad, angry, lost, alone, despair, and yes…happiness. But so often our reaction to someone showing these signs is to cheer them up, or try to solve their problem. This probably comes from a place of kindness, but we must be careful that we are not shutting down something very important in that other person. Or in ourselves. Because if, directly or indirectly, people believe that they aren’t allowed to show vulnerability, we won’t get very far. And it gets worse, call it the double arrow. If you’re sadness is shut down, you’ll start to feel bad for feeling bad. And believe me, when the darkness is swallowing you whole, the thoughts can spiral into feeling bad for feeling bad for feeling bad.

It’s a balance of course, sometimes people probably enjoy a bit of cheering up. But I think we should always try and do that with empathy. Go for a walk or a coffee, but during that time ask them how they feel.

And try to listen to them. That’s really important.

If you’d like to learn how to do this well read about active listening, and learn to manage yourself so that you don’t fear the silences.

Try not to immediately cheer them up, or give them advice. Firstly listen, then ask questions if you’d like. You can ask them if they’d like your opinion, but be careful there. It’ll be much better for them if you help them to solve the problem themselves. And for me the first step to that is just being listened to.

None of the above is new or groundbreaking. If you’re interested in the subject there are loads of great books out there. One that I would recommend is Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America & The World, by Barbara Ehrenreich.

But what was interesting to me is that, even in a safer space where we were talking about mental health, the happiness obsession still seemed to loom large.

So that’s the obsession with happiness bit largely covered. But what about the misunderstanding of happiness? I think there is a tendency to often mistake reward for happiness. And we are surrounded by things that offer us quick rewards. The sugar rush from a can of coke, the nicotine rush from a cigarette, the sexual rush from masturbating. Our brain is our best friend, and our worst enemy, all wrapped up into a squishy little package and popped into our heads and we are only just beginning to scratch the surface of understanding them.

Unfortunately our brains sometimes crave these rewards because they can stimulate the release of chemicals that feel pleasant. This isn’t happiness, this is a reward. And we form habits and addictions, at least in part, around these rewards. Feel sad? Don’t like the sensation of feeling sad? Play some candy crush, look at some kittens, eat some chocolate. But any relief is temporary, and the more we bury or ignore these feelings, the more they mount up behind the walls we’ve built. And you can probably guess how the rest of that story could go.

Happiness is great, but feeling sad or anxious or frightened are all important parts of what it is to be human. It’s probably better to try and embrace those feelings, explore them and understand them, than to bury them or ignore them in. It’s easier said than done, and takes ongoing effort, but it’s probably worth it.