What makes you happy? Why finding moments of happiness is simpler than it seems

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Siena Yates navigates the tightrope to better mental health and makes a happy discovery.

Do you ever go to your GP and just feel personally attacked?

I went recently to have a chat about going back on antidepressants. I managed to come off them earlier this year, but with lockdowns, a tonne of anxiety, a pretty significant death in the family and some major life changes – including an inter-city move – it was time for some chemical intervention. (For a lot of us, there’s only so much that meditation and talking therapy can do!)

At this point in my life and my journey through a handful of mental illnesses, I know self-care inside and out – the real kind and the fake kind.

I know self-care inside and out – the real kind and the fake kind.

The fake kind like treating yo’self; nice meals, sweet treats, mani-pedis, new ’dos and wildly overpriced massages.

Those things are nice, but in most cases, ultimately superficial. They’re what I like to think of as the “Instagram likes” of self-care – all instant gratification and dopamine, but fleeting, shallow and something that leaves you wondering how to get the next hit.

There’s nothing quite like that feeling when, an hour after your Thai massage, the depression kicks in even harder because not only are you sad, you’re down $120 and your back feels bruised and broken.

The real self-care is the harder kind. The kind that actually sucks to do.

The kind you have to work yourself up for and begrudgingly endure knowing that, afterwards, you’ll feel better for it – and really better, not just Instagram- likes better.

For me, that’s mostly therapy, opening up to my family and forcing myself to exercise even when merely rolling out of bed feels like an Olympic effort.

It’s also resting when my body tells me to, spending time outdoors and in natural light, cutting back on stress and work, meditating regularly, and making time to read quietly by myself.

What’s interesting is, because I know those are my tools of self-care, I forgot that they’re also just good things to do in general.

When I went to my GP, he asked me, “What makes you happy? What do you do to lift your spirits?”

It was at this point I started feeling attacked and defensive. For some reason I thought there was a specific answer he was looking for; that I should’ve had a hobby or some type of activity I could point to as the answer to all my problems.

Pottery or painting or gardening or rugby… something. When I didn’t have a specific “thing”, I felt genuinely lost and entirely inadequate.

I asked my mum what her answer would’ve been, but it was something along the lines of “seeing my kids happy”, and short of running off and getting myself knocked up real quick, there wasn’t much I could do with that.

So, because I’m a millennial in 2021, I took to the ’gram and asked, “What makes you happy?” I was looking for ideas; activities I could take up to make me happier. What I got were dozens upon dozens of the same few answers: Family, friends, nature, exercise, dogs (of course), sunshine and food. (There was also the one friend who wrote “masturbating”, and I salute her.)

At first I was disappointed. I felt like I’d been given all the rote answers people know they’re supposed to say. But then I thought about the day I’d just had – catching up with an old friend, walking around the Mount in the sun, treating my whānau to KFC (sorry, Aucklanders!) and patting my dog – and how good I felt.

I realised then that my “self-care tools” were really just all the things that make me truly happy, weaponised against my demons.

It occurred to me that, as we struggle through vastly unprecedented times, a lot of people have probably lost sight of happiness because they were too busy with the pursuit of it – just like me.

There will always be things we want and dream of and strive for, but if you’re struggling now – and honestly I don’t think I trust anyone who isn’t – I encourage you to think about the question: What makes you happy?

If that’s buying stuff and eating sushi, then more power to you, sis. But if it’s just a quiet cuppa outside before the kids wake up, or climbing into a warm bed at the end of a long day, those are valid too. You just have to make sure to appreciate those moments of happiness for what they are.

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