Feeling blue? The myth of subjective well being.


Quite often I read articles and listen to people explaining how "being a glass half full kind of person" is the key to immediate success. There seems to be a widespread idea that well being and satisfaction are subjective, and that happiness depends solely on our own outlook in life.

Well, my dear friends, this is simply not true. While a person with a positive outlook in life is more likely to succeed, it is also true that someone who lives a good life is more likely to be positive – which one comes first? 

Certainly, people who tend to have internal locus of control - who feel in control of their own lives - are generally happier and more successful than those with an external locus of control. However, it is not enough to "cheer up!" in order to lead the life we want!

I have often fell for this trap:

1 - "I feel so miserable!"

2 - "Think positive, think positive, think positive."

3 - "Ohhh nooooo! Now I feel even worse because I feel miserable and it's all my fault! I am failing at being happy! And I'm so selfish as well! All those unhappy people getting on with their lives, and I am here crying over nothing! Buaaaa!"


No matter the amount of positive feelings and resilience, your happiness is going to be impaired if the circumstances are unfavourable. Something as common as lack of sunlight, a stressful job or constant arguments at home can lead to the body being in permanent fight or flight mode, leading to physical and psychological harm. 

It certainly is important to keep things into perspective, but it is also vital to take our anxiety seriously and understand what is the underlying cause.

Step 1 - What is causing this?

Analyse your life carefully. When did you start feeling sad/ anxious/ irritable? What changed? Did the weather change? Do you have a new colleague? Did you stop exercising? Are you sleeping less? Is your partner stressed out? Whatever it is, try to get to the root of the problem. This is a very important step, because quite often little things that we wouldn't even consider have a huge impact on our mood.

Step 2 - Keep it real

Now that you know what is causing your bad mood, put things into perspective. Is this a long term situation? How will you feel in one month? And in one year? If a tight deadline is making you miserable, it is good to remember that once the deadline is met, you will feel much better. If what makes you unhappy is more permanent (for example, if your best friend moved to another city), then it is time to start thinking how to overcome this.

Step 3 - Adapt or change

Some situations are difficult to start with, but once we're used to them, our happiness levels go back to normal. In the amazing book Sapiens, Harari makes an interesting point. He says that if you are to suffer a life changing accident and become disabled, your happiness levels will eventually return to normal, providing you won't be in constant physical pain. Try to understand what is making you sad or anxious - is it something you can get used to? Or is it a sign that something needs to change?

To help you understand this, ask yourself the following questions:

- Have something similar happened in the past? Did you get used to it? For example, if a new flatmate is giving you a headache, it might be useful to remember that you also hated your last flatmate for a solid three months before you became best friends.

But sometimes the situation does need to change, and that change is usually within your power. When I feel low, I tend to have no energy - let alone energy to change what is bothering me! I remember this girl who told me: "I do hate my job, but I get home so tired and fed up the last thing I want to do is looking for another one!" It is understandable to feel that way, but remember - you have the power to do something:

Step 4 - Break the cycle

Once you are in a state of deep unhappiness, it is easy to keep feeling that way. That is why breaking the cycle is important. If you are too tired to act, take a week off. If you feel overwhelmed, stop caring - even if it is just for a few days. Sometimes this is super hard to do - I remember, on my fourth year of university, I was feeling absolutely overwhelmed with work. I had always managed a good work-fun balance, but that year was all work work work. My mum looked at me and said: "You have to start going out again. From now on, go out every weekend." How hadn't I thought of this? Once I started taking a few hours every weekend to be with my friends, to go clubbing, to meet new people, life (and work) suddenly seemed much easier!

Step 4 - Don't blame yourself

Feeling better takes time, and the most important thing is to be patient with yourself. Don't listen to all those silly lifestyle gurus who brag about their perfectly stupid lives! If all it needed to have a good life was to cheer up, we would all be much happier. Take your time, reach to the people you love, and take your mind out of your problems by helping others - it is amazing how much it helps. Don't focus on your faults or on your misery, but don't forget to take your unhappiness seriously. And I hope you'll feel better soon!

Disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional and the text above is based on my own experience only. If you think you might be depressed or have other mental condition, please see a doctor as soon as possible. The advice above is not intended for people battling life threatening illnesses or serious life traumas.