Hello my dear happiness nerds, welcome back!
I was just working on a research project on so-called “mental health problems” and I thought part of it could give you some great insights into happiness. But this time framed through the lens of how things can go wrong (in the sense that they cause suffering). It’s a big question and I want to put it in a small post, so let’s jump right in.
Things that contribute to unhappiness, part 1: Biology.
As far as we know, genes influence all of our organs: Our skin, our liver, our heart, and so on. It would be very surprising if the only exception was our brain, the seat of our consciousness and where almost all of our behaviors originate. From my psychological training I know that some children are born more anxious than others, for example, others are disposed to develop extreme personalities in one direction or another. Usually, being extreme in anything has great potential but also comes with risks. Some extreme traits can help with extreme achievements, others can make life more difficult, because society usually accommodates the average person more than the extreme one. Meaning that if you’re born moderately intelligent, adventurous, cautious, and so on, you’ll probably live an okay life by your society’s standards. But if you’re born with a brain that predisposes you to crippling anxiety or addiction, you’re likely to become that, crippled. Of course, in the end it is more complicated than that (and genetic research acknowledges that): Your life experiences, choices, and actions as well as the world you live in matter big time, but I think it is undeniable that one’s brain structures and chemistry matter a lot, too. It’s like when you make bread: It matters how you knead and bake the dough, but the ingredients of the dough itself will shape the bread just as much. Everything changes everything else.
Things that contribute to unhappiness, part 2: Psychology.
What I called “your life experiences, choices, and actions” above is what I mean with psychology. Just everything you think, feel, perceive, decide, and do. In every moment but also over the course of your life, in your unique way. Some decisions and actions will bring you closer to the life you want to live, others will move you towards unhappiness. In the research project I mentioned above, there were many different ideas of how psychology contributes to mental health problems. For example, most people with so-called “mental illnesses” have experienced psychological trauma such as caused by sexual abuse, war, or neglect. Many would also mention poverty here, which I think is important. Other scholars think that our fear of death and the resulting failure to self-actualize are at the heart of the problem. Again others say that being too rigid, meaning, reacting in the same way to the same (chain of) triggers over and over again, is what differentiates psychologically “healthy,” happy people, from “disordered,” unhappy ones. Similarly, again others say that continuing to do certain things even though they don’t help with achieving one’s goals is the real problem. In a nutshell, one could probably say that carrying psychological wounds, not doing the things one actually wants, and being too inflexible in life are some of the biggest psychological things that make us unhappy.
Things that contribute to unhappiness, part 3: The worlds we live in.
From the most private to the most universal, our environments, both physical and social, play a huge role in our (un-)happiness. What kind of family we grew up in, what kind of people we met, the society we live in, the opportunities it gives us and the injustices it commits or tolerates, but also the weather, air pollution, and cityscape as well as the cellular environment of our genes, just to name a few examples. When I was talking about bread earlier, I said that “Everything changes everything else.” To drive this point home: The environment changes how genes are expressed and the situations our psychology has to react to. Then again, for example, our genes change which environments we seek and our psychology shapes how we perceive them and interact with them. It’s a all a big mess, but a few things are for certain: It’s not all biology’s fault. It’s not all society’s fault. And it’s not all in your head. It’s a bit more complex than that. It may seem overwhelming to try to make any sense of it, so I’ll offer you two practical conclusions for you to take home and apply in your life.
The take home message
First, accept the things that make you unhappy but which you cannot change. You cannot change your genes, the family you grew up in, or the traumas you might have experienced. You also cannot change the laws of nature or the stupid look you’ll get from the people who disapprove of the path you’ve chosen (just ask Epictetus). It’s not your fault and it’s kind of unfair, but you’ll have to work with what has been handed to you. To tilt at these windmills will only make things worse for you (and the ones around you). Try to make peace with your history and the world at large.
Second, take control of what you actually can change. Without getting into arguments over free will, you do have influence over much of your biology and environment, but most of all: Your psychology. Do work through your issues, loosen some of your destructively rigid patterns, and be brave enough to pursue what you actually want. Try to be mindful and ask yourself in more and more moments: “Is what I’m doing right now moving me towards or away from the life I want to live?” Seek the environments that expedite your journey. When you feel strong enough, change society for the better, but be aware that such a big old elephant moves slowly and unwillingly. To this end, keep yourself healthy with a mostly plant-based diet, exercise, fresh air, enough sleep, and little stress—this is the part of your biology you actually have control over.
With this, I’ll go back to my day and try to follow my own advice. I hope you’ll join me. Hope you’re all well, much love
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