“Today was good. Today was fun. Tomorrow is another one.” — Dr Seuss
When did you last have fun?
This is one of my favourite questions to ask people I work with. I know, it doesn’t exactly have a diagnostic ring to it, but I always ask because it sneaks under the mat of people’s mental health.
When people are clinically depressed they’ll struggle to find an answer. They’ll gaze at you blankly (like they don’t recall the last time they had fun) or they’ll mention a decade-old occasion in which they looked “happy” in the photos.
Most commonly, they’ll be struck by the realisation that activities and people they used to enjoy no longer feel like fun at all.
When people report feeling flat, but don’t meet the criteria for depression, they’ll be aware that their capacity to enjoy life has shrivelled. It might not have done a runner altogether — but they’re not feeling much joy.
But I Want To Be Happy, Dammit!
What happiness means obviously varies wildly. Most (smart) people realise it’s not about that spanking red Audi or that Hawaiian holiday or that toned up body — even though those are nice and a good look on Instagram.
Most people know it’s about having the basics covered (food, clothing, shelter, security and enough money), knowing the people you love are okay, that your work or daily activities feel meaningful, that you feel (at least a little) hopeful.
That you carry a (some) peace in your heart, instead of the steady thrum of anxiety. Or stress. Or worry. Or fear.
So instead of asking yourself whether you’re happy (which is hard and not very helpful), break it down by using these subtle measures of psychological health.
How to Measure Your Happiness Levels: 7 Subtle Signs
1. You can (easily) name when you last had fun.
Hopefully you can name more than one thing — and there is some variety in your choices. Naming your last six golf games, for example, would not be a balanced answer. Test yourself — and see how quickly you can name them. When you’re in good shape, the answers should flow.
2. You enjoy the stuff you’ve always enjoyed.
You still look forward to your favourite activities. And when you dig into them, they still give you the same rush or pleasure. Or at least make you want to do them again.
3. You want to hang out with your favourite people.
You initiate, or are up for, spending time with the people you enjoy being with. And when you’re with them, you have fun. If you are actively avoiding them, notice it. Social withdrawal is an early sign of depression, especially if this indicates a change in your usual behaviour.
4. You can name three things you’re looking forward to.
In the best case scenario, you can name three things in the short-term AND three that are further away. If the only thing you can come up with is “a holiday”, take notice. And if you don’t feel any better after your holiday take even more notice. You could be heading for the burnout zone.
5. When you laugh there’s a lightness to it.
It’s a commonly held view that depressed people don’t laugh. Wrong. They do. Sometimes they’re hiding pain; sometimes their laughter has a dry, forced feel. When you’re in a good space, your laughter will have a light feel to it; it will make you feel good. If you’ve ever been depressed, you’ll know the difference.
6. When you go for a walk you notice the beauty (in detail).
First of all, you do go for a walk, don’t you? Getting outside, moving your body and dragging in some fresh air is vital to your mental health.
It’s easy to say “that’s a nice view”, when you’re wandering along a beach or through the bush but when you find yourself really SEEING things (and hearing, smelling, tasting and feeling them), noticing the detail in the beauty all around us, you’ll know you’re in healthy mental shape. So next time you’re out, test yourself. How much detail are you taking in?
7. You’ve got a goal or you’re working on a project.
Some people will raise hellfire against this suggestion — because they hate goal setting. If that’s you, all good. But from research, clinical observation, and personal experience, I’d claim people are happier when they are working towards something. Even if it’s something hard. Or even if it’s a very short term project; even if they are crafting something from their sofa every evening. So if you’re a little flat, get yourself a project. Even a teeny weeny one. Today.
Hopefully this has confirmed you’re doing okay right now — maybe even great. Note that this is intended as a positive mental health measure, rather than one for difficulties. If you are struggling, reach out to a family member, a friend, a professional or a mental health service. Know you are worth it.
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