By Jeremy Godwin
Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast full of simple ideas for better mental health by Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on practical and simple things that you can do every single day to improve and maintain your mental health and wellbeing, based on quality research.
This is Episode 61 and this week I’m talking about happiness. I’ll be discussing what happiness is and what it isn’t, why having a healthy attitude towards the pursuit of happiness is essential for good mental health, and how to find greater happiness every day. So, let’s talk about mental health!
Listen to the podcast episode now in the Spotify player below (or using your preferred podcast service; see below for links) or continue reading for the article/transcript version.
This episode was originally released on 11 January, 2021.
Hello and welcome to Episode 61, and thanks so much for joining me! Continuing on from last week’s episode about wellbeing, I announced on social media last week that I’m treating this year as The Year of Wellbeing here on the Let’s Talk About Mental Health podcast, because happiness doesn’t just happen; it takes work. So each week on the podcast I’ll be continuing to share simple ideas for better mental health and wellbeing, and I’ll be exploring lots of different things you can do every day to make a positive difference in your life. It seemed like only common sense that I continue on from last week’s episode about wellbeing by exploring happiness this week, so I have lots of stuff to cover off on in today’s episode!
And before we go any further — it’s now only a week and a half away from the very first episode of Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV which is coming to YouTube weekly starting on January 21 (or January 20 if you’re in countries like the US, Canada, the UK, Ireland etc.). There’s a trailer video up now on the Let’s Talk About Mental Health YouTube channel and on my website at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au which is basically just me having far too much fun with 80’s music and special effects, but there’s a link in that trailer so you can subscribe to the channel — so I hope you’ll be joining me next week when the new show begins! This podcast will continue in the same format every week and it sure would make me happy if you would subscribe to my YouTube channel and watch the new show when it lands… and so with that in mind, let’s talk about happiness…
Last week in Episode 60 I talked about wellbeing and how it’s affected by many different factors such as our relationships, diet and exercise, sleep, leisure activities, self-esteem etc., and I touched on the idea that wellbeing isn’t just about feeling happy all the time, but instead it’s about flourishing. So part of that involves being really clear on what ‘happiness’ is and what it isn’t, so let’s look at some definitions…
What is happiness?
Happiness can be defined as contentment, satisfaction, pleasure and joy… ultimately, it’s an emotion and the thing about emotions is that they are not permanent because they’re subject to our internal and external circumstances. Why do I say that? Because it’s important to state upfront that happiness is not a goal that we can chase; happiness is an outcome. It’s an outcome of making healthy choices for your mind, body and spirit every day… it’s made up of a whole bunch of stuff I’ve covered in previous episodes: self-care, self-esteem, self-kindness, resilience, letting go, mindfulness, forgiveness, boundaries, optimism, gratitude, finding balance… I could sit here and list pretty much every episode of Let’s Talk About Mental Health but hopefully you get the message: happiness involves coming at your overall mental health and wellbeing from multiple angles by doing things every day to help yourself to be the best version of yourself possible.
I like to look at it this way: happiness is less about ‘being happy’ than it is being satisfied with your life. Because I tend to focus on finding the middle ground, and avoiding the extremes (which I spent far too many years living in), it’s become clear to me that satisfaction is about cultivating a sense of calm and peace of mind with all aspects of your life. Why? Because that way you’re prepared to deal with the inevitable ups and downs that will come your way (since they’re inevitable in life: we lose loved ones, global pandemics occur, good television shows go downhill…). Given a choice between a baseline of frustration and dissatisfaction versus a baseline of calm and satisfaction, it’s hopefully fairly obvious which one is going to have the more positive effect on your mental health and overall wellbeing.
Let’s also be clear that aside from not being a goal to be achieved, ‘happiness’ is not a magic cure for all of your troubles. Have you ever purchased something to cheer yourself up? How long did that last? Long lasting happiness doesn’t come from money, a new car, the latest phone… research indicates a fleeting amount of happiness can come from these things but that we then generally return to our old ‘baseline’ level of happiness… which is why we then start craving the next thing that we think will make us happy.
Happiness is not the be-all and end-all of wellbeing… Last week in Episode 60 I talked about the PERMA model in positive psychology (positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment) and that model suggests that happiness is just one component of ‘positive emotion’ (along with satisfaction, comfort, gratitude) along with the other four aspects of PERMA; so in other words, on it’s own, the pursuit of happiness doesn’t magically create wellbeing, because it misses out on all those other aspects. I’ll add the link to an article about that in this week’s transcript (which is the same one I shared last week from the Black Dog Institute) is you’re interested in a 5-10 minute read about wellbeing. Find it here: https://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/resources-support/wellbeing/
So why does having a healthy attitude towards ‘happiness’ matter?
Well, let me first explain what I mean by a ‘healthy’ attitude: that means that you see happiness as an outcome, not a goal. If you chase after happiness you will be unlikely to find it, because it’s a product of what you do and say rather than being something you can just achieve because you will it to happen or because you’ve achieved success. In the words of the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova,
“When [I was] a small child… I thought that success spelled happiness. I was wrong. Happiness is like a butterfly which appears and delights us for one brief moment, but soon flits away.”Anna Pavlova
Actually, that butterfly analogy seems to be a popular one; in the words of American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne,
“Happiness is as a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”Nathaniel Hawthorne
And so being able to let happiness come to you, rather than chasing it fruitlessly, allows you to live a life that is calmer and, frankly, less chaotic — some of the things people do in the name of chasing happiness are just ridiculous, but hey… each to their own!
Let’s talk for a moment about a place where greater happiness is seen as being more important than economic growth — the Kingdom of Bhutan. Bhutan is a landlocked country in the Himalayas with a population of roughly three-quarters of a million, and back in 1972 the King expressed an idea that, and I quote from the World Health Organisation here, “development should be determined in terms of the happiness of the people rather than in terms of an abstract economic measurement such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP)” (link in transcript) and so this resulted in the adoption of a very different measure: Gross National Happiness.
What does that mean? Again, let me quote from the World Health Organisation:
“… [Gross National Happiness] connects Bhutan’s development goals with the pursuit of happiness. This means that the ideology reflects Bhutan’s vision on the purpose of human life, a vision that puts the individual’s self-cultivation at the centre of the nation’s developmental goals, a primary priority for Bhutanese society as a whole as well as for the individual concerned.”World Health Organisation (find it here on page 10)
Gross National Happiness covers 9 areas including:
- Psychological well-being
- Community vitality
- Time use
- Cultural diversity
- Good governance
- Standard of living
Each of those areas have specific indicators (which you can find on Page 11 of that document which is linked in the transcript) and it all underpins policy decisions and projects throughout the country.
Now, is it perfect? No. Is any system? No. But what it does is that it recognises that the satisfaction levels of people are far more important than financial goals, and that completely changes the way that decisions are made because it’s about putting the people first in all things. Why do I share this? Because the same concept can be applied in your life. You can choose to put your own psychological well-being, relationships, standard of living — all of those things — first, and before economic concerns or things that take away from feeling satisfied in those nine areas (or whatever feels right to you).
What I’m getting at here is that the things that we’re told will make us happier — bigger house, more expensive car, luxury holidays — those things don’t actually have a long-lasting effect on your overall happiness in the way that close relationships and a good standard of living can.
So what does improve happiness and create a healthy attitude towards it then? According to an article by HelpGuide, some of the things that can make a positive difference include: https://www.helpguide.org/articles/mental-health/cultivating-happiness.htm
- Optimism and a positive mindset (Episode 47 and Episode 31 respectively) including gratitude (Episode 46)
- Maintaining healthy relationships (Episode 38)
- Living in the moment and ‘savouring life’s pleasures’
- Focusing on helping others and living with meaning (‘meaning’ was Episode 58)
- Taking better care of your health (diet, exercise, sleep etc)
Let’s explore a couple of things from that… first the diet/exercise/sleep thing: I know I say this a thousand times and I’m no saint when it comes to healthy eating (let’s just say that the Christmas and New Year’s period involved far too much food and now I’m trying to get myself back on track yet again) but what you put into your body (and mind) and what you do with it (i.e. Exercise vs. doing nothing, decent regular sleep vs. erratic sleep patterns)… all of that will have a huge impact on your health and your overall happiness… it’s pretty difficult to feel happy when you feel shitty about your lack of sleep or weight or whatever, so that’s a good point to focus on and I think it’s worthwhile to revisit this one daily because these really are simple and specific things you can do which, over time, add up to have a really big positive effect on your wellbeing.
The other bit from that article that I’d like to revisit is the second-last point about ‘focusing on helping others’. You don’t have to be a nun or a monk or work for a charity to help others… I do what I do because I enjoy helping people but I don’t do it for free and I still have bills to pay like everyone else; the main thing here is that it is possible to find a way to do work that feels meaningful to you rather than just slogging away at a job so you can get those coins… money should be a means to an end, not a reason for living (because more money doesn’t buy you happiness — yes it can resolve some short-term problems, but usually that doesn’t change your overall happiness significantly in the long-run). So really think about what matters most to you and what ‘meaning’ means to you (and you might find Episode 58 particularly helpful for that).
So how do you find greater happiness every day? Well, let’s get into the how-to part of this week’s episode…
How to find greater happiness every day
Consciously focus on creating peace of mind and a sense of calm in all areas of your life. Happiness is very much an outcome of calm and peace of mind, and so by focusing on what you need to do to create calm and peace of mind then treating that as a priority every day, you’ll find that over time it begins to generate more feelings of satisfaction and more moments of happiness. For example, I’ve found that consciously distancing myself from people who thrive on drama has had a huge effect on my own sense of calm and that has led to much greater satisfaction overall. Even though this first idea might sound pretty simple and straightforward, it’s probably the most challenging because — let’s face it — most of us have complicated lives since that’s just the way the world works.
How do you do that? Start by reflecting on all areas of your wellbeing (i.e. The six areas that I talk about all the time in this program, being: physical, mental, spiritual, social, emotional and financial) and consider what is working versus what is not. For the stuff that is working: how can you do more of that? For the stuff that isn’t working: how can you do less of that? Or how can you change the nature of it? Nobody said this would be easy (hey, I say ‘simple ideas’ for better mental health, not ‘easy ideas’!) but at least if you have an idea of where you are today then you can begin to create a sense of what needs to change in each of those six areas. We’ll come back to the ‘how to’ part of actually changing that stuff in a minute.
Next, embrace simplicity. Another thing that I’m a big fan of is finding simplicity in all things. Now, what that looks and feels like is going to be different for each of us because we all have our own unique needs, wants and preferences, but the message here is that when given a choice between a complicated decision or action versus a simple one, 9 times out of 10 the simple one is going to be much easier to deal with and more likely to lead to longer-term happiness. You can lead a busy life and still find ways to embrace simplicity as much as possible. Let’s be honest, some things are just always going to be naturally complicated (like dealing with any government department or the council, or trying to work out what the hell is going on in politics) but most stuff in life doesn’t need to be difficult; we just tend to over-complicate things and I think sometimes we do it because we think that the simplest solution cannot possibly be the most effective one (even though it is) or we have this subconscious idea that things have to be complicated for them to be worthwhile. They don’t. Make life as easy for yourself as possible. It’s not gold toilets and private jets that will make you happy; it’s the little things that free you up by taking you away from what makes you unhappy or stressed. Making a positive impact on your overall level of life satisfaction (which then leads to happiness) begins with your mindset… because happiness and general satisfaction is a choice; in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”
Which leads me into the specific how-to stuff, and it should come as no surprise after everything I’ve said today that you don’t need to win the lottery to be happy or have a high-paying job or be rich and famous; what creates satisfaction and happiness is doing many different things every day to create a satisfying and fulfilling life in all six areas of your wellbeing. Why? Because the more you do, the more improvement you see… and it doesn’t have to be massive because when you focus on doing lots of little things every day, they build up over time to have huge effects on your life.
Find what you’re good at and what you enjoy, and do more of that. Nobody is good at everything. Nobody. So if you focus on what you’re not good at, eventually your self-esteem will plummet which isn’t exactly going to be helpful. Instead, focus more on what you’re good at and let go of the other stuff. In the words of the English writer Bertrand Russell, “Anything you’re good at contributes to happiness.”
Choose to adopt a positive mindset in all things. Yes, it is a choice, even though sometimes it can seem too difficult or almost impossible… and it’s not a do-it-once and then set-and-forget thing; we very much need to consciously choose to be positive every day. That also includes choosing to be positive about your work; in the words of Scottish writer J. M. Barrie, “The secret of happiness is not in doing what one likes, but in liking what one has to do.”
Choose to focus on purpose and meaning rather than money and stuff. When we chase after money above all things we’re setting ourselves up for unhappiness. In the words of US President Thomas Jefferson, “It is neither wealth, nor splendour but tranquillity and occupation which give happiness.”
And that’s the main point: it’s actually the little things in life that can have the most impact, because rather than the big things that come and go, these little decisions have a big flow-on effect… so have a think about what small changes for the better you can make in your life. Whatever you choose to do, remember to keep it simple and do it regularly.
Summary and Close-Out
Because when it comes to happiness and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: making the choice to focus on creating and maintaining a life that satisfies you in all aspects takes work, but what it offers you is a chance to build true life satisfaction and genuine, longer-lasting happiness than you might experience through chasing things that only offer short-term bursts of joy. I don’t think life needs to be overly complicated and by focusing simplicity, along with letting go of drama and doing more of what brings you calm and peace of mind, you’re more likely to experience deeper happiness which, while not a permanent state, is more likely to last longer and reduce the rollercoaster of emotions that we can go through when we’re focused on things that are out of our control. The choice is yours, as it is with all things related to your wellbeing… so, what choice will you make today? [weekly close for this section in Year of Wellbeing]
Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by the English writer Joseph Addison, and it is:
“The great essentials to happiness in this life are something to do, something to love and something to hope for.”Joseph Addison
Next week I’ll be talking about self-awareness. Understanding who you are and how that influences every aspect of your life, including your feelings and your overall health, is a big part of wellbeing. Why? Because in order to be the best version of yourself possible, you need to truly understand who you are — the good, the bad and the ugly. So next week I’ll be talking about what self-awareness is, why it matters and, most importantly, how to become more self-aware every day.
I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released in the morning of Monday 18 January in the Asia-Pacific region including Australia; the evening of Sunday 17 January in the UK, Ireland, Europe, Africa and the Middle East; and the afternoon of Sunday 17 January in the US, Canada, Central America and South America.
Head over to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au for past episodes (including audio links and full transcripts) and while you’re there join the Let’s Talk About Mental Health mailing list to have exclusive updates land in your inbox — those of you on my email list find out about new stuff at least a week before anybody else, so if you like this show then sign up at the website: letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au.
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Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.
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