We are living in a time where mental health problems have risen to unprecedented levels.
According to the National Survey of Mental Health and Well Being (2007), one in five Australians across their lifespan (16-85) and one in four young people (16-24) have experienced a mental health problem (depression or anxiety) in the last 12 months. What is of greatest concern is the high rates among young people, a good part of which is due to the social climate they are growing up in. According to a survey by Young Minds, UK:
“Children & young people are growing up in an unprecedented toxic climate of stress & pressure”
We know that dealing with this problem is complex and needs a multifaceted approach, including a paradigm shift away from a society where the top three priorities are looks, education and money. But putting aside that for a moment, I’d like to suggest one simple strategy for dealing with depression and anxiety:
Get a hobby!
Think about the last time you were in a particularly good mood. What preceded that feeling? When we look closely (reflect), we discover it’s often because we had a good day at work, a nice meal with friends, a really good night’s sleep, or enjoyed a nice glass of wine watching the sun set. You see, circumstances can have a significant impact on our mood.
So, why not engineer our circumstances so that they will contribute to helping us feeling better? One way to do this is to find a hobby. Find something that you really enjoy doing and make a point in engaging in that as often as you can.
“Get interested in something. Shake yourself awake. Develop a hobby. Let the winds of enthusiasm sweep through you. Live today with gusto.” Dale Carnegie
Why is having a hobby good for you? Well, there are a bunch of reasons! Hobbies can:
- help you unwind
- help you tap in to your creative side
- help you shift your focus from your worries to something nice (take a break from your life)
- and they can be a great way to meet new people as well.
But there’s another reason.
Have you heard of a concept called flow? Some people like to describe it with fancy words, such as, “The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” but in simpler terms we like to say that it is basically losing yourself in something that you are doing.
The father of the concept of flow is a bloke called Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced me-HIGH chick-sent-me-HIGH-ee – I kid you not!) who as a young man during World War II spent time in an Italian Prison Camp. Whilst there, he developed a love of chess and discovered it was an excellent way to divert his attention away from the horrible circumstances that he had found himself in. He believes it was his deep enjoyment of chess that helped him cope better than others around him in the camp. Mihaly describes flow as:
“being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
You can experience flow in many different ways. It could be engaging in a really physical medium such as tennis, running, surfing or dancing. Or it may be about pursuing something quieter and more creative such as painting, drawing, writing or making music. Or it could be gardening or simply listening to music.
Regardless of how you experience flow, Mihaly suggested there were ten factors that accompany the experience of flow:
- What you do is challenging, but attainable
- It requires strong concentration and focus
- It is intrinsically rewarding to you
- You lose feelings of self-consciousness
- You lose track of time
- It feels good straight away
- You know you can do it (you find the balance between skill level and challenge)
- You feel in control
- Loss of awareness of your physical needs
- Completely focussed on the activity
It might seem too simple to be true, but it significantly impacts your mental health. Don’t believe me? Then consider this: In his book about flow, Mihaly tells the story of a woman with severe schizophrenia, who had been in hospital in the Netherlands for ten years without improvement. Her doctor arranged for her to complete Mihaly’s flow-monitoring program. A timer went off throughout the day, signalling her to complete a mini survey on her emotions, thoughts, level of engagement, etc. Her report showed that her only positive moods occurred while manicuring her fingernails. So the doctor suggested that she be trained as a manicurist. She began to offer manicures to other patients and soon became well enough to be discharged. A year later she was leading a self-sufficient life as a manicurist.
You can’t argue with a story like that, can you? And I’ve seen it personally in a former work place.
The Psychiatric Unit I was working in was relocated, so we decided to turn the grey cement courtyard (that looked more like a prison yard than the court yard of a psychiatric facility) into an oasis with vegetables grown by the clients themselves. The mood in the entire unit changed over the coming weeks as the clients owned the project and took pride in what they were growing. It was truly amazing!
Sadly, the Occupational Health and Safety team decided the new little vegetable garden oasis was “dangerous”, so we had to pull everything out (the danger being, apparently, that someone might pee on the food and then others would eat it). As you might imagine, the mood quickly deteriorated in the unit.
So, now it’s up to you. Go and find your flow!