A Reflection on How I Dug Myself Out of the Millennial Mental Health Decline
Two and a half years ago, I picked up my life and moved 3,000 miles from Los Angeles to Boston (it turns out there’s another change coming up soon). It’s not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but I was 23 at the time and while starting from a blank slate had its upsides, there were plenty of hardships to work through.
After meeting more people from diverse backgrounds, I’ve realized that the decision to relocate far away from loved ones is a a common decision many people my age make. We connected on that mutual experience of rebuilding a life in a new city and shared stories of dark times with our mental health.
I’m 26 now and over the last couple of years I’ve developed a new support network, made new lifelong friends, found mentors, and built my career while fighting through challenges that many 20-something year olds are increasingly coping with: depression, loneliness, anxiety, existential crises, big life decisions.
These problems weren’t solely attributed to the cross-country move. Rather, the relocation provided many moments of solitude that allowed two decades of bottled up emotions and unhealthy thoughts to surface and force me to deal with them.
Upon reflecting on the last few years, this seems to be a good time to document what I’ve learned and what I’ve done that helped me get to a better place mentally and emotionally.
To make things more interesting, I was recently faced with another life-changing decision to move to another country. I said yes.
My next challenge is to apply these lessons to the next chapter of my life to cope with another significant change.
To be clear, this isn’t a “13 things you need to do” type of post. These are things that have helped me and hopefully, these learnings will help you or someone you know improve your own situations.
Here are the foundational pillars I’ve built and bad habits I’ve removed from my life that improved my mental health.
I limit social media exposure.
I’ve uninstalled Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat from my phone and only use Instagram which provides more than enough psychological rewiring I’d like to have in my life (if you aren’t sure what I mean by that, I recommend reading the book Hooked by Nir Eyal).
I can access Facebook and Twitter on my laptop Chrome browser, but I use StayFocusd to cap myself at ten minutes a day.
However, when I do log into Facebook, I don’t see any one’s updates because I use News Feed Eradicator. So I end up spending less than two minutes there.
Why do I limit my time on social media?
Numerous studies have shown that an increase in depression, anxiety, and loneliness can be attributed to social media. Facebook has even addressed this and is trying to change how their platform affects the lives of their users (that’s us).
I stopped using dating apps.
This was a big one. At every idle moment, I had a habit of pulling out my phone, opening a dating app, and swiping. I’d often swipe before going to sleep, lose track of time, and end up sleeping later than I had planned.
I rarely got matches, which got my mind tumbling down a rabbit hole analyzing what was wrong with me. Even when I did get a match, I would dwell on crafting the perfect message and wonder if a girl would respond to me or why she never responded. Was it me? Am I not attractive? Maybe my profile isn’t good enough. Maybe I’m not good enough.
From the app taking up too much time to matches causing unneeded stress, dating apps became toxic to my happiness so I removed them from my life.
(I’m aware dating apps have worked for some people, including my friends, and I respect that. They just didn’t work for me.)
I put my phone away.
A study by Andrew K. Przybylski and Netta Weinstein at University of Essay has shown that just having a phone in view during a conversation makes it more difficult to develop strong interpersonal connections.
I don’t look at my phone when I’m waiting for a friend or waiting for an order at Starbucks. I silence my phone and put it in my pocket and out of sight before our conversation. If I forget to silence it and get a notification, I apologize and let them know if I need to respond. Once I respond, I put my phone away.
It’s also just polite to pay attention to the person you’re with. You’re with them because you want to spend time with them, right? If you’re not sure why you’re spending time with them, that takes me to my next point.
I say no.
And I don’t mind changing a ‘yes’ to a ‘no.’
This applies to both my personal and professional life. I say no to side projects. If I do take on an extra project and circumstances change where working on that extra project affects the quality of my primary work, I’ll let the team know I can’t help anymore. (Of course, if me leaving that project is detrimental to its success, I’ll see it through as best I can.)
Likewise, I often say no to outings. If I do go to an outing and realize I’m not having fun, I leave and ignore any social and internal pressure to stay.
If I’m not excited about something, if I don’t enjoy something, if I don’t want to do something, I say no.
What do I do with all that free time?
I spend time doing nothing.
Sometimes, I’ll go to a coffee shop, order a hot tea, then sit and drink my tea. That’s it. I’m alone. No phone. No laptop. No book. I people watch. I stare into space. I meditate. I choose something to think about and focus on that. It’s great for solving problems and decompressing.
I read more books.
Online content generally falls into one of three things: news about the economy or politics, entertainment, or useful and applicable information.
I’ve almost completely removed the first two from my reading.
News about the economy and politics began to take up a lot of time and energy. I realized I don’t have to try to keep up with every plot twist. I realized that if something’s important, it’ll get to me.
Contrary to blog posts, books generally take more time and effort and the ones that have stood the test of time are often the ones worth reading. I attribute a lot of my personal and professional growth to books.
I started using Headspace three years ago, but I’ve stopped using apps. I check-in with myself regularly moment-to-moment. I actively gauge how I react to things and make sure I’m calm and level-headed in my body language, tone of voice, and phrasing.
In contrast to using a meditation app in a social vacuum, it’s when the going gets tough in daily life that a meditative practice matters most.
I’m not perfect, but building meditation into an active part of my mind’s operating system has helped me maintain a clear mind through a lot of difficult situations and challenges.
I don’t own a lot of stuff.
I buy few things and I throw many things away.
Each month, I do an informal audit of my room to see what I haven’t used or don’t need. I throw things away and I donate clothes. I wear almost the same thing everyday.
When I evaluate whether or not to buy something, I’m honest about how often I’ll use it, how long it’ll last, how much I really want it, and whether I really need it.
To me, having fewer things equates to fewer things to think about or manage.
I engage in less small talk.
Two things I avoid in conversations: gossip and topics that aren’t intellectually stimulating to me.
If a group spends more than five minutes talking about a TV show or someone else’s personal life, I either exit the conversation, change the topic, or don’t engage.
To get past those conversations, I’ve learned to do two things:
- Asking questions to steer the conversation toward topics with more substance that other person would also be interested in and
- Ending conversations and being comfortable with that decision
I’m very focused on growing as a person and learning to direct conversation has saved me a lot of time from talking about things that don’t help me grow.
Two books that helped me a lot with developing conversation skills are How to Win Friends and Influence People and Conversation Tactics. Tim Ferriss, best-selling author, entrepreneur, and podcaster, did an interview with Cal Fussman which helped me rethink my approach to conversation.
I spend more time with people I care about.
I prioritize my family and the friendships I value and have gotten better at making plans with them. It could be as simple as getting coffee or brunch, going for a walk, or hanging out at someone’s apartment.
I’ve gotten better at not flaking when I make plans. When we meet up, my phone is away and I’m present. I really listen to what they say and ask a ton of questions. I want them to know and see that I appreciate them.
I have a separate savings account to fund travel and meals to visit friends and family.
I moderate my drinking.
This is self explanatory. I rarely drink now and if I do, it’s one drink, like an old fashioned or an IPA.
Less drinking means no time spent recovering from a hangover, better workouts, better sleep, more focus, and less money spent.
And I still have fun when I’m out. :)
I work out regularly.
I work out up to five times a week and workouts range from 30 minutes to two hours. I’m not trying to become a fitness influencer or a model on Instagram. Not planning to compete in a bodybuilding or weightlifting competition.
Exercise keeps my operating system sharp. Healthy body and mind = good life.
It also improves my discipline which pays dividends in other aspects of life. As Jocko Willink, a decorated retired Navy SEAL officer, says, “Discipline equals freedom.”
I focus on my work and core purpose.
I’m focused on achieving my personal and professional goals and my work gets me closer to achieving those goals. To others, it seems like work. To me, it’s how I want to spend my life.
I don’t care about work life balance. I care about work life harmony. There will be times when I may have to work from 8am to 7pm. There will be times when I’ll stop working at 5pm. There will be times when I’ll work on a project until 9pm on weeknights and all weekend. There will be times when I can take two weeks of vacation and not worry about work.
Depending on the context of my life at that moment, I’ve learned that none of those scenarios are inherently “bad”. You don’t need to beat yourself up for “working too much” or “not working enough”. It’s okay to be in those scenarios.
If there’s one thing you take away from this…
The overarching theme I’ve applied to myself is the concept of euthymia which I learned from Ryan Holiday. A term from ancient Greek philosophy, euthymia could be described as cheerfulness where cheerfulness isn’t the same as pleasure, but “a condition according to which the soul lives calmly and steadily, being disturbed by no fear, or superstition, or other passion.”
In his essay on tranquility, Seneca defines euthymia as,
“believing in yourself and trusting that you are on the right path, and not being in doubt by following the myriad footpaths of those wandering in every direction.”
Do not be disturbed by things out of your control. Focus on yourself and your path. Remove toxic things from your life. Build foundational pillars for the life you aspire to live.
Then, go live it.