Yesterday, an old friend of mine, with whom I had no contact for a long time, called me and told me that he is currently having a rough time mentally. I was surprised that he was able to talk very open about it. Usually, that is a topic we tend to keep to ourselves.
Because of that experience and also encouraged by a great article written by Taylor Otwell about this very topic, I decided to share some of the things I did and still do, that helped me a lot when I was struggling with finding happiness in my life.
My Mental Health History
Roughly since the time when I hit puberty, I wasn’t exactly the happiest person on earth. This only changed about 5 years ago, when I finally decided to quit the destructive habits of smoking and binge drinking for good. At the time, changing that parts of my life, helped me a lot to feel better about myself.
Then, about three years ago, my father was diagnosed with cancer and he died just a few months later on the 24. of February in 2015.
The things that worked for me
Some of (or maybe even all of) the following tips, might not be right for you, but they definitely helped me to overcome what was the hardest time of my life. Although I still feel sad sometimes (which is completely normal if you’re a living human being), I’m now a person who is overall quite happy with life.
I’ll start with some rather minor adjustments that I made to my life, which were not quite life-changing but still have a positive effect on my general wellbeing, and work my way up to some major changes that I made to the way I live my life, which helped me a great deal in becoming the man I’m today.
Although, since a few months, I meditate daily, I’m still not quite sure of how beneficial it really is. I’m definitely better at dealing with uncomfortable feelings like anger and anxiety since I started this habit. Though it could be some kind of placebo effect. But it works, and I couldn’t care less exactly why it works.
I’m definitely less prone to become angry when driving in my car since I started meditating. Also, it helps me dealing with negative thought loops. I oftentimes have a topic in mind that really bothers me, like the stupid policies of our right-wing government or if something really embarrassing has happened to me recently. Then I constantly repeat this topic in my head until it completely destroys my mood. I think meditation has helped me to deal with such situations - at least a little bit.
No more mindlessly surfing the web
This is a counter-intuitive one because after all, checking your Facebook or Twitter feed and being connected with other people, just feels good (short term). Dopamine is rushing through your brain if you’re “done” reading the latest entries in your feed and even more so when you see that somebody has liked your post.
But those good feelings are very short-lived and what’s even worse: you’re getting addicted to them, which leads to you needing more and more of those little dopamine rushes throughout the day.
I deleted my Facebook account and I’ve drastically reduced the time I spend on Twitter, YouTube and news sites. Since then, I have a lot more time and mental energy for doing important stuff and things which, although they are much less rewarding in the short term, have a much bigger positive impact on my life in the long run.
Knowing about psychology and philosophy
Knowing the basics of psychology and philosophy can help you to understand your own behavior and reactions to certain events better and ultimately leads to having more control over your brain and your feelings.
The topic of psychology is too broad as it would make sense to go into too much depth about the things I found most helpful, but there are certain books I highly recommend you to read.
Grit by Angela Duckworth - in this book, Angela Duckworth is explaining why some people succeed and others don’t and how to become more resilient, which in turn makes you more likely to succeed.
Drive by Daniel H. Pink – everyone sometimes struggles with finding the motivation to actually do stuff. In this book, you can read about the basic principles of motivation and why purpose, mastery, and autonomy are the three pillars of motivation.
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman – if you’re a human and you haven’t read this book, you definitely doing it wrong. It explains a lot about human nature and why we’re doing what we’re doing and why we’re reacting to certain events in certain ways. Definitely, read this book.
Many of the biggest questions about life, for which we often cannot find an answer by ourselves, have already been answered several times (in numerous different ways) by ancient and recent philosophers, but somehow we tend to ignore the combined wisdom of those people.
Like Taylor, I also highly recommend reading Epictetus and other stoic philosophers. My key takeaway is the following.
Don’t make your happiness dependent on external factors over which you have no control. Oftentimes we think in terms of “If X happens then I’m happy.” or ”If I reach this goal, I’ll be happy.”. When I was younger, for me it was ”If I have a girlfriend who loves me, I’ll be happy.”. More recently I often thought ”If I earn more money and if I get a promotion, I’ll be more motivated and happy with my job.”.
By reading the work of Epictetus, other philosophers and by reading about the psychology of motivation in general, I realized I got it completely backwards.
If you’re not mentally strong and happy with your life, it’s much harder to attract other people. And even if you find somebody who still loves you, even though you’re insecure and melancholic, how good of a partner can you really be if you make your happiness dependent on your spouse?
It’s similar in your professional career if you’re not enjoying your work and therefore you’re not able to give your absolute best at work, how realistic is it that you are the one being promoted, or at least getting a significant raise?
If you change your attitude to think more in terms of how you can positively influence the things that are within your control, success may come naturally. And even if not, if you’re happy about your life the way it is, without being dependent on another person, and if you’re finding fulfillment in your work, because you’re proud about the work you’re doing, life isn’t all that bad no matter what.
Finding a better job
First of all, I have to say, that I was pretty lucky with the jobs I had in my life. Although my last job had made me very unhappy in the end, it wasn’t the circumstances of the job itself, but my demands on the job, that made me unhappy.
My colleagues and also my bosses were really nice people and most of the clients were also a joy to work with. But because of reasons I don’t want to go into too much detail, in the end, the job just wasn’t the right thing to do for me anymore.
For me, it’s very important to be constantly challenged to learn new things and therefore I need an environment were knowledge and expertise is valued highly. Also I’m really into constantly improving my work. With my current job and position, I have a lot of room for improving the product we’re working on and also constantly improving my own skills. Also I get the feeling (and oftentimes also direct feedback) from my colleagues and superiors, that what I do is appreciated.
If you’re not happy with your current job, try to find out if it’s the job and the circumstances you’re not happy with, or if it’s your own work which you’re not doing in a way that satisfies you. Keep in mind that it’s always easier to blame others for your own misfortune, but oftentimes your own work ethic is to blame. But if you’re convinced that your working environment is the problem, don’t hesitate to find a new job which better fits you.
Discipline and positive habits
Nowadays “discipline” has kind of a bad reputation, one of our highest valued goods, is that we’re allowed to do what we want to do, exactly when we want to do it. But this can cause us to make bad decisions and we do things that, although they make us feel good in the short term, oftentimes make us unhappy in the long run.
I figured that having some discipline in my life and having a list of things I “just do” gives me guidance in doing the right things and as long as I’m actually doing those things, the day will be a success.
I’ve implemented a rather long list of daily habits into my life which do work very well for me but, again, might not be the right things to do for you. So you might come up with a quite different looking list of habits, the only thing that is important is to stick to it and to become a little bit better every day in the things you value most.
Some of the habits I do daily are: making at least one commit on GitHub, cleaning one room of my flat, meditating, keeping a journal of my thoughts and reading books. But the most influential positive daily habit that I’ve implemented in my life so far, earns its own headline.
One thing that oftentimes bothers me about articles like that one you’re currently reading is, that they claim that doing this or that will improve your life by an order of magnitude almost instantaneously. Exercising is such an activity which is often times praised to be a miracle cure for a bad mood.
But except for some very potent (and most of the time illegal) drugs, nothing you can do magically cures you of serious mental health issues immediately. In the long run though, exercising actually can be a quite powerful tool to becoming an overall more happy person.
The hardest thing is to get going. I recommend you to start with (very) short workouts. There are a ton of “7-Minute” exercising apps in the app stores. It doesn’t matter how busy or how out of shape you are, everybody can spare 7 minutes a day.
I started with exercising 7 minutes every day in the morning. Then I also did some additional push-ups after the 7-minute workout. Some weeks into my new habit of exercising (a little bit) every day in the morning, I started to also do some push-ups in the evening, after I came home from work.
I gradually increased my workout time from 7 minutes every morning, to almost half an hour in the morning and half an hour in the evening. It’s hard work and I still can’t say that I actually like it very much, but after it becomes a habit, you “just do it” – and damn does it feel good to look into the mirror and see the success of your hard work.
Stop drinking (too much)
Finally, the most life-changing adjustment to my life (in a positive way) was to quit drinking alcohol for good. A few years ago, I stopped binge drinking but still occasionally drank alcohol. This already had a huge positive impact on my life and I’m not sure, if it wasn’t for this change, if I ultimately would’ve been able to cope with the illness and death of my father.
A few months ago, I decided to completely eliminate alcohol from my diet and although this decision was far less of a life-changing event, I still feel it influenced my mood and overall wellbeing in a positive way.
However, there are also some negative side effects attached to not drinking alcohol anymore. Especially in Austria (but I guess this is true for a lot of other countries and regions too) people who don’t drink alcohol are usually perceived as a little odd. Every time I visit my grandfather for example, and I only drink water, he looks at me as if I’m crazy.
Furthermore, the combination of being an introvert and not drinking any alcohol at all makes for a pretty bad party guest. Therefore events where it’s expected to drink alcohol (so basically every event) and to participate in small talk, are relatively difficult for me to master.
All things considered, for me, the positive impact outweighs the minor inconveniences by an order of magnitude. Like all of the other tips in this article, this one might be completely useless for your personal situation, because either you’re drinking very little alcohol to begin with, or because for you, the experience you have when drinking alcohol is mostly positive, if that’s the case, that’s great. But for some of you, cutting back your alcohol consumption might be a worthy consideration if you want to improve your overall mental health.
I guess many people who are searching for ways of improving their mental health, are hoping to find an easy solution, that one weird trick which helps them to finally become happy. There is no such trick (I’m aware of). Finding fulfillment in life is hard work and you’re never done with it.
Even now, that I’d describe myself as an overall happy person, I still struggle from time to time. And as far as I know, almost everybody, even those guys that seem to have a perfect life, also have dark moments every now and then. If it seems to you, that most of the people around you are happy all the time, I’d say bullshit, these people don’t show their real feelings openly and talking about it’s kind of a tabu.
None of the things I wrote about in this article are quick fixes which immediately have a huge positive effect. If you’re struggling mentally and you want to find a way out, you have to do the legwork and actually make significant changes to your life.