Individualism. The digital age. Success. These are three concepts that describe the world we live in; three concepts that breed hard working, high achieving people. But too much of anything can cause issues, even a world where all our desires are seemingly in reach.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in five adults suffer from a mental health condition. Among 18 to 24 year olds, that stat jumps to 26 percent. You would think that a place where opportunities are endless and instantaneous would make people more content with their lives. But that is simply not the case.
Clearly, there is something we are missing, and after reading countless articles and listening to dozens of podcasts, it has become increasingly apparent to me that many of the causes are not biological; they are tied to the way in which we live. Our food, work, technology use, amount of sleep, and simply our outlook on the world all alter the chemical makeup of our brain over time. And many experts argue that today’s lifestyle and culture are breeding the staggering rise in mental health conditions.
Don’t freak out just yet; there is hope for us. The fact that we are beginning to understand this insight can explain WHY we feel the way we do and HOW we can get out of it before traditional medicine becomes necessary. While there are so many lifestyle factors that play into our mental wellbeing, I am going to focus on a few that have transformed the way I live my life.
The “Loneliness Epidemic”
Humans have a biological need to be with others. Over the course of thousands of years, our species evolved to live within tribes that provide safety and community. If you got kicked out of the tribe, you were probably going to die.
Put this piece of information into context today, where our “tribes” are becoming smaller and smaller, sometimes nonexistent, and you can see why people are more depressed than ever before. Our psychological need for human connection is continually compromised, and feeling isolated from the people around you – both physically and virtually – takes a much larger toll on the body than we realize.
John Cacioppo pioneered the “social neuroscience” field after spending decades studying the effects of loneliness. His research concluded that feelings of isolation within social situations are “lethal”, causing depressive symptoms and increased cortisol levels (stress hormone) that alter the brain’s perception of its surroundings. In Cacioppo’s TEDx Talk in 2013, he proposed three solutions that I challenge you to implement in your life today.
- Recognize if you’re feeling lonely. Don’t deny it.
- Understand what it does to your brain, body and behavior. Remember – it is lethal.
- Respond. Focus on cultivating quality relationships, even if it’s only with two or three people. Digital friends do not count.
Our values are out of whack
I remember being in middle school and thinking that I was a loser for not owning Tory Burch sandals. It literally made me feel inferior to everyone else at 13 years old. I started begging my mom for a pair. I just KNEW that I would instantly be cooler and have more friends once I had my own. Christmas Day rolled around, and I screamed with delight as I unboxed my very own shiny pair of Tory Burch sandals. Two months later after wearing them almost every day, the ecstasy faded. I began to realize how insignificant a stupid pair of shoes was. I didn’t have any more friends and I wasn’t any cooler.
It’s no secret that the Western world has become incredibly obsessed with material items; America spent the majority of its multi-trillion dollar budget on consumer products in 2012 (Psychology Today), a statistic that has undoubtedly increased in recent years. Purchased items can represent status, money and even happiness, but we now live in a society that is becoming increasingly depressed each year. How ironic.
There is clearly an emotional and psychological void in many of our lives that we are desperate to fill. But instead of filling it with quality human connection or an activity that brings us constant joy, we have been conditioned to just buy more stuff.
The next time you feel empty, do something meaningful and long-lasting. Strengthen your relationship with your mom. Learn how to play the piano. Volunteer. Read a book. Something that doesn’t involve a credit card or bragging about your material wealth. If we begin to shift our priorities to the things that satisfy our emotional and psychological needs, lasting happiness is sure to follow.
I’ve talked a lot about this on my Instagram, but I’m going to say it again:
No one is as perfect or as happy as they seem on social media.
An aesthetic feed does not equal a perfect life. It’s SO easy to compare yourself to someone who always seems to be in a freakin’ tropical paradise while you’re spending hours covered in dishwasher juice and sweating through your shirt at work. Trust me, I’ve been there.
To combat this comparison, I urge you to take action TODAY and revamp your online habits. These are some of the changes I made that have transformed my outlook on the world.
- Chill with the phone usage. This is an obvious one, but cutting back on your overall screen time is the first step in escaping the comparison trap.
- Be selective with who you’re following. If you scroll over a photo that doesn’t make you feel motivated, curious or positive in some way, UNFOLLOW. It’s not worth your brain power.
- Don’t try to appear perfect. My hope is that if we all start to be more vulnerable and open online, the trend will catch on. Maybe authenticity will become the new norm.
I will leave you with a quote from the “Feel Better Live More” podcast that inspired me to write this blog post:
“If you are depressed; if you are anxious, you’re not weak; you’re not crazy; you’re not a machine with broken parts. You are a human being with unmet needs. Your pain makes sense.”
– Johann Hari