If you’re looking to improve your mental health, happiness seems like a good place to start.
What comes to mind, when I ask you to imagine happiness? What do you think of, when I ask you to describe your ‘joy’?
When I was eighteen, I could have told you in a heartbeat. ‘Happiness’ meant success. It meant fulfilling my ambitions. And (lucky me) I knew just what my ambitions were. I wanted to be an academic, to lecture in English Literature at a top university.
I’d excelled in the subject from a young age, so I was quietly confident. I knew it’d take a huge amount of hard work, but I was sure I could do it: one day I’d have a PhD, and this would make me happy. Success would be my joy.
Reader: this was not my joy.
Because I did it, you see; I got a First class degree and a Masters. I was accepted onto a prestigious PhD program, working with two eminent supervisors. But along the way, I picked up some emotional baggage—and by the commencement of my Doctoral studies, that baggage had pushed me to the brink of collapse.
In November of 2015, just three months into my PhD, I sat in a Doctor’s office and sobbed out my shameful secret: my anxiety and depression were so bad I had recurrent thoughts of suicide and could barely leave the flat.
This wasn’t a case of ‘improve your mental health’. This was do or die. Tablets were hastily prescribed, and a medical note excused me temporarily from my studies. Before long, I was bundled up in the front of my Mum’s Honda CRV, waxy-faced, dry-tongued and sweating profusely from the new chemicals in my system. That winter, weight dropped off my bones like candle wax as I tried to work out how to make my way back to the world of the living.
Eventually, the pills did their job. By Christmas, I resembled something like a human. I had done the work of pulling myself out of the pit. What came next was harder: I had to decide what to do—how to find joy again.
To give myself breathing space, I took a half-year sabbatical from my studies. For the next six months, I dismantled the blocks that made up who I thought I was. In the meantime, I worked in a furniture store. At first, this felt like failure. I felt like a quitter. Just two miles down the road, in the literal ivory tower of Nottingham University, the world I’d worked so hard for continued on without me.
Acquaintances would blithely ask how my PhD was going, and I never quite knew how to explain that actually, I was working for minimum wage after suffering a mental health breakdown.
But strangely, for the first time in years… I was happy. I felt joyful. I worked with wonderful colleagues who made me laugh every single day. I was good at the job; I mean, I do have a passion for cushions and bedding that verges on the insane, so as retail jobs went it was pretty spot on.
The months passed, and the time came to make a decision about returning to my PhD. My pride wanted me to do it—the ego of my 18 year old self. It was so much a part of who I thought I was; the academic, the student, the life-long learner. But then, serendipity struck, as it often does when we need it to: I stumbled across a quote from the marvellous Cheryl Strayed.
‘Don’t surrender all your joy for an idea you used to have about yourself that isn’t true any more.’
This was enough to stop me in my tracks—to make me realise how foolish it would be, to risk my hard-won health by returning to the path I’d been on. Two years on, I still think about this quote regularly. And I stand by the fact we should reassess our attitude to quitting. Because if I could give one piece of advice, this would be it: don’t surrender your joy for your pride. You can improve your mental health by quitting.
We all have an idea of what will make us happy, but so often ‘what we think gives us joy’ and ‘what actually gives us joy’ aren’t properly aligned. How many of us have pursued a goal or a job or a relationship, thinking it will bring us joy—only to discover along the way that we’d made a wrong choice?
This in itself is fine; it’s how we learn. The problem comes when we refuse to turn back. Sometimes we need to quit. I had seen the warning signs even before I started my PhD; I was going down a very dark path, and whilst the PhD didn’t cause my illness, the environment of Doctoral study (lonely, high-pressure, introspective) really isn’t the best for mentally unstable people.
So what stopped me from saving myself sooner? Pride. My ego prevented me from quitting, and having to admit to everyone that I wasn’t capable. (After all, I’d done a Facebook status about getting my PhD funding, which we all know is basically a legally binding contract).
And you know what? That was a seriously stupid thing to do, and had a seriously adverse affect of my mental health. I think it’s a lesson we can all stand to learn. Don’t stay in a relationship that makes you unhappy because you’re afraid of what people will say, or because you’re scared to be alone. Don’t stay in a job that damages your mental health any longer than you have to.
That’s not to say we should quit everything we don’t enjoy willy-nilly: you can’t throw in the towel on your marriage because you’ve had a bad week and your partner’s been a bit of a knob. It’s often important to go through hardships to reap a reward.
But we should keep an eye on the paths we choose to walk down, instead of stumbling blindly on. My litmus test now is to ask: what’s my motivation for continuing? I might keep doing something I don’t enjoy if I can see the positive reward. But if the reason is ‘because I’m afraid/embarrassed/too proud’ to quit, then maybe it’s time to reassess. Not just for the sake of my joy, but also for my mental health.
Because I deserve joy. And so do you.