Life can be harsh – sad and traumatic events have a negative effect on us as they disrupt our world. It is hard to succeed (definition to follow), to become independent – to remain independent when older – and to find purpose and meaning that resonates with our intrinsic beliefs and values.
Sometimes we do not measure up to other people’s expectations – and sometimes, not to our own. We also need to accept the fact that we will not achieve everything that we want to – and we won’t feel our best every day. Sometimes, we just need to understand that it is OK not to feel OK …
It is easy to understand that we feel depressed when we suffer a major loss – the loss of a loved one, or relationship, a financial bankruptcy, bomb an exam, get passed over for a promotion, get fired, get sick or injured, or suffer vicariously when one of our children or loved ones is going through a major struggle. What’s harder to accept is that we may feel crappy for no good reason – even when things are great – like having a beautiful, healthy baby and developing post-partum depression.
Depression is one of the most common and potentially lethal chronic health conditions, especially in young adults. Sadly, suicide has killed more American soldiers than were lost in battle. In fact, one Armed Forces veteran takes his or her life nearly every hour of every day! The USA has the highest rate of depression in world – with a prevalence of 17%. Japan had the lowest rate of 192 countries surveyed at 3%. Canada ranked 21 with a prevalence of 8%.
Twice as many women suffer from depression as men do – and the incidence is higher with neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s, Multiple Sclerosis and stroke.
We know a lot about depression, but can’t predict who will get it – even under similar circumstances. We also don’t know how long it will last – but the younger one is and more often someone has suffered a depressive episode, the more likely they will get it again.
The most important advice is to get help – as depression can be successfully treated in a majority of cases. If you suffer from depression – seek the help of a family physician or psychiatrist – or even a good friend … do not carry this burden alone.
Medications for depression can be effective and even lifesaving – but need to be monitored carefully as they can have serious side effects – including an increased risk of suicide. While it is imperative to work with your doctor for any major medical illness including depression – there is a lot you can do to improve your moods.
The “Home of Happiness” in the brain is our limbic system – or emotional brain. This is what determines feelings, motivation, and drive and affects our immune system. Studies have shown that how you feel is how you heal! The limbic system is a little bit like a young child who listens to everything going on – and then acts accordingly. So how we speak to others and to ourselves affects our limbic system – and therefore our emotions and our health. This is why positive self-talk and behaviours are so important.
Also, sights, sounds (including music), specific colours, smells, being outside in nature all input to the limbic system before they affect the thinking brain. So be deliberate about spending time in beautiful places and with happy people – if you are happy and positive it affects those around you – and even those around them!
In the dark winter months, especially, many people struggle to be happy. The lack of sunshine leads to Seasonal Affective Disorder, it is cooler and damper, one can’t do as much outdoors, and the festive Holiday Season which is a great joy to some, fills others with dread and debt …
So here are a few simple strategies that you can implement TODAY that are proven to help:
- Boost your Vitamin D levels to summer sunshine levels. This may be achieved by taking 1000 – 2000 IUs a day, but in the winter months older adults may need 5000 IU/day. Ideally, you would want to get your Vitamin D level checked and aim for 100 – 150 nmol/L. Vitamin D is essential for bone health, but also strengthens your immune system, lowers the risk of MS and certain cancers – and can lift your spirits!
- Omega-3 fatty acids called EPA and DHA can also be helpful. These are most prevalent in seafood – and krill, as well as the algae that fish and crustaceans eat. The problem with fish is that they often swim in polluted water so they (and their oils) can contain heavy metals such as mercury as well as PCBs. Some people therefore prefer to get their omega-3s from plant sources such as flax, chia, walnuts, and soy. These foods contain omega-3 fatty acids called ALA which can be converted into EPA and DHA, however, only 5-10% is converted. So, if you can get a pollution-free source of the omega-3s that humans need (EPA and DHA) that would be preferable.
- Exercise! There is no doubt that exercise has numerous health benefits and certainly improves mood. In fact, studies on antidepressant medications have shown that overall they are not more effective than placebo or exercise!
- Spend time with positive family and friends – doing things that you find fulfilling.
To boost happiness – remember to SMILE! This not only makes you and those around you happier – but it is a good acronym.
S – Speak positively.
M – Move dynamically – motion creates emotion … sitting still creates stagnation and sadness.
I – Immerse yourself in a positive environment.
L – Look to the positive – cultivate gratitude and contentment.
E – Externalize. We affect each other and we reap what we sow. Connect with and work for others to improve your own happiness.
Love and be loved.
Here are three questions you can ask yourself every day to improve your level of happiness:
- What am I truly thankful for?
- What am I truly excited about?
- What can I do to make someone else feel good?
At the beginning of this article I mentioned success – like happiness, an often elusive goal. How do we define success and how do we know when we have achieved it?
Legendary basketball coach John Wooden said, “Success is the peace of mind that comes from the self-satisfaction of knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.” So live life fully and without regret – just do your best.
It is empowering to learn that we can be the architects of our own happiness and health – or our misery. While bad things do happen to good people, and while we need to love and accept ourselves as we are - it is tremendously important to foster meaningful relationships, seek the good in others and in situations, live lives of purpose and meaning, share our blessings, and remain hopeful and optimistic.
This positive attitude will not only improve our own lives, but that of people around us. Happiness is socially contagious! A smile begets a smile, a kind deed is paid forward – and slowly, the world becomes a better place for all of us.
“And will you succeed? Yes you will indeed … 98 and ¾ % guaranteed!” (Dr. Seuss)
References: Darren Morton, PhD, Exercise Physiologist, Complete Health Improvement Program - CHIP, New South Wales, Australia, lecture on Happiness at CHIP Summit – 24 October, 2015, Hope, BC, Canada. Nutritionfacts.org (search: antidepressants and exercise).