On survival

I recently watched The Revenant, a story set in the early 1800’s about early American fur traders. DiCaprio’s character is mauled by a bear early in the film and spends the rest of the film battling for survival and revenge. When your life is on the line, nothing but the present situation matters. Your mind and body are fully committed to whatever challenge you’re facing. When an army of tribesmen hell bent on exterminating you or a massive 800 pound grizzly is charging at you, you’re forced into the present out of necessity. A Hungarian psychologist named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi carried out one of the largest psychology studies ever when he asked numerous people to recall when they felt the happiest in their lives. The majority of answers were of people doing activities that engaged all of their senses and abilities, in a state that Mihaly describes as ‘flow’: “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” He also conducted another study, called the Experience Sampling Study (a.k.a. Beeper Study):

“A group of teenagers were given beepers that went off during random times throughout the day. They were asked to record their thoughts and feelings at the time of the beeps. Most of the entries indicated that the teens were unhappy, but Csikszentmihalyi found that when their energies were focused on a challenging task, they tended to be more upbeat. This and other studies helped shape his seminal work on flow. His studies and subsequent findings gained still more popular interest and he is today considered one of the founding figures of positive psychology.”

Fighting for your life is definitely a terrifying situation to be in, and thankfully very few of us have to deal with it in this “better” day in and age. But is it really better? If you examined the life of the average person in this “better” day and age, you’d notice that they’re constantly following the same routine and surrounded by massive amounts of comfort. Yet depression and anxiety seem to be increasing. A book called Changing Adolescence: Social trends and mental health, which explores how social change has affected young people’s behaviour, mental health and transitions toward adulthood mentions that:

The proportion of 15/16 year olds reporting that they frequently feel anxious or depressed has doubled in the last 30 years, from 1 in 30 to 2 in 30 for boys and 1 in 10 to 2 in ten for girls.

It might just be that symptoms of depression are being better recognized today than they were 30 years ago. Nevertheless, ask yourself when you’re the most happiest? What if we were to begin tracking our moods throughout the day and began to notice what makes us happiest/saddest? I wonder what we’d find.

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