Intro to Happiness 101

I am a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and have worked in the mental health field more than 15 years. If you search “mental health” on the internet you will get thousands of references to pages on the treatment of mental illness. If you find yourself overwhelmed and go to a treatment facility, you are highly unlikely to be told that you are normal, okay, stressed, but mentally healthy. More likely you will leave with a new identity, “mental health patient,” a diagnosis, and a prescription or two.

I plan to write a series of articles on how we get, and stay, mentally healthy. Mental health is a balance of our physical health, our mind and brain, social interactions, and our spiritual belief system. I personally believe that mental health has happiness, play, spirituality and wellness as it’s solid foundation. In my work as a psychotherapist and case manager, I have worked with all socioeconomic groups, diverse ethnic groups, children, adolescents and adults of all ages, some violent, angry, scared, anxious, depressed, psychotic, some suicidal, homicidal, aggressive, addicted, trauma victims and so on. Some come willingly; others are ordered into therapy by a judge or probation officer. Some are persuaded by by a friend, relative, spouse or boss, making it a condition of a continuing relationship. Regardless, all of these kinds of clients have one thing in common. They are not happy. Happy people do not show up in mental health treatment programs.

“I just want to be happy” is a theme echoed across every treatment setting everywhere I have worked. There is no one version of happiness. Each person gets to decide if he/she is happy or not. Happiness is a choice; it does not fall like sunshine out of the sky. Happiness requires work, intention, decision, willingness and a commitment to oneself. It is taking a look at both sides of ‘the problem’ and choosing to see it as either tragic or ludicrous. There are situations that are truly tragic and will never be anything else, of course, events and losses that can never be brushed aside or laughed off, but…how can we live through those and move on? The same coping skills that help us be happy will help us survive things that may feel unsurvivable.

Happiness has many benefits, perhaps the best is that it feels good to feel good! But it also helps our social life and work life as people tend to be drawn to happy people. Happy people learn better, work better, play better, have a better life expectancy; positive emotions reduce stress, blood pressure and risks of heart disease. Happy people tend to take better care of their health, eat a healthy diet and exercise. Depression, on the other hand, sucks. It clouds every aspect of the person, darkens hope and possibility, drains energy, disrupts sleep, and it hurts. Depression can be managed, and mild to moderate depression can be both treated and managed without medications. In articles that follow I will discuss research that supports that assertion.

At this point I will challenge the readers by assigning homework! One of the fastest and most effective ways I know to produce happiness is to do a daily gratitude practice. I will guarantee that if you write a 10-item gratitude list every night for 7 nights, you will feel better about your life and the world around you. If you are up for some happiness, do a 100-item gratitude list each week for 3 weeks. You’ll be amazed. Why does it work? It encourages us to look at all the good things in our life instead of all that is wrong. Simple enough. Still it is less easy for many people who feel that a pill would work quicker. In the majority of clients who receive this assignment, about 75% initially tell me that they can’t think of anything to be grateful for–if you fall into this trap, let me suggest a few things: a place to live, the ability to think, walk, talk, vision, hearing, friends, pets, a car, computer, hot water for a shower, enough to eat, soap/shampoo, education, music, beauty, children, grandchildren, trees, flowers…surely you can take it from here! LOL

There is nothing sadder than the inability to love life. Life is the first thing on a gratitude list. I love life, and I have learned to love all of life; the past cannot be deleted or edited, and yet it is usually the first thing that a client presents as ‘the problem.’ “I can’t be happy because I had a bad past.” In upcoming articles we’ll debunk that idea! To do that, Acceptance will be the first concept to be addressed. Please let me know if you work on gratitude and what you discover about yourself as a result.