Sunday, 1 February 2015

The Bad Habits of Unhappy People

I do a regular read of things mental health related on the internet. It's partly for my own mental health, but mainly because I like to know what's going in the field, both in Ireland and internationally. This brings me to a lot of blogs. Some are breathtakingly poignant pieces about personal experiences that bring me to tears, some are scientific, and others, like this one, are meant as self-help guides.
Steven Aitchison is a writer and blogger on mental health and positive thinking. He believes that if you 'change your thoughts, you change your life.' He makes it sound so easy...
With contributing authors, the blog discusses all things mental health related.

What I'm interested in writing about today is how bad habits affect your happiness. Steve Roy wrote this post 'Ten Destructive Habits Unhappy People Have' on the site. The idea, is that you can class who is happy or unhappy by how they act/think. In turn, by changing these habits, you can become happy.

I decided to go through his list and try to prove that not all 'unhappy' people share the same traits. Also, I consider myself to be quiet a happy person. This is not conflicting with my depression; I believe you can be generally happy and still have depressive episodes. So here's the list:

1. You live to please other people.
Yes. Okay, this one is me. Not off to a great start here. For so long my happiness came from other people's happiness. Making other people happy. Helping other people. It gave me a sense of achievement and self-worth. But, in my defense I am getting better at living my life for me. I've identified it as a problem, and as such, am seeking to address it!

2. You have an overwhelming fear of criticism.
This is me again. I hate any form of criticism. I once cried when my lecturer told me I got a C in an essay. My tears made him change the grade to a B-, but that's not the point of the story. I hate feeling like a failure. I take even the smallest comment personally and carry it around for days. This is closely linked to living to please others, because receiving a negative comment means I haven't fulfilled that aspect.

3. You engage in negative self-talk.
No one criticises Zoe more than Zoe does. 'You'll never get that job, don't even bother applying'. 'You look really awful today'. But I do balance this occasionally and tell myself I'm brilliant and awesome and of course I'll get that job.

4. You are a glass half empty person.
This might sound contradictory to Point 3, but I am actually a glass half full person. I don't see the worst in situations (normally just in myself), I see opportunity and I hope for the best scenario to play out. Hope is the big thing when it comes to how full your glass is.

5. You let the past dictate your future.
Nope. This one is 100% not me. Yes, it's hard to forget the past sometimes. But I'm quite good at pretending past events never happened (which isn't exactly what Roy meant, I know) and not letting negative experiences hold me back.

6. You are sedentary.
Again, no. I walk 40 mins every day. I exercise most evenings. I go to fitness classes once a week. 9-5 I'm as sedentary as you can get, but I make up for that during the other hours.

7. You are a worry wort.
Roy says 'Do not waste another minute of life worrying about things you have no control over'. That's not very realistic. Everyone worries about something at least once a day. 'I'm afraid the weather might get worse and wreck my hair'. There's also a certain amount of worry that's necessary to keep people safe - I worry about walking home alone in the dark in the middle of the night. Now that's a justified worry. And the article doesn't really classify how much worry is a bad habit, or how much is a necessary part of life.

8. You cannot forgive and forget.
I actually have a problem with NOT holding grudges, so again this one doesn't quite hold for me. There are very few cases (so few that I've only thought of 0.5 of one) where I haven't forgiven someone for what they did to me. So much so I have been called a 'walkover' before. Roy may want to re-evaluate his list and include being a pushover, because I think that's my problem.

9. You are a perfectionist.
Yes, but is that so bad? I need to be detailed and precise for my job. Striving for perfection also gives you something to aim for. Okay, so often you can be a little self-critical, but for me that's motivating and I don't think I've ever taken it too far.

10. You define yourself by your job.
My sister asked me a few months ago whether I live to work, or work to live. I answered, 'Live to work'. Apparently that's an odd answer. But for me, and the line of work I'm in, helping others is a huge part. And I love helping others.

How many of these are you supposed to tick to classify as 'unhappy'?

I scored 6/10. Does this make me mildly unhappy? On the verge between happy and miserable? Roy doesn't actually say.

Is being happy or unhappy really a choice?

In some cases yes. You get trapped in thoughts of fear, worry, self criticism. Roy is right - if you change these ways of thinking, people wouldn't be so unhappy.
But that's oversimplifying the problem. I can't suddenly stop being a perfectionist. Or running myself down. These things take time and effort. And mental illness affects your ability to think rationally, to be able to change your way of thinking.

David Burns' 'The Feelgood Handbook' does address a lot of these negative ways of thinking, and he guides you through realising that a lot of your fears and criticisms are unrealistic. I hark on about this book a lot for someone who hasn't picked it up in almost a year, but I will get back to it eventually. These thought distortions are dealt with through a series of exercises and evaluations to help you recognise and overcome them.

And in my opinion, it's a much more healthy way to look at 'becoming happy'.

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