Herald columnist and Radio Hauraki breakfast host Matt Heath is taking on a new role as Happiness Editor for our Great Minds mental health project. He will share his own insights in his search for wellbeing as well as interviews with international experts in the field.
According to her website, Jacqui Maguire is a clinical psychologist on "a mission to make gold standard psychological evidence and strategies accessible to all New Zealanders". She joined me for a chat last week. Happiness is a subject I'm passionate about. As a result, I punished Jacqui with half-baked theories, crap gags and rampant oversharing for 60 plus minutes. It was great.
Jacqui, are you a fan of happiness?
I am but not toxic positivity. Sometimes life is hard, sometimes you feel sad, sometimes you feel disappointed, sometimes you feel angry and it's okay. Emotions serve a purpose. They drive our behaviour. They help us feel validated about what's going on. Always coming in Pollyanna and half glass full can actually damage your wellbeing.
So it's okay to feel crap from time to time?
There's a brilliant book called the happiness trap by Dr Russ Harris. He's an Australian psychiatrist. He's really the godfather of a type of therapy called acceptance and commitment therapy. Basically, we have to not try and get rid of negative thoughts or get rid of uncomfortable experiences. To live a satisfying life we have to be able to manage the uncomfortable rather than trying to block it all out.
Speaking of uncomfortable experiences. It isn't the hardiest time in history to be a human here in New Zealand. Yet we seem to be more miserable than ever. Why?
I don't have a research paper in front of me, but I'm going to give it an educated guess and go to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. It's a pyramid. You start with your base needs down the bottom. Do you have shelter over your head and food on your table?. The 30s and 40s, for example, were times of depression and world war. Families had their children sent overseas to fight. We didn't have the healthcare we have now. Life was harder from a base needs perspective. If you're living day-to-day, on struggle street, you don't have the headspace to look at pursuing happiness. You're concerned with surviving. As life's gone on perhaps people are in a position of having their base needs met so we look up the pyramid, which is, feelings around relationship and connection, feelings of mastery, and being able to achieve things in life. As you go up, you get more of those psychological needs. As we look at our day to day life now many of our base needs are okay, so we focus on things further up the pyramid. Of course, that is not true for everyone in this country.
Technology and social media do not seem to be helping.
Lots of people are connected technology-wise but are we connected in person as much as we used to be? We used to live in villages. Your whole family was within five minutes of you. Everybody's known you throughout your life. Your solid connections were right there. Now people can feel singular in a community. Like nobody knows them. That's huge when it comes to feelings of happiness or wellbeing. The seeds of identity you have and your connection. The data shows that the number one contributor to happiness, or a good life is relationships. That's over any other factor. We're social beings. It's absolutely critical.
Yes and it seems more young people are locking themselves up and communicating more and more online which doesn't seem to lead to happiness.
There's a piece of research. I'll have to go and find who it is *. They showed 30 seconds talking to someone on the bus, the guy who owns the dairy or your neighbour was better for your wellbeing than all the interaction you are getting online. Then, in terms of wellbeing there's being inside too much. You're not getting your vitamin D. Are you getting good quality sleep? These things have a major impact on your mood. We know that getting outside before about 9 or 9.30 in the day and getting sunlight directly on your eyes produces melatonin, which means that when you go to bed at night, you sleep better.
What is one basic thing we can do for our happiness?
You can ask yourself what are your non-negotiables for a good day? I get people to write them down. I'll put you on the line here. What are yours?
Um… To achieve something at work, spend some time with my kids and do some exercise. When I do those things I don't hate myself before bed.
Now it's useful to ask what gets in the way of those things? Go through and add some practical solutions. If it's time to maybe look at my schedule. Build a habit. Put a certain activity at a certain time of day. There may be a practical solution that will allow you to achieve a non-negotiable. Is the obstacle out of my control? If so look at what you can control and what can't? If things are frustrating, is there another way of doing something that is within my control or do I need to practise a calming strategy so I don't get heated about it?
After being subjected to an hour of unfocused frantic happiness chat Jacquie had to go. Since our discussion, I've been doing her non-negotiables thing. It's been bloody good. For more - look her up.
• * Research conducted by Lee et al. (2011)
WHERE TO GET HELP
If it is an emergency and you or someone else is at risk, call 111.
For counselling and support
For children and young people
For help with specific issues
Alcohol and Drug Helpline: Call 0800 787 797
Anxiety Helpline: Call 0800 269 4389 (0800 ANXIETY)
OutLine: Call 0800 688 5463 (0800 OUTLINE) (6pm-9pm)
Safe to talk (sexual harm): Call 0800 044 334 or text 4334
All services are free and available 24/7 unless otherwise specified.
For more information and support, talk to your local doctor, hauora, community mental health team, or counselling service. The Mental Health Foundation has more helplines and service contacts on its website.