Dr. Geri-Lynn Utter, PsyD. - Finding joy and happiness

Why are joy and happiness so important for our mental health?

On World Mental Health Day (October 10), people across the globe shine a light on mental health. This year, it’s got me thinking about joy and happiness, and how important it is to experience these emotions in our life. Joy is an emotion that doesn’t get the attention it deserves as it relates to its influence on the human psyche.

I wouldn’t consider myself an authority on finding joy, but I do strive to live my life in a way that allows me to experience and feel joy. As a psychologist, I spend my life learning about what makes people tick, and I’ve noticed a pattern as it relates to feelings and emotions. People put a significant amount of pressure on themselves to try and attain a constant state of happiness. What is up with that?

As humans, we’re made up of a library of emotions and feelings that can fluctuate within days, hours, and even minutes. It’s OKAY to have a bad day, and I encourage you to not feel bad about it. Even the best of us feels rubbish sometimes. The goal is to try to sit with the emotion, accept how you are feeling and do your best to not let it consume you.

How can we find joy and happiness?

Experiencing feelings of joy and happiness isn’t something that comes from the outside world – it comes from within. Many of us play out scenarios in our heads that we believe will make us happy, like, “If I could just get out of debt, I will be happy,” or, “If I win the lottery, all of my problems will be solved, and I’ll be happy.”

Living your life in a way that neglects your own values, beliefs, and goals will not afford you the opportunity to feel happy. Being rich and having an unlimited supply of money will not bring you genuine joy. Of course, being able to buy a brand-new sports car, put the top down and drive along the Amalfi Coast sounds like a dream for many (it’s one of mine!), but what allows you to truly enjoy these experiences in life is having a solid foundation in how you feel about yourself.

Why are we seeing an increase in substance misuse?

When it comes to drug and alcohol addiction, there are many ideas related to why we are seeing such an increase in abuse, and one idea is that people are abusing drugs and alcohol to feel better, feel happy and get relief from sadness, loneliness, and high levels of stress. In other words, people may be “self-medicating” mental health concerns like depression and anxiety by abusing drugs and alcohol. Dealing with depression, anxiety, and trauma on your own can lead to subconscious drug and alcohol abuse.

What five things can we do to experience more joy and happiness?

1) Self-love and acceptance: You’re probably thinking to yourself, “What is this quack talking about, this sounds a little too corny for me.” Just bear with me for a minute. Joy and happiness are feelings and emotions that you cannot truly experience until you can look in the mirror – love, respect and accept the reflection staring back at you. Joy and happiness come from within, not from the outside. A brand-new Aston Martin DB11 or Brazilian Butt Lift (BBL) will make you feel good, but it doesn’t last. None of us are perfect or infallible. We all have imperfections, tendencies, or character traits that we don’t like or wish we didn’t have (no matter who we are), and that is okay. In this life, striving for perfection might sound attainable, but we are too often left feeling like we failed. Learning how to love and accept yourself with all your flaws and shortcomings will afford you the opportunity to experience true joy.

2) Try to appreciate things that we often take for granted: I’ll share a personal story that I’m sure may resonate with you. A little over a month ago, I got sick. I was suffering with headaches and fatigue. One morning, I woke up and could not smell or taste my coffee. You see where this is going, right? So, I went to urgent care, got tested for COVID-19 and, surprise – it was positive! Then my mind turned against me and started playing out “worst case scenarios.” I’ll spare you all the details.

Shortly after, I was able to reign in my catastrophizing thoughts. However, the loss of taste and smell was maddening for me, as I am sure it can be for many. Eating your favorite meal or dessert, savoring your first sip of morning coffee or tea, even smelling the summer air after a rainstorm, are life’s happy pleasures that I took advantage of until I couldn’t smell or taste anything. Your health (both physical and mental) as well as something like your senses are all things we tend to take for granted – but they largely contribute to our happiness. Try to remember those little things.

3) Be present: I think a lot of us live life in the “once I get this, I’ll be happy” or “once this happens, I’ll be happy” mindset. In fact, I’m guilty of this myself. I remember when I was studying for my licensure exam, I would say to myself, “Once you get your license, you will be easier on yourself because you made it!” Well, that was rubbish, because once I got my license, I didn’t skip a beat and began piling on the next thing that I thought would make me happy or bring me joy. Rather than always looking for the next thing that will bring you joy, try this – stop, breathe, and take a brief inventory of what you have today. What is it that brings you joy and happiness right now? It doesn’t have to be something extravagant. It can be something as simple as taking your dog for a walk or spending time with a good friend.

4) Life is too short. Take the vacation: Seriously, what are you waiting for?! Again, I am the first to raise my hand high because I, too, am guilty of this. It’s like I am always putting off opportunities that will bring me happiness or joy because I don’t feel worthy enough to accept them yet. It’s almost as if there is this arbitrary scoreboard in my mind based on subjective measures of success (like a promotion or a raise) that are being tallied-up to determine if I am good enough to do something enjoyable for myself. I swear, most of the time we are our own worst enemies!

5) Let it go, and don’t you dare let someone or something steal your joy: What does that mean? Often, it is our own internal dialogue or perceptions that we allow to make us feel sad, disappointed, or frustrated. We “play the tapes” in our minds of what we believe other people think of us. And many times, we tend to lean on the worst-case scenario. I don’t know if you have heard this saying, but it is one that I think drives this point home: “What people think of you or how they feel about you is none of your business!” In other words, the way you feel about yourself holds the most power in how you feel. If you can look at yourself and say, “Not too shabby, I like me. I know I have my flaws, but I like who I am, and feel worthy of the good things that I get to experience in life,” you are well on your way to experiencing joy.

Now, here’s my disclaimer for these five tips to live with more joy and happiness. It is okay to have a day when you are in a bad mood or don’t feel happy. We are human and part of the human condition is experiencing an array of emotions. And boy do I have news for you…some of the emotions we experience? They stink. And that’s alright. We aren’t wired for happiness 100% of the time. In fact, if we were, I don’t think we would be able to appreciate or even recognize joy and happiness without the absence of pain and suffering.

What advice can you give to someone who may be struggling?

Don’t be embarrassed or ashamed to reach out for mental health treatment. Therapy is an opportunity to get to know yourself better, so you’re better equipped to handle life’s challenges. You don’t have to struggle in silence.

“Experiencing feelings of joy and happiness isn’t something that comes from the outside world – it comes from within."


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