Dr Brock Bastian says we need to toughen up and lead a more fearless life. Here the author of “The Other Side of Happiness” shares his insights exclusively for The Carousel.
One would be forgiven for thinking these days that mental health is equivalent to a cosy throw, a scented candle, and quiet reflection on peaceful thoughts and feelings. From the Scandinavian export of Hygge to the current zeitgeist of mindfulness and meditation, we are told that happiness is found in times of comfort, relaxation, and quiet reflection.
When busy schedules and competing demands feed into the ambient roar of our day-to-day lives, making time for creature comforts and quiet reflection is clearly important. Yet, it is not these activities alone that produce happiness and build resilience. In fact, on their own these activities might be just as likely to make us unhappy and reduce our capacity to cope with the challenges of daily living.
There is nothing quite like the pleasure of taking off your shoes and slipping into a nice hot bath after a hard day’s work. After a while, however, the enjoyment recedes, we get out and perhaps decide to turn our attention to cooking dinner. A hot bath is so fantastic because we worked hard all day and trying to stay in a hot bath eventually becomes tiresome. We need both the pleasant and unpleasant experiences in life to experience happiness.
Sharing pleasant experiences with others is an important source of social connection, but it is when we share our pains; go through the tough times together or perhaps share our personal struggles that we truly connect.
It is our discomforts more than our comforts that bring us together.
Have you ever noticed how your mind is focused when at the gym or running, and how you feel more aware of everything when you stop? Physical discomfort can act like a short-cut to mindfulness – it brings us into the present, and we become less aware of our worries and concerns about the past or the future.
Engaging with adversity, challenge, and discomfort not only has immediate benefits but can also lead to positive long-term outcomes. The concept of immunisation is helpful here. Just as our biological immune system becomes stronger when we inject a small amount of a virus into our bodies, our psychological immune system develops and is more resilient when we expose ourselves to difficult experiences in life. As parents, at a time when our intuition is to more and more protect our children from risks in life, or from physical and emotional pain, we would do well to remember that we may be undermining their capacity to develop strategies and grow. It is perhaps no coincidence that our children are becoming more anxious and depressed.
Western society has developed a concept of happiness that is limited to pleasant thoughts and pleasant feelings, but this view of happiness is simply wrong. We also need to take risks, expose ourselves to challenges and adverse experiences in life, and let our children do the same. This requires that we are sometimes willing to be brave, to take the tough option, but by doing so we will be rewarded and build the capacity to cope more effectively with daily life.