A hard lesson from neuropsychology and the pandemic into improving how we feel and how chasing happiness really works.
Like many of us, I grew up having a pretty straightforward idea of the things that would make me happy. I went to veterinary school, imagining myself on a "Discovery channel ER" program for pets. The fact that my parents said that I would starve if I chose Psychology might have also played a role in that decision, but really who can blame them?!
I tried to be the best version of a son, brother and friend I could possibly be and played by the rules of the world. As for love? Well, for a gay teenager growing up in a conservative and catholic country I would say love was locked up in the closet at that point but that's a story for another time.
I bought into this idea of what should make me happy and made sure that I chased for happiness by checking all the boxes. Probably that's why I fell into one of the biggest crises of my life when I finished veterinary school and was plunged into the real world, as unhappy as I could be.
"Why don't I feel good If I have done it all?"
I used to ask my first psychotherapist back in 2011. Well, she said, you are not living your life, you are living an idea of a life.
Fast forward to March 2020. We are unable to leave our houses, or see our loved ones and we are all losing our minds to endless online meetings and quarantines.
What was out there that was making us feel better and all of a sudden, we had lost?
As a neuroscientist, I felt compelled to dig a little deeper into this matter of the human mind and that’s when I recognized what my psychotherapist had said all those years ago. Several psychological studies have confirmed in the last decade what is the real core of our well-being and (surprise, surprise!) that old idea that we all bought into for chasing happiness has absolutely nothing to do with it.
Chasing happiness in the wrong places
It seems that that "too good to be true" job, the exaggerated amount of money we crave for, getting married (#couplegoals), getting good grades, or having the latest desirable gadget won’t actually make us as happy. And if any of it does make us a bit happier, that feeling won’t last long.
Basically, we spend most of our lives chasing a list of things or situations in which to find joy and peace but in the end, we are in an endless race of never being satisfied at all. That was clearly me in 2011.
What really can make us happy and improve our well-being is a set of experiences. Making small acts of kindness with others and with yourself. Interacting and connecting with other people (I guess you already figured this one out). Having time to do things just for the pleasure of doing them. Being aware of our wandering mind and reducing these wandering thoughts through any kind of meditation. Keeping healthy habits like sleeping at least seven hours per night and exercising three times a week.
And the recently popular (millennial) motto:
invest your money on experiences instead of things.
Rewiring our brains to make our hearts happier
Our minds are wired in such a specific way that they often deceive us about what we really need to be happy. And we shouldn’t blame them. Sometimes it is just a matter of perspective.
Haven't we all been swayed by an illusion? The challenging part is that knowing this is not enough to make a change to go about chasing real happiness. We need to put some effort and commitment into rewiring our minds and habits to see some long-lasting results.
I have made a list of strategies that were doable since the pandemic started. Almost one year and a half later I recognize how small changes in my routine can deeply affect my mood.
Now I am more aware and able to make adjustments. I drink less coffee, spend less time on my phone during a rough week when I am having trouble sleeping. Just taking time to write a "thank you" note for a long-distance friend as an exercise of gratitude when I am feeling down helps.
I would like to believe that now that we've dealt with social distancing, isolation, and other heart-breaking situations during this last year, it will be easier to recognize the things that truly make us happy in the post-pandemic world.
And to dream of a world where we learn to value a hug from a loved one, a coffee with a stranger that we met on the train, or a little time off from work to sunbathe and simply watch the sunset before going home.
Small moments of joy which become part of our daily routine.
Because even though our brains and society keep selling us old ideas for chasing happiness, step by step, we've come to understand where the true happiness comes from: