Being Happy to do Things
Doing Things to be Happy
‘The Chicken and the Egg: Story of our mental health’
If I asked how you look after yourself when you feel the first signs of being run down, or a cold coming on, I would be pretty confident you could provide me a checklist of self-care techniques. There is a level of physical health ‘common knowledge’ and wisdom that we utilise when we feel these early signs. However, what is our response when we notice signs of being mentally run down or a ‘mental cold’?
The majority of us do not have a ‘go-to’ plan for responding to the initial signs of mental distress. This can form two issues:
- We make poor decisions and engage in behaviours which further enhance our distress
- OR – We don’t do anything, and wait for the stressors to simply pass. We hope our positive emotions, enjoyment for life and energy will return to normal.
There is a fair chance that this will occur…. Eventually. But, often this means feeling the distress for longer and more intensely than needed.
What Makes You Feel ‘Happy?’
Part of having a ‘go-to’ mental plan when we are first hit with signs of stress, anxiousness or the blues, is understanding how our emotions-thoughts-behaviours interact so we can respond wisely to these feelings and their triggers. Psychology has long known that when we engage in behaviours aligned with our values we feel positive emotions. E.g helping an elderly person across the street makes us feel pride and happiness. We then think positive things about ourselves (e.g. I am a nice person).
However, this relation is not sequential and can occur in any order. Therefore, the opposite is also true whereby a negative emotion (e.g. stress) can lead us to behave negatively (e.g. shout at the kids). This can subsequently lead to us thinking negative things about ourselves (e.g. I am a bad parent).
So How Do We Avoid These Negative Behaviours?
Although this model reduces our emotional functioning into a somewhat equational model, it helps us to realise that when things get tough we can actually feel disinterested in engaging with those behaviours (activities) we routinely engage in which bring us joy and happiness. We can sometimes fall into the trap of simply waiting to be happy, to do happy things.
Unfortunately, this means we are cutting off our ‘good vibes’ fuel line. A key example of this is work stress and how it impacts our behaviours. When we go through busy period at work, the first things we begin to sacrifice are exercise, engaging in the meaningful relationships we have, and our personal pursuits/hobbies. But, in actual fact the components of our lives most linked to our values are – our relationships (connection), personal pursuits/hobbies (purpose) and for most exercise/physical activity (looking after ourselves).
The Emotional Chicken and the Egg
Therefore, we need to look at the relationship between being happy to do things, and doing things to make us happy. Ie. the emotional version of the chicken and the egg. We can’t down-play the importance of ensuring that when things get tough, we prioritise these happy activities. We need to actively promote positive thoughts and emotions within us – we can’t simply wait for these emotions/thoughts to return on their own.
It is necessary to have a clear understanding of what these core value orientated activities are. Being able to identify these ‘go-to’ positive activities is key to developing happiness. This particularly helps when things such as stress, anxiousness and feeling down start to appear. We need to maintain these activities, even when we may not feel like it.
So is this going to make the world rainbows and unicorns whereby you will successfully avoid developing a major mental health issue?
It will help, but it’s no guarantee. Just like eating an apple or running everyday doesn’t guarantee you won’t ever develop a physical illness or disease. However, it can help you get on top of things early and prevent these early mental health ‘sniffles’ developing into longer term significant issues.