We often hear that happiness isn’t something that just arrives at your doorstep one day, wrapped neatly in a bow. We remind ourselves all the time that it’s a state of mind more than anything else, that it’s a life skill to be developed and strengthened with time, and that it’s always a process. All of which is important and true. But it’s a roof without a structure. It’s missing the most crucial part.
When we talk about happiness as a state of mind, we can make the mistake of thinking it’s all in our heads. As if repeating a feel-good mantra to ourselves a hundred times a day will root out the deep fears and insecurities that fester beneath.
We can all understand the allure of buying into quick fixes. But here’s the truth: you can’t positive affirmation your way to lasting happiness, any more than you can “kumbaya” your way through your minefield of fears. You have to design your life for it.
The Lifestyle of Happiness: Why It’s Not All In Your Head
We were never designed for the sedentary, indoor, sleep-deprived, socially-isolated, fast-food-laden, frenetic pace of modern life.
– Stephen Ilardi, PhD
Now before you get overwhelmed at the thought, rest assured: happiness, despite the colossal industry that’s arisen to complexify every last aspect of it, is actually much simpler than most people imagine.
Hear me out.
The lands that depression forgot
Today, we think of stress, anxiety, loneliness and other mental strains as integral and omnipresent aspects of our lives. In the wealthiest and most stable societies the world has ever known, we’ve gotten to the point of normalizing and trivializing — and when it comes to stress, at times even glorifying — the mental stresses that are causing unprecedented and ever-skyrocketing incidents of mental illness.
Did you know that one in every four Americans aged 18 to 29 has already struggled with major depressive disorder in their lives? For the oldest generation of Americans alive today, those aged 60 and over, that ratio is just over one in ten — for their entire lives. So can you imagine how the millennials’ children will fare, if this runaway trend isn’t stopped?
Now did you know that there are societies in the world with barely any incidence of clinical depression?
Did you know that there are societies in the world with barely any incidence of clinical depression?
This is no exaggeration. These are facts related in an eye-opening TEDx talk by Dr. Stephen Ilardi, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Kansas.
Who are these mystical happy folk who depression has mostly spared? There’s nothing mystical or magical about them, actually. They’re simply indigenous tribes, whose traditional lifestyles, with their intense physical activity, natural diets, embeddedness within nature, and closely knit social bonds mirror the way humans lived for all but the last 10,000 of the 1.8 million years of our existence. In other words, they live the way our bodies evolved to live.
So should we all abandon the cities and return to the land to live as hunter-gatherers then? Probably not, though that would doubtless make for a fun weekend adventure.
What we should do is design our lives as much as possible around the basic needs of our bodies and minds. Positive thinking is in our heads — in the sense that it depends on our brain chemistry. But our brain chemistry is affected by everything we do, from what we ate for lunch, to who we ate it with, to whether we ate it outside or in the sun, and maybe took a walk afterwards.
In short, it depends on our lifestyles. It all comes down to the very basics of human wellness.
Time-tested and true: The ingredients of happiness
Ilardi used his findings to devise what he calls the Therapeutic Lifestyle Change program for treating clinical depression, or TLC for its delightful little acronym. The results proved simply astounding.
But the TLC program doesn’t just provide a drug-free pathway out of depression. It also provides a blueprint for wellness, informed by almost two million years of human evolution. What do we need to be well? Let’s have a look.
We all know exercise is good for us, but many of us might not realize just how important an effect physical activity has on our brain chemistry, and by extension our moods, mental clarity, energy, motivation and long-term health. Physical activity has been shown to alter the body and mind in ways more powerful than any pill you could take. Physical activity, says Ilardi, is “literally medicine,” and yet so many of us struggle to integrate it into our lives.
It shouldn’t be a struggle. If the gym isn’t for you, give yoga a try. If yoga doesn’t pull you in, start biking everywhere, or even just going on long brisk walks. Whatever the activity, find one that draws you in and makes you want to integrate it into your weekly routine. Choosing a form of physical activity that’s social and useful — as opposed to running on a treadmill alone and getting nowhere, for example… — can help you stop thinking of it as “exercise,” and find your joy in the activity itself.
2. Social connection
It’s not an exaggeration to say that our ancestors spent every minute of every day in the company of those closest to them. For most of our history, it was the only way to survive, and so we evolved to find our comfort, leisure, and meaning through our connections with others. Our species is profoundly social and even tribal by nature. We need each other, deeply and daily. In fact, even just being in the physical presence of others has been shown to combat the brain’s stress response mechanism that’s at the root of so many of our ills. Connection literally heals us — just as its absence kills.
Yet in today’s individualist society, many of us spend so much time racing towards our career goals that we sacrifice our social connections, and undermine our own health, happiness — and goals — all in the process. It’s time we got back to valuing what really matters in life.
3. Omega-3 fatty acids
Despite the image we have of our rugged ancestors marauding around the plains chasing wild beasts with spears, the less glamorous reality is that most of our ancestors’ diets came from fish, nuts, plants, and other easier catches. (I mean if you could spare a little energy and the risk of becoming dinner, wouldn’t you?) Our brains are mostly fat. Diets high in omega-3 fatty acids, and in the key active ingredient EPA, have been proven to have significant anti-depressant and mood-enhancing effects.
4. Sleep hygiene
In the rush to squeeze ever more time out of every day, many of us have taken to viewing sleep as an expendable luxury, or an inconvenience to be beaten down on the fast lane to our goals. It’s even become commonplace in our performance-obsessed culture to see high-profile figures glorify sleep deprivation, or try to shame the wise few who insist on good sleep hygiene as somehow weak or lazy. It’s no wonder then that the average American today gets 6.7 hours of sleep a night, while a century and a half ago this number was closer to nine.
Two million years of evolution, and modern science, tell us that the sleep-shamers are both wrong and irresponsible. While everyone’s sleep needs vary somewhat, most people need eight hours of sleep a night to truly be at their best. Inadequate sleep has a major impact on our mood, mental performance and long-term health, and is a major cause of depression. How’s that for a good reason to sleep better?
Anyone who’s ever felt the winter (or rainy-day) blues knows the incredible mood- and mind-enhancing effects of the sun’s rays. Our ancestors lived most of their lives outside after all, so it’s little surprise that our bodies and minds depend on sunlight to function at their peak. People who don’t get enough natural light see their sleep quality, mood, hormonal balance, and energy suffer, and they begin to crave unhealthy foods.
That’s why natural light is so important in workspaces. And it’s also why those of us who live in northern or low-light climates should consider buying a light therapy lamp for the darker months. I’ve tried one, and I can tell you, it’s really night and… day.
6. Anti-rumination strategies
Our ancestors had little time to sit in a corner and dwell on negative thoughts. Our brains are meant to be active. So if you ever catch yourself in a negative thought spiral, break it immediately by focusing your mind on something external to yourself: social interactions, creative hobbies, writing your thoughts in a journal, being in nature — all of these have been shown to have significant mood-enhancing and anti-depressive effects.
Happiness is easy — our lifestyles are complicated
Everywhere we look, it seems people are dragging their feet wondering where happiness went, or else racing towards a mythical future where they imagine it to be hiding out.
But the simple truth is that if we stopped to smell the roses — or better yet, travelled to less fortunate places where the money is scarce but the joy is abundant — we’d find that happiness really isn’t that complicated at all. If our material needs are met, there’s love in our lives, and we’re living lifestyles in tune with the basic needs of our bodies and minds, then all the gratitude, confidence and motivation in the world will flow naturally from that. We need to get back to the fundamentals and tend to the foundations of our lives, instead of perpetually reaching for a fresh coat of paint to paper over an unstable structure.
No, it’s not happiness that’s complicated. What’s complicated are our frenetic, sedentary, and socially disconnected lifestyles.
Just don’t blame happiness for playing hard to get.