Dissatisfaction, discontentment, and out-and-out unhappiness are a surprisingly ubiquitous feature of modern life. Mental health issues are a growing public health concern, rates of stress, anxiety and depression are rising sharply among the UK’s teenage girls and the United States has become 5% unhappier over the past 10 years.
All this comes despite the fact that, objectively speaking, modern humans in wealthy countries are probably some of the luckiest people that have ever lived. There are also myriad self-help books, wellness gurus, and “Five Ways to Find Happiness” listicles crowding our cultural landscape. So why do we find it so hard to find a solution to our unhappiness, and is information overload part of the problem?
Finding the Cause
There are many theories as to what is making us unhappy. It might be how marketing creates a constant sense of unattainable desire and fear of social exclusion, the fact many of us spend much of our lives in work rather than pursuing our hobbies and seeing loved ones, or our increasing isolation from community and nature. Or, as is being increasingly suggested, we might just be looking at social media too much.
Whatever it is, many of us struggle with negative feelings – such as stress, loneliness, envy, and worry – on a daily basis. And as many theories as there are trying to explain modern unhappiness, there are just as many suggestions to solve it.
We are bombarded from every side with ideas, advice, and instructions on how to better live our lives. Those who don’t subscribe to a particular religion can pick and choose the bits of spirituality that appeal to them, while rejecting anything that seems too at odds with how they would like to live.
Just One Too Many Ideas
With so many ideas, advice, and guidance on how to live our lives, and this unimaginably vast deluge of information all available to us at the click of a button, is it any wonder that so many of us are frozen into confused inaction? What’s more, the nature of the media and clickbait content is making this even more difficult to assess and sift through with any amount of good judgement.
There’s always the next new trend: the thing the media grabs on to and promotes beyond all sense, before subjecting it to a comprehensive backlash that ensures any good advice is utterly lost.
A couple of years ago, ‘clean eating’ was touted as the solution to all our problems, and wholeheartedly embraced. That was until the inevitable moment where the movement was completely trashed, and cited as the cause of everything from body fascism to eating disorders.
This cycle of extremes, and the Internet-borne impulse to discuss everything in the most polemic ways possible, make it difficult to trust anything. And things get even more obfuscated when you consider that with every trend and backlash, there are vested interests muddying the waters in their attempts to shape opinion one way or the other.
Seeing the Wood for the Trees
So, under the weight of all this advice, how do we find what works for us, and is truly relevant to our own lives? Unfortunately, in order to answer this question, I’ll be adding to the mountain of guidance already out there.
The first thing to do is make efforts to disengage a little. You know how kids are generally carefree and happy unless something immediately and obviously bad is happening? It’s because they have no problem existing in the moment, and tend to take life for what it is. They also only have to trust in one set of rules and ideas – that of their parents – which might not always be ideal, but certainly makes life simpler.
I would recommend meditation to help yourself live more in the now, and give your mind some space from the chattering and assault of information that has become a constant in so many of our lives. It offers clarity, and an increased insight into how your mind works — along with the thought patterns, fears, and worries that tend to dominate.
And aside from all this, it makes some space in your day to simply be. In an age when our smartphones mean there isn’t one second of our time where we needn’t be entertained, informed, or socializing, this is very rare indeed.
You may also consider a digital detox. Rolling news and constantly updating social media feeds are pretty addictive, and a week where you turn your smartphone off (or just turn off the WiFi and data) can help you to stop mindlessly scrolling.
With an end to this stream of information, you won’t always be taking in differing opinions, the next new trend, and what product or idea has fallen out of favor. This will give you the chance to focus, and truly concentrate on finding the things that make you happy, rather than being pulled in hundreds of different directions.
Lastly, it’s important to commit to an idea, at least for a little while. So many of us fall into the trap of believing that an overnight overhaul will lead to a totally comprehensive lifestyle change, where we join the gym, go on a diet, and start painting. Then, when we fail to keep any of this up, we berate ourselves and promise to try again next week, week after week, sometimes for years on end.
The content of our resolutions may change as different ideas fall in and out of fashion, but so often they are ultimately doomed. Instead, it’s far easier and clearer just to pick one thing, and do it for at least two months to see whether it results in us feeling happier and better within ourselves.
This might be using your lunch break to go out for a walk everyday, rediscovering your passion for climbing/pottery/cooking by devoting two hours of your time to the pursuit each week, or promising to read a few pages of a book before bed rather than checking your phone. Yoga is also a great place to start, because it’s a practice that isn’t focused on competition or performance, and something you can dive into whatever your skill or fitness level.
The trick is focusing on and committing to one thing – and not reading 18 different articles about the relative advantages and disadvantages of each habit before finding a new trend to try.
In an age where there’s such a wealth of opinions and information available to us, the simple act of choosing something to wholeheartedly believe in can be a really powerful step towards happiness.
Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Holly Ashby. Holly is a wellness writer who has worked with Beeja Meditation, a meditation centre in London, for three years. They teach a form of transcendental meditation to help people cope with the stresses of modern life, hold meditation retreats, and help those living with issues such as anxiety and depression.