There is this idea ingrained deep in the British psyche that feelings and emotions aren’t important. Stiff upper lip, hold it all in, keep calm and carry on. We just don’t have time for all that foolish emotional nonsense. Well whoever came up with that was an idiot. Our emotions are how we experience the world – if we become emotionally detached and unable to feel the right things at the right times (which is what mental illness does) then we are not really living our lives.
We are living in a world that is perpetually trying to convince us that happiness is something we should be striving for, that we can achieve if we just do everything right. If we meet the right man, get a good job, lose that weight, buy that car, wear those shoes, have a baby, go on that holiday… THEN we will surely be happy. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but this doesn’t work. Time and again we reach our goals only to find that the goalposts have moved, that we are still not happy and now need to do something else to achieve happiness. In my previous post I told the story of how I got myself depressed because I was so terrified of being single forever. Three years later my dreams had come true and I was engaged to my perfect man, but the goalposts had moved; my situation was completely wonderful but I was definitely not happy.
I know plenty of people whose lives are fantastic by the world’s standards but who are not happy. I have also met people who have very little and whose lives are very difficult compared to mine, but who are genuinely content. If happiness was something you could achieve by having lots of money and stuff, then judging by global standards, most people in Britain should be ecstatic all the time. The media is constantly telling us lies trying to get us to be more, do more, buy more, when in actual fact most of us have all we need to be content right where we are. I am getting pretty fed up with the negative, cynical mindset I encounter so often which makes people incapable of appreciating what they have; instead they spend their lives moaning and assuming everyone else should be moaning too. Happiness is not a place to arrive at, but a state of mind. A cliché for sure, but I would rather be eternally swimming in a sparkly rainbow sea of clichés than be cynical and miserable.
Paul expresses this same idea in his letter to the church in Philippi:
‘I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.’
This counter-cultural, upside-down way of thinking is still extremely relevant today, if not more so. I am approaching this from a psychological angle – how we can practically retrain our minds to achieve this state of contentment, but in doing so I don’t feel like I am undermining the God aspect. I think God gives us tools and techniques to help keep our minds healthy, just as he gives us hospitals and medicine to keep our bodies healthy.
I have come to believe that everyone starts off being happy, and that our natural state continues to be one of contentment and peace. In this state we respond to things exactly as they happen – we feel sad/angry/scared when bad things happen but we don’t let them get in the way of our appreciating the good things. Children are really good at this. It’s just that as we grow up our minds become filled with thoughts and feelings that cloud our view and prevent us from seeing and experiencing things as they actually are. Some people’s minds are so “clouded” that they believe that is their natural state. As a Christian this directly links to my belief that a fundamental goodness lies at the heart of reality and existence, and that all the bad stuff – however real – will not have the last word.
Thoughts are not real
When we feel bad, it is almost always because of a thought we’ve had, whether we can pinpoint it or not. Our minds are creating thoughts constantly, all the time, and have the amazing capacity to make us feel, believe and do almost anything. One of the most important things I’ve ever learned is that my thoughts are not real. They are just thoughts, and I am creating them – it is how my mind processes what I see and experience. When I have good, happy, positive and loving thoughts I embrace them and use them fully to my advantage. When I have bad thoughts I notice them, but choose to discard them as not worth dwelling on. A lot of the time I can do this before those bad thoughts start to affect how I feel. Sometimes this is really easy, sometimes it takes all my willpower and attention to discard what my mind is trying to convince me is true. I cannot emphasis enough how much this apparently simple and obvious realisation has helped me – realising for the first time that my thoughts weren’t real immediately took away some of their power.
It is a very difficult thing at first to learn not to trust your own thoughts. Our minds are very good at convincing us that they represent reality. I think of it as a bit like swatting flies. When I’m in a fairly good mood, some thoughts that I would swat away might be something like:
– “I don’t like how I look, I wish I looked more like…”
– “I wish I didn’t have to work later, I really don’t enjoy it”
– “She is a bit self-obsessed, I don’t like her”
– “I wish I was back in …, that was so fun and this is so boring”
– “I’ve always been rubbish at that so I won’t bother trying”
– “I might have a car crash today” (slightly more alarming but I do think this fairly often)
When I’m in a particularly low mood I will be swatting away thoughts such as:
– “I hate living here, it’s so depressing”
– “Everything’s hopeless, why bother”
– “I thought I was happy before but that was an illusion, this is reality”
– “The world is a bleak, meaningless place”
At the moment I’m pretty good at thought-swatting and rarely let them bury themselves in my brain and make me miserable. They are just minor annoyances that I have learnt to ignore. Of course sometimes I do take my negative thoughts seriously and start to feel rubbish, and I then have to backtrack to see where I went wrong. Moods are a natural part of life, but it is possible to learn to recognise them and not take the bad ones too seriously (more on that later). Life is good at the moment so I find this pretty easy. When I was feeling really low I would have to be putting far more effort in – the thoughts were more like seagulls than flies and I would be swatting them from all angles with a baseball bat. Gradually, though, each time I was able to discard the bad thoughts and start to feel more positive – to return to my natural state of contentment.
So there you have it – the first principle I use every day to tackle my over-active mind. I don’t know much about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) but I think it is loosely based on this principle. I learned about it through an American psychologist called Richard Carlson whose books I happened to stumble across when I was feeling particularly low and desperate. My favourite is called ‘You Can Be Happy No Matter What’, but he wrote quite a few based on the same common-sense principles – I would recommend his books to anyone, struggling with mental health or not.
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