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The 5 Pillars of Happiness: How to Not Be Depressed

We have all heard the saying that happiness comes from within, and although it seems simple and maybe even dismissive to some… it is true. Happiness is a perspective, a perspective that is influenced by the external world. Therefore, material items and other people can influence happiness, but they do not determine it and are not the source of happiness. Look at research that explores the reported happiness levels of individuals who have won the lottery, their reported levels of happiness do not vary much from those who have not, and this level declines quickly. There is no short cut to happiness, it is hard work that continues throughout the lifespan. However, being unhappy is arguably as or more exhausting, and the act of being happy does get easier as one puts more time, effort, and repetition into it. All that said, depression is a very real issue for many. However, it does not mean happiness is unattainable, just takes more consistency and resiliency.

Many will already know most or all of these five pillars, but few will know truly why. The first pillar is physical activity, or exercise. Yes, I know, you are tired of hearing this; but it is a necessity. Earlier in human history we had to travel mostly by foot, chase down our food, and often travel large distances as nomadic tribes. Now, we can drive through McDonald’s, have any item we want delivered, and take a car or plane to any destination. We used to naturally get plenty of physical activity, but as we have evolved socially we have limited the necessity of physical movement, making it feel more like a task. The problem is that physical activity helps to balance our chemical make-up, help manage inflammation and improve blood flow, manage levels of fat, increase mood through the production of endorphins and other positive chemicals, and expel toxins in the body; to name a few. Exercise alone has been shown to be as effective as many anti-depressant medications and can significantly decrease clinical anxiety. A big part of this is through helping to maintain a balanced chemical make-up in the body and brain.

The second pillar is another well known activity, sleep. Sleep has been proven to be one of the biggest influencers on overall health across the lifespan. When we are born, we need 12-14 hours, as a child it drops to about 9-11, as a teen a solid 8-9, and finally the research shows we need an average of 7-9 hours per night into adulthood. As we age we actually need more again to manage the decline in our body’s ability to heal. But this is not just to feel rested, clear-headed, and have energy. We must have enough time to go through the four main cycles of sleep, so we can hit deep sleep and reap the benefits. Getting the right amount of sleep allows our body to enter a cycle when we release growth hormones to rebuild and repair, and this only occurs during sleep. Also, we must enter Rapid Eye-Movement (REM) sleep to process the events of the day, discard the junk and the negative, and download any new information we learned. A lack of sleep increases the likelihood of developing trauma and decreases memory. The third pillar is nutrition, which is another well-known health marker. Nutrition is important because if we do not provide our bodies with the nutrients it needs then we experience disruption to sleep, fatigue, physical health issues, and poor cognition. Nutrition is tied to numerous health markers, both physical and mental. One other important fact that many are unaware of is that the gut is like a “2nd brain”, producing 90-95% of the 5-HT neurotransmitter Serotonin. Serotonin is known as the “pleasure chemical” and helps to balance the fluctuations in our mood. Our gut requires healthy bacteria, probiotics and prebiotics, in order to avoid inflammation and various other issues. Healthy gut bacteria are linked to memory, behavior, brain function, pain sensations, and learning. Healthy gut bacteria are also necessary for appropriate production of Serotonin, which manages depression, anxiety, and stress. Some of the ways one can boost Serotonin levels in the gut are avoiding foods high in saturated fat, limiting caffeine, getting enough sleep, eating omega-3 rich foods, B vitamins, and meditation.

The fourth pillar is human connection, or socialization. There are three main reasons why socialization is key in managing mood: self-actualization, oxytocin, and being present. Self-actualization means being involved in activities or events that give us a sense of purpose, feeling as though we have a role in society, or our “tribe”. This is important for self-worth and self-esteem. Being involved with others also gives us a sense of being present, and this gives us less time to spend alone in our heads worried about the unknown future or thinking about negatives of the past. Our awareness must always be somewhere, and if it is not focused on our senses within the present moment, then it defaults back into our minds. Lastly, we need to interact with humans to release the chemical oxytocin. This chemical is only released when we interact physically or socially with another human-being and it drives human connection. It is the chemical that makes you feel “warm and fuzzy” when you interact with someone special. So, if you do not socialize with others then there are many areas that are negatively impacted, in turn negatively impacting mood.

For the final pillar we discuss something a little less tangible; self-will. This concept has to do with perception and having a larger view of the world than just ourself. You see, any event that occurs is the result and accumulation of billions of events before it. If someone in 542 BC didn’t talk to that other person then maybe Paul Revere didn’t warn of the Redcoats and maybe America lost the Revolutionary war and I wouldn’t be a therapist writing this now. One slight change in the past could have greatly influenced the present. The point is that we are not in control like we think we are. There are only two things that any human has any control over, their thoughts and emotions. Some will say behavior as well, but behavior is the result of thought and emotion, so this is simply a response to the prior two. Outside of your own body, outside of your thoughts, or perspective, and emotions, you are powerless. However, this is okay, you are supposed to be. The problem occurs when we refuse to accept this and fight to impose self-will where it doesn’t belong, ultimately creating a false sense of control. Stop trying to control anything other than your thoughts and emotions. You can hope and plan for the future, but drop any expectations. Expectations create a false sense of control and create an opportunity to be let down.

So, simple right? Just sleep 8 hours a night, eat great with no sweets, exercise every day, socialize with people all the time, and just be happy and powerless. Yeah, no one does this on a regular basis, it is difficult. It is even more difficult if you are also battling depression, which likes to make every single one of those pillars even more difficult. All you have to do is approximation, which means aim to do as much as you can for each pillar. 5 minutes of exercise is better than no minutes, one less soda a day is an improvement, going to bed early one day a week helps. Ultimately, there are no short cuts, but every little bit helps. It is not your fault that it is difficult. We used to be nomadic and travel often, had to run and hunt and move for our food, lived in tribes and villages and socialized all day, didn’t have fast food and candy, and didn’t have TV to distract us. As society has evolved we have made these 5 pillars become more of a task rather than a staple. So identify a goal for each, then create objectives; a set of “stairs” to reach the ultimate goal.

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