Following on from my article about my depression, I’ve spent some time learning about human psychology, and, in particular, the psychology of happiness. It seems clear that happiness is the greatest truth above all others, because if you are happy, then nothing else matters. In our culture we’re just not very good at achieving it!
I’m going to be very clear here: if you have a mental illness, it is likely that you have never truly been happy. It is also very likely that you have not realised it. This is particularly the case with depression, but it goes also for other conditions like insomnia, anorexia, bigorexia (the obsession with muscle growth), ME and others.
Why is this the case? Although I certainly cannot speak for all, I would suggest that certain kinds of mental illnesses are the manifestations of insecurities about yourself. For reasons too complex to explain in short here, we are living in a generation of people utterly dominated by fear, and perhaps more than ever before we are frightened about our looks, our personality, our youth, our direction in life, whether we will be secure in the future, earn enough money, have relationships that are satisfying and so on. We are governed by such phenomena as FOMO, or the Fear Of Missing Out, which is a deeply important issue that you must take seriously if you are to understand the current crisis. If left to fester, these fears and insecurities eventually lead us into the territory of ‘mental illness’, where we experience things like lethargy, existential terror and dread.
The problem is that we have by accident designed a society in which these problems are manifest, but we have as yet almost no idea how to deal with it. Psychotherapy is unfortunately a very limited practice, not just because of high demand in the face of small supply but in the way it is forced to operate. You see your psychotherapist once, maybe twice a week for an hour at a time; they give you some exercises to go and do; if you do them properly, maybe you will feel a bit better. But the chances are that they will not ‘fix’ you in the sense that they have made you truly happy. Our approaches to fixing ourselves are too often concerned with our physical behaviour and what we consume, and while these things are definitely important, they are nowhere near as important as looking inside you and changing yourself from the inside out. This is the only way we can achieve happiness.
If you are truly happy, your approach to mental suffering will be a source of consolation. You will recognise the difference between pain – or the immediate, physical and mental sensation of depression – and suffering, which is the spiral we create when we worry about it. If you are truly happy – and here I define happiness in my own terms – then you have exorcised all fear from your mind, cultivated the best aspects of yourself and understood and forgiven everything that has happened to you. Every single last human being on this planet is capable of this – make no mistake, even if you feel you are at the end of your existential terror, or that your insecurities are too deeply entrenched to change, you can be happy. Human beings are extraordinarily changeable creatures; they just have to be shown how to do it.
So – how do we make ourselves happy?
The first thing to understand is that only you are capable of your own change. Often your problems pile up to such a degree that it feels as if only you understand, and no one else can help you. Well, to an extent, you’re right. Certainly don’t be mistaken in thinking no one else is experiencing what you are – there will be millions at any given moment experiencing precisely the same thing – but only you are placed to free yourself from it. Other people are still very important, not half because true happiness is not achieved without them, and they can show you the way out as I am trying to do. But you and only you can bring about the change that you need. You must cultivate your own discipline.
Remember that happiness is the most important thing in life. This must come before anything else.
So, as comprehensively as I can, here are your steps to happiness:
People jump to all kinds of conclusions when I talk about this, so I’m just going to clear up a few things first:
- It is categorically NOT religious or ‘spiritual’.
- You do not need to be a Buddhist to do it.
- You do not need to be a monk or live on a mountain.
- It is not in any way controversial to any other major religion. Christians, Jews, Muslims etc. welcome!
- You don’t even need to sit cross-legged or burn incense.
Meditation is a the most vital tool you must use in changing yourself. It is psychologically hugely potent, and it is the only way you are going to confront your demons quickly and powerfully.
There are lots of different kinds of meditation, but the one you must start with is mindfulness. Mindfulness is a heightened state of self-awareness in which we learn to observe thoughts and feelings as they pass, and not to indulge in them. This is obviously a huge help for anxiety and depression – it’s proven to reduce these things by up to 90% – but it is also good for just about anything you can name
I have been using Headspace and doing 10-20 minutes of mindfulness meditation a day for the last four months, and I honestly feel like a different person. I learnt to accept and let go of depressive thoughts when they came, which initially freed me from my depression, but I have also gained a much greater sense of myself, a hugely improved ability to concentrate, a greater creative streak, and better relationships. I feel much more at one with myself, and I can appreciate the moment without anything bothering me.
Doing mindfulness meditation has been the number one thing that freed me from mental illness, and it has undoubtedly made me happier than I have ever been before. If you are suffering from a mental illness, you must, must, must do mindfulness. You have no excuses!
To sum up, get Headspace and bloody well use it. You just need to sit in a chair for 10 minutes a day. Headspace is very explanatory and very comprehensive, and you must make yourself do it every day.
To quote Thich Nhat Hanh: ‘Mindfulness is the foundation of a happy life.’
Yes, meditation again, but for a different reason this time. Once you have trained yourself to be mindful and regained your emotional composure, you must begin thinking very carefully about what it was that caused you to be so unhappy. You cannot risk those feelings coming back again.
Use meditation to look closely at the problems that have been dogging you. For a lot of people these could be issues we faced at school or with our parents, which then manifested as insecurities about our looks or personalities. When we understand fully where our problems started, and we understand why the people involved behaved as they did, then we will begin to experience release. The only thing possible when we have well and truly understood our past problems is complete forgiveness. People who are unkind or careless are that way because of their own suffering. Once we see that, and it will definitely take a while to see that, then we begin to be free.
This goes equally for past traumatic events and future worries. I was very concerned about the future, not just because I didn’t know if I would have a career but because looming over everything was the thought of death, which seemed to make everything pointless. Use mindfulness to make yourself emotionally stable first, then look closely at the past and the present, and you will most likely find that these fears evaporate. There really is nothing to fear but fear itself.
- Remember that it is only a feeling
When we are in that place of despair, it seems as if there is no point to anything, that the world and yourself are not real, and that suicide might be the only way out. But there is one key word in there: ‘seems’.
You must realise that what you are experiencing is just a feeling. It is not truth; it is not the end result of reality. It is just a particularly violent fluctuation of the human mind. In the moment, you see only the existential, only the sheer horribleness of the world, and you probably will not believe the words that I write here. But I assure you that it is true. Remember that there is a state of mind that is totally happy and free from all fear, including death. You have been given this opportunity to be alive for a while, so you must use it to make yourself as happy as possible. If you hang on and work at making yourself happy, you will be glad that you stayed alive. What a waste to commit suicide, or to spend your entire life in fear. What a terrible, terrible waste.
Surprise, surprise. This time, you must use meditation to learn to love yourself.
LEARNING TO LOVE YOURSELF IS THE BEGINNING OF ALL EMOTIONAL HEALING.
Loving yourself, having self-compassion, is absolutely vital to a happy life. Unfortunately the Western mind is prone to self-hatred. This is very, very sad, because self-hatred ruins the lives of both yourself and other people, and leads us into depression. If we learn to have self-compassion and not criticise ourselves, and to forgive ourselves when we make mistakes, then we will be happy. We can receive all things, good and bad, with equanimity.
There is a specific meditation for learning to love yourself, called Metta or loving-kindness. To do it effectively you must first learn mindfulness, which is the starting point for self-compassion anyway. Give it a quick google.
- Think about what you really need
I say need, not want, because most of the things we want we do not need. The more we invest in material objects, the more unhappy we are likely to be.
When you think long and hard about it, you will probably come to the conclusion that all you need in life are very basic things. You need a good community, food and a house. That’s really about it. But even then, how much do you really need all those things? If you are happy, then it doesn’t matter what happens to you. This is why happiness is the ultimate truth.
I’m actually just joking this time.
- Think about what you need to change
We all do things that aren’t good for us, and a lot of these things are responsible for how we feel. Your diet is vitally important. If you eat a lot of carbs and meat, sugar and caffeine, then you are not treating your body well. If you eat a lot of fruit and veg then you are guaranteed to feel better.
Exercise is also very important. Running is great, and so is yoga. Do both.
Think about how much time you spend with other people, and what kind of people they are. You must be strong about what you do to yourself; if your friends drink and smoke and take drugs then you must be strict about not doing these things. Remember that your happiness is the most important thing above all others.
- Get a good philosophy
I personally have decided to become a Buddhist, because it is the most sure-fire way to happiness. I would very, very strongly recommend learning at least a basic knowledge of it, because it is damn helpful. The West is playing catch-up on almost everything it teaches, so why not get ahead of the West?
I should add that Buddhism is really quite a funny thing. It is NOT a religion – there is almost nothing mystical about it, it is totally atheistic, and it is super, super rational. It is the only ‘religion’ that does not deal in faith. That is to say that there is no afterlife to aspire for, there is only the here and now – the past and future are an illusion – and are you suffering right now? If you are, then listen up. Buddhism is the psychology of happiness. In my opinion, whether or not you call it ‘Buddhism’, it is something that the West needs.
At the end of every human endeavour is the desire for happiness. Every single last thing we do is to try in some way to make ourselves feel better. Most people go through their lives not realising this, because most people feel that they should simply keep themselves away from misery rather than make themselves actually happy. It is astonishing how little happiness is really understood in the West, where we continue to cultivate a culture of jealousy, self-hatred and desire for things that are not good for us. You must remove yourself from this hedonic treadmill to really understand yourself.
To get rid of our insecurities, we need to think deeply about what our internal problems are. Once you have seen them, then you can understand them. Making yourself focussed, kind and loving are the ways to make yourself a secure person. Selfish people are unhappy; loving people are connected.
At the end of the day, it is really very simple. If you use meditation to train your mind to be clear and kind, then you will become the kind of person who is happy, connected and loved. Fears and insecurities will no longer dog you, and at last, you can be free.