Sometimes what you’re most afraid of doing is the very thing that will set you free.
Listening is often the only thing needed to help someone.
The quest of finding happiness is possibly the only goal shared among all human beings – past, present or future. Who doesn’t want to find happiness in his or her life? It’s a silent goal nonetheless. We don’t mutter much about it and most of the time it lurks in the deep inner workings of our minds. Curious isn’t it?
The odd fact is we spend billions of research dollars & euros into treating mental illnesses with drugs, but not much effort goes into understanding the science of happiness or mental well-being. This fact alone compels me to write about the subject.
The title of this article is in itself revealing – “how to find happiness within yourself” suggests from the outset that you should look for happiness within yourself and that happiness is general to be found within. This is also a very curious thing to me. Why are we always trying to find happiness in all kinds of places but hardly ever attempt to find happiness within?
Harry is 67. He lost his wife to cancer almost three years ago now. He saw his daughter pass through a marriage breakdown and divorce. He hardly gets to see his grandchildren because his daughter moved to another city after her divorce. He misses the fishing trips with his brother Joe who also passed away recently. He is relating less and less to a changing hostile world where he is constantly reminded he is an unwanted burden.
Yet there is one major twist to the story. Harry is happy, radiantly happy. How can this happen? I mean if there are people who have passed through all sorts of heartbreaking episodes and hardships but are happy, what’s their story? Conversely, if there are people (and lots of them) who have acquired all sorts of merit, possessions, and good fortune yet is deeply unhappy, what does this say about finding happiness?
Finding happiness by losing old mental models:
One major flaw in the way we live our lives is that we have learned how to be unhappy rather than how to be happy. We have built certain mental models of our reality and these limit us or lead us astray from finding real happiness. Naturally this leads us to the understanding that finding happiness requires us to unlearn certain things and look for it in different pathways. It requires us to look into flaws in our belief system and change them.
One of these mental models we adopt is the belief that we need to reach a certain goal or outcome to be happy, the so-called ‘if-then model’ (if this happens then I will be happy). For example that we should get a better income, financial freedom, recognition of our work, sexier bodies, satisfying relationships and so on. It’s always something around the corner which needs to happen first before we reach happiness.
I know you have many times got to the realization yourself that it just doesn’t work that way. Once you reach that corner there is always another corner to reach. Happiness is not found in anything outside ourselves. We already have all the material at hand to be happy. It’s a matter of shifting our perspective and beliefs completely.
Some mental models to take note of and debunk:
• Happiness is the pleasure: No. Pleasure is instant gratification – physical or mental. Happiness is knowing that you are where you should be or accepting that you are not and doing your best while you’re there.
• Happiness is comfort or security: We live most of our lives in constant security threats – our jobs, our children out at night, our health, etc. The truth is that security or lack of it is based on perception. Happiness is living well in a very unstable world.
• I don’t deserve happiness: Yeah, says who? Another human quirk – self-inflicted limitation. Happiness is for everyone, wherever you come from, whatever you did and no matter what’s your idea. Happiness is open-source.
• It’s impossible to find happiness in this world: Another example of self-limiting beliefs. Wrong. Happiness is as possible to find as unhappiness.
• People who reached their goals are invariably happy: Again, says who? People who reached their goals are not happy because they reached their goals. On the contrary, some are eternally dissatisfied and keep on seeking, other goals in life – a real source of unhappiness. But yes some people found happiness while reaching those goals since they were living their true purpose and enjoying every moment of it. Their eyes were on the doing and not on the reaching.
Finding Inner Happiness Through Finding Inner Peace
So many stories around us, like that of Harry, seem to point at the overlooked obvious – that you will only find happiness within yourself. Well, that’s very good news since you don’t need to look far away to find happiness – like for example running after expensive, energy-consuming and ultimately unsatisfying goals. It’s there right within you. As scientist Zen Buddhist Jon Kabat-Zinn perfectly immortalized in one of his book titles: “Wherever you go, there you are.”
When life rocks your boat to the point of wrecking it or when the proverbial crap hits the ceiling fan you will reach a y-point which will either make you or break you. So many people like Harry managed to find happiness & inner peace through the most turbulent and upsetting moments of their lives by making use of their internal resources, by finding happiness within rather than in external points of reference.
The key to happiness, or, in other words, that of finding true inner happiness, is by finding your inner peace – that center of calm inner knowing which is the real source of your being rather than those mental projections or models imposed by your social background.
There are many pathways to find your inner peace but before I start sounding too metaphysical I’d reckon that the greatest and shortest path is that of acceptance. Let go of your expectations, inner struggle, and frustrations when things don’t turn out exactly, the way you want them. Acceptance is an extremely powerful tool to finding inner happiness. It shouldn’t be confused with resignation or passiveness.
We often fail to understand the power of acceptance because it comes from the heart, not the mind. Its power, in fact, comes from transcending the resistance and inner currents of the restless mind which are often the source of our anxieties, stress, and inner conflict.
Acceptance is when we drop all, our mental models (like the if-then model), often in a moment of clarity or awareness where we become conscious that there is another life outside this madness, outside this huffing and puffing trying to acquire one goal after the other in the wrong belief that there is an ultimate goal post called happiness somewhere on the finishing line.
Ask yourself – how much of what’s going on in your life do you accept? Are you constantly feeling you should be at some other point in your life? Or do you somehow feel at peace with all aspects of your life and make use of them with all their limitations?
Other pathways to inner peace:
• Compassion: Some people admirably manage to find the time and energy to help other even when they are facing rough seas themselves. Even though this comes out from an act of compassion and selflessness, it is also a doorway to their own inner peace. In fact although it seems quite hard to do in moments when we are down and out, giving attention to others’ needs is a way of getting ‘out of your head’ which, ironic as it sounds, is a fast remedy to unhappiness.
• Seek the support of others: Well, it works both ways too. Helping others is a way to shift your center of attention away from your ailments. However seeking any form of support from others is a way of finding reinforcement and encouragement and is highly recommendable.
• Be grateful to everything around you: Because we so often forget of the little miracles happening around us on a daily basis. We only think about what’s missing instead of counting our blessings. Being thankful to life is not some wishy-washy magical spell that washes away all your troubles. Rather it is an exercise in which you become aware of the positive and meaningful things happening in your life, a real booster.
1. Can I relieve your stress in any way?
One thing all writing manuals say is “SHOW, don’t TELL”. Words aren’t all that helpful to a person struggling with depression. So what I found most comforting when I couldn’t pull myself up by my bootstraps is when a friend came over and fixed me lunch, or when someone offered to tidy up my place. I realize that sounds a tad pampered and self-indulgent.
2. Is there something I can do for you?
Again, like number one, this is a SHOW, not TELL moment, and those are very effective at communicating compassion. The chances are that the depressed person will just shake her head as she cries, but I can assure you that she will register your offer in that place instead her heart that says, “This person cares about me.”
3. Can I drive you somewhere?
Here’s something that most people don’t know about folks battling depression: they are really bad drivers. REALLY bad. Bad driving is an easy way to diagnose a mood disorder. So, this suggestion is not only to help out your depressed friends who maybe do need some fish oil or tissue paper from the drug store, but also all the other people on the road.
4. Where are you getting your support?
Notice the difference between saying, “Are you going to any support group meetings?” which implies, “If you aren’t, you are one lazy who deserves to be depressed.” And “Where are you getting your support?” which says, “You need some support. Let’s figure out a way to get it.”
5. You won’t always feel this way.
That was the perfect sentence that I could hear 50 times a day when I wanted out of this world. Those words don’t judge, impose, or manipulate. What they do is convey hope, and HOPE is what keeps a person alive, or at least motivated to get to the next day to see if the light at the end of the tunnel is really a place of rebirth or a friggin’ freight train.
6. What time of day is hardest for you?
This one is brilliant. Call twice a day, once in the morning–because depression is usually most acute upon waking (“Crap, I’m still alive.”)–and at about 3 or 4 in the afternoon when blood sugar dips and anxiety can take over. Mind you, you don’t have to say a whole lot, but knowing that they could count on you during those two times is a little bit like holding someone’s hand through a dangerous intersection.
7. I’m here for you.
It’s simple. It’s sweet. And it communicates everything you need to say: I care, I get it, I don’t really understand it, but I love you, and I support you.
That’s the most uncomfortable one because we always want to fill in the silence with something, even if it’s weather talk. But saying nothing … and merely listening … is sometimes the very best response, and the most appropriate. I love this passage from Rachel Naomi Remen’s bestselling book Kitchen Table Wisdom:
“I suspect that the most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention. And especially if it’s given from the heart. When people are talking, there’s no need to do anything but receive them. Just take them in. Listen to what they’re saying. Care about it. Most times caring about it is even more important than understanding it.”
Stress is inevitable. It walks in and out of our lives on a regular basis. And it can easily walk all over us unless we take action. Fortunately, there are many things you can do to minimize and cope with stress. Here are 10 ideas for handling stress without causing more strain and hassle.
1. Figure out where the stress is coming from.
Oftentimes, when we’re stressed, it seems like a big mess with stressors appearing from every angle. We start to feel like we’re playing a game of dodgeball, ducking and darting so we don’t get smacked by a barrage of balls. We take a defensive position, and not a good one at that.
Instead of feeling like you’re flailing day to day, identify what you’re actually stressed about. Is it a specific project at work, an upcoming exam, a dispute with your boss, a heap of laundry, a fight with your family?
By getting specific and pinpointing the stressors in your life, you’re one step closer to getting organized and taking action.
2. Consider what you can control—and work on that.
While you can’t control what your boss does, what your in-laws say or the sour state of the economy, you can control how you react, how you accomplish work, how you spend your time and what you spend your money on.
The worst thing for stress is trying to take control over uncontrollable things. Because when you inevitably fail — since it’s beyond your control — you only get more stressed out and feel helpless. So after you’ve thought through what’s stressing you out, identify the stressors that you can control, and determine the best ways to take action.
Take the example of a work project. If the scope is stressing you out, talk it over with your supervisor or break the project down into step-wise tasks and deadlines.
Stress can be paralyzing. Doing what’s within your power moves you forward and is empowering and invigorating.
3. Do what you love.
It’s so much easier to manage pockets of stress when the rest of your life is filled with activities you love. Even if your job is stress central, you can find one hobby or two that enrich your world. What are you passionate about? If you’re not sure, experiment with a variety of activities to find something that’s especially meaningful and fulfilling.
4. Manage your time well.
One of the biggest stressors for many people is the lack of time. Their to-do list expands while time flies. How often have you wished for more hours in the day or heard others lament their lack of time? But you’ve got more time than you think, as Laura Vanderkam writes in her aptly titled book, 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think.
We all have the same 168 hours, and yet there are plenty of people who are dedicated parents and full-time employees and who get at least seven hours of sleep a night and lead fulfilling lives.
5. Create a toolbox of techniques.
One stress-shrinking strategy won’t work for all your problems. For instance, while deep breathing is helpful when you’re stuck in traffic or hanging at home, it might not rescue you during a business meeting.
Because stress is complex, “What we need is a toolbox that’s full of techniques that we can fit and choose for the stressor in the present moment,” said Richard Blonna, Ed.D, a nationally certified coach and counselor and author of Stress Less, Live More: How Acceptance & Commitment Therapy Can Help You Live a Busy Yet Balanced Life.
6. Pick off the negotiable tasks from your plate.
Review your daily and weekly activities to see what you can pick off your plate. As Vanderkam asks in her book: “Do your kids really love their extracurricular activities or are they doing them to please you? Are you volunteering for too many causes and so stealing time from the ones where you could make the most impact? Does your whole department really need to meet once per week or have that daily conference call?”
Blonna suggested asking these questions: “Do [my activities] mesh with my goals and values? Am I doing things that give my life meaning? Am I doing the right amount of things?”
Reducing your stack of negotiable tasks can greatly reduce your stress.
7. Are you leaving yourself extra vulnerable to stress?
Whether you perceive something as a stressor depends in part on your current state of mind and body. That is, as Blonna said, “Each transaction we’re involved in takes place in a very specific context that’s affected by our health, sleep, psychoactive substances, whether we’ve had breakfast [that day] and [whether we’re] physically fit.”
So if you’re not getting sufficient sleep or physical activity during the week, you may be leaving yourself extra susceptible to stress. When you’re sleep-deprived, sedentary and filled to the brim with coffee, even the smallest stressors can have a huge impact.
8. Preserve good boundaries.
If you’re a people-pleaser, saying no feels like you’re abandoning someone, have become a terrible person or are throwing all civility out the window. But of course, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Plus, those few seconds of discomfort are well worth avoiding the stress of taking on an extra activity or doing something that doesn’t contribute value to your life.
One thing I’ve noticed about productive, happy people is that they’re very protective of their time and having their boundaries crossed. But not to worry: Building boundaries is a skill you can learn.
9. Realize there’s a difference between worrying and caring.
Sometimes, our mindset can boost stress, so a small issue mushroom into a pile of problems. We continue worrying, somehow thinking that this is a productive — or at least inevitable — response to stress. But we mistake worry for action.
Clinical psychologist Chad LeJeune, Ph.D., talks about the idea of worrying versus caring in his book, The Worry Trap: How to Free Yourself from Worry & Anxiety Using Acceptance & Commitment Therapy. Worrying is an attempt to exert control over the future by thinking about it, whereas caring is taking action. When we are caring for someone or something, we do the things that support or advance the best interests of the person or thing that we care about.
LeJeune uses the simple example of houseplants. He writes: “If you are away from home for a week, you can worry about your houseplants every single day and still return home to find them brown and wilted. Worrying is not watering.”
Similarly, fretting about your finances does nothing but get you worked up (and likely prevent you from taking action). Caring about your finances, however, means creating a budget, paying bills on time, using coupons and reducing how often you dine out.
Just this small shift in mindset from worrying to caring can help you adjust your reaction to stress. To see this distinction between worrying and caring, try this activity where you can list responses for each one. For example:
Worrying about your health involves…
Caring about your health involves…
Worrying about your career involves…
Caring about your career involves…
10. Embrace mistakes—or at least don’t drown in perfectionism.
Another mindset that can exacerbate stress is perfectionism. Trying to be mistake-free and essentially spending your days walking on eggshells is exhausting and anxiety-provoking. Talk about putting pressure on yourself! And as we all know but tend to forget: Perfectionism is impossible and not human, anyway.
As the researcher, Brene Brown writes in her book The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, “Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth and it’s not self-improvement.”
Nothing good can come from perfectionism. Brown writes: “Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction and life-paralysis [‘all the opportunities we miss because we’re too afraid to put anything out in the world that could be imperfect’].”
Plus, mistake-mistaking can lead to growth. To overcome perfectionism, Brown suggests becoming more compassionate toward yourself. I couldn’t agree more.
The act of opening your heart is a bond of trust. It is the act of sharing the whims of the heart. You trust that you are being listened to and that the person has an honest response. Opening your heart is not about good reception or making things better, it’s about making yourself understood.
- It’s not about you. You know yourself, your heart and your love, they don‘t. The first thing you need to know about opening your heart is that you don’t do it for yourself. Don’t expect a particular outcome; the truth is your goal.
- Groundwork. You need to ensure that you are being listened to. When you open up to another person about your love, make sure that you have their total attention, make sure they are listening to you. Miscommunication is a pointless pain.
- Be honest, even if you don’t know what you feel or want. If they care, they will help you sort through whatever mess your heart is in.
- Ask for honesty. Show your expectation of mutual trust.
- Whatever happens, walk away with pride knowing you honored yourself, your feelings, and your relationship with the other person. Nothing is beautiful as honest love.
- Do it for them, not yourself.
- Don’t expect anything, but the truth.
First, let’s get some terminology straight. ‘Severe depression’, ‘major depression’ and ‘clinical depression’, are terms that tend to be used interchangeably to mean the same thing.
What these terms refer to is the condition described technically by psychiatrists as ‘major depressive disorder’. Therefore as we discuss the symptoms of major depressive disorder in this article, bear in mind that we are looking at what may also be called:
• Major Depression Symptoms
• Clinical Depression Symptoms, and
• Symptoms of Severe Depression.
The Symptoms of Severe Depression – The Technical Version
A person is suffering from major depressive disorder or (severe or clinical depression) if for most of the day, nearly every day for at least 2 weeks, they have had at least 5 of the following symptoms, including (1) and/or (2):
1. A low/depressed mood.
2. Significantly less interest in and pleasure from usual activities (this is called “Anhedonia”).
3. Significant change in appetite or weight.
4. Inability to sleep or sleeping more than usual.
5. Fatigue, loss of energy.
6. Feelings of guilt or worthlessness.
7. Lethargy or hyperactivity.
8. Difficulty concentrating or making decisions.
9. Recurring thoughts of suicide or death.
Now, let’s break that down a bit.
First, it is important to note that low mood and/or loss of pleasure or interest in usual activities (Anhedonia) must be present.
In effect these are the threshold conditions. Doctors are sometimes recommended to screen for depression by asking questions to establish whether either of these two conditions are present.
If you are suffering from low mood and Anhedonia, then the next consideration is whether 3 of the other listed symptoms are present.
If you are suffering from either low mood or Anhedonia, then 4 of the other symptoms need to be present.
The next step relates to the duration of symptoms. The relevant symptoms must have been present every day for at least two weeks and must have been felt for most of every day.
Of course you may in fact have been suffering for much longer than two weeks or have had more than one episode where the symptoms have been present for at least two weeks. This is really the norm, of course – we don’t usually go to our doctor two weeks and one day after starting to feel depressed.
The final step that I didn’t refer to above, but which it is crucial to consider, is that your symptoms must be a change from your normal state and have a significant impact on your day to day functioning. The symptoms must: “cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.”
If you think about it, this is what is at the heart of an individual’s experience of depression. It is the inability to function normally that takes us out of the ‘feeling down’ camp into a whole new arena.
Symptoms of Severe Depression – The Real Life Version
Whilst it is useful for you to know the technical framework that doctors use to assess depression, the criteria may not necessarily reflect your own descriptions about the way you feel. We can all experience different symptoms or express them in different ways, both to ourselves and others.
Depression – what is it?:
“Diagnosis by counting is a totally absurd, and often very dangerous, proposition. When it works, we arrive at a very rough indicator of what may be wrong with us. Too often, the exercise is wholly misleading.”
For this reason, doctors assessing a patient for depression (assuming that are doing a thorough job) should ask lots of questions about the way the patient feels and look for examples of behavior that may or may not fit into the accepted criteria.
Some of the other ways that you might use to describe the way you feel, but which in substance may still fit within the technical criteria are as follows:
• Feeling flat
• Feeling very down
• Feel like I don’t care about anything
• Having to make a real effort to do anything
• Can’t really feel anything any more
• Don’t care about the things I used to
• Feel very on edge
• Feel very stressed
• Very irritable
• Can’t think straight
• Can’t make up my mind about anything
• Don’t feel like I can go on
• Feel useless
• Feel hopeless
• Don’t see any future
• Don’t see the point of anything
• Can’t get out of bed
• Don’t want to see anybody
• Don’t want to talk to anybody
• Can’t sleep
• Can’t eat
• Can’t stop eating
• Don’t have any energy
• Feel exhausted
If you feel that something is not quite right with your moods or the way that you feel, you need to be aware that there are various different types of depression and other behavioral or mood disorders. So, if your situation doesn’t reflect the symptoms of severe depression, then you or your doctor should consider whether any of the other possibilities might apply.
These include –
• Dysthymia (milder, prolonged depression)
• Bi-polar disorder (formerly manic depression)
• Adjustment disorder with depressed mood (a depressive reaction to a particular event or stress)
The symptoms of severe depression will usually be very clear to you if you stop to think about how you feel.
But, one of the major difficulties with depression, of course, is that it takes away our inclination to take action to put things right – we can just feel ‘too depressed’ to do anything about it.
That’s why it is essential that you discuss how you feel with somebody close to you, as they may be able to help you get the attention you need.