The new year traditionally brings an endless stream of articles throughout the media about new years’ resolutions, the latest dieting fads, ways to get fit, and tips for saving money. In more recent years I’ve also noticed increased commentary about mental health. This isn’t surprising. Although for many people the height of summer is their favourite time to enjoy the beach, go on holiday with the family or (in my case) watch the tennis at the Australian Open, for many others January can be a particularly difficult time.
Factors that contribute towards stress, anxiety or depression during December may (or may not) be put on ice during the holiday season but don’t magically disappear when work rolls around or the kids go back to school. If anything, the new year period can aggravate existing problems, for example due to the extra financial burden or family stresses around Christmas and summer holidays. In the UK such factors (plus the dark weather), come together around “Blue Monday”, considered to be the most depressing day of the year which, this year, falls on Monday 20th January. Indeed in 2017 I was interviewed for a feature in The Age on a similar topic, namely why January is commonly known as the “Divorce Season” due to related reasons. https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/not-happy-jan-busy-time-for-divorce-lawyers-as-couples-stage-seasonal-stampede-20170112-gtpyci.html
My own experience in family law has always gone hand-in-hand with an understanding of mental illness and some of the challenges it can present, particularly in high-conflict cases. In wanting to learn more about the underlying science of mental health I also studied a Grad Dip. of Psychology, completing this at Monash Uni in mid-2019.
A few months ago I become a Mental Health First Aider through the charity Mental Health First Aid Australia. This 12-hours course teaches skills for providing initial help to a person who is developing a mental health problem or experiencing a mental health crisis. I thoroughly recommend it to anybody who would like to learn more about mental health including how they might help people in the early stages of mental health problems; to recognise the signs and symptoms of these problems; know where and how to get help; and understand what types of help are effective. https://mhfa.com.au
During some downtime over the Christmas period I indulged in another passion of mine known as positive psychology through a number of books, podcasts and Ted Talks. Technically defined as the “scientific study of positive human functioning and flourishing on multiple levels that include the biological, personal, relational, institutional, cultural, and global dimensions of life” it is more prevention-focused and concerned with holistic wellbeing compared with the traditional mental illness domains of, for example, depression, phobias or trauma. I’d like to share a particularly good Ted Talk by Shawn Achor, a leading researcher in the field. Shawn Achor: The happy secret to better work
In talking about the science of happiness, Achor says the mistake generally made in society is assuming that our external world is predictive of our happiness levels when in reality it only influences about 10%. The remaining 90% is predicted by the way our brain processes the world. He says that if we change our formula for happiness and success, we can change the way that we can then affect reality. He attacks the perception that “If I work harder, I’ll be more successful. And if I’m more successful, then I’ll be happier.” which underlines many of our behaviours. This creates an unattainable goal because after each success the goalposts of what success actually is change. “You got good grades, now you have to get better grades, you got into a good school and after you get into a better one, you got a good job, now you have to get a better job, you hit your sales target, we’re going to change it. And if happiness is on the opposite side of success, your brain never gets there. We’ve pushed happiness over the cognitive horizon, as a society.”
Achor’s solution is to reverse the formula, stating that raising a person’s level of positivity in the present gives the brain a happiness advantage, namely raising our intelligence, creativity and energy levels. In practice, our brains work better as we’re able to work harder, faster and more intelligently. This naturally leads to greater success in tangible aspects of life, careers, and relationships. In short, instead of the traditional “success = happiness” formula we should reframe this towards “happiness = success” in future.
In future blogs I will share more of my discoveries around mental health and wellbeing. In the meantime I can recommend the USA-based National Alliance on Mental Illness. They publish several excellent blogs per week on mental health including general education and self-help techniques across the field. https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog