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by Gillian Bridge
This sounds such a simple concept, doesn’t it? Not necessarily easy, but simple – and we could achieve it by let’s say, practising mindfulness, or by eating raw foods, or by means of some other utterly ‘now’ lifestyle fad, one which though not necessarily pointless (possibly even healthful), could never actually be the ‘answer to life’ that it’s promoted as being. If it were that simple people might just have created the perfect life even before we, self- important, twenty first century types came along.
In my new book, The Significance Delusion, I inevitably go into all of this in much more detail, but for me that very self- absorption is the reason we’re having such problems at the moment, problems such as depression, anxiety, addictions etc., problems which despite our society’s very great advantages leave us only too often feeling that life is either too challenging, or too futile.
So, what would it mean to move beyond mere survival – that basic condition of going through the motions of life – to reach to a state in which life seems full of flavour, full of meaning?
That word, meaning, is key. It would take too long to go into the full explanation here, but it seems that humans, uniquely have both to feel life has meaning for them, and that they have meaning for others. In other words that there is significance in this life – that they and things matter. However, different people will feel that they matter in different ways, some of which are conditioned by familial influences, some by cultural ones, some even by chemical, hormonal ones. The bottom line, though is that we get a bit of a dopamine spike (a brain chemical that rewards and motivates us) when we feel life matters, and bit of a dopamine drop when it doesn’t.
And that’s what it takes to feel we’re thriving, that sensation that there is focus and satisfaction in our lives. Couple that feeling with the warm glow that another chemical, oxytocin, brings into our lives whenever we feel bonded with others, and then we have a pretty good life – about as good as it gets.
But those feelings should not be confused with two seemingly similar human states, those of excitation and instant gratification. These are self- serving will o’ the wisps which lead us into the mire of meaninglessness and unhappiness – but they are states which are encouraged by the media, and especially by marketing and advertising hype promoting the 24/7 and ‘Because I’m worth it’ culture. Ultimately though encouraging excitability and a need for instant gratification results in ever greater neediness, and ever more effort to stimulate our dopamine systems to produce that reward which we feel we ‘deserve’. Only, of course, we don’t really, and somehow we know it. Whatever suckers our ‘outer’ selves may be for those advertising and lifestyle promotions, our ‘inner’ selves just aren’t taken in. They know the difference between short term gratification, and long term fulfilment.
So, how do we achieve that genuine nirvana, that long term fulfilment that means we are genuinely thriving, and not merely surviving day to day, whilst always desperate for the unattainable dream ?
This is where I have to say that there is no one single, simple, answer. But there are a number of simple, and easily achievable, lifestyle changes which really do work:
- Get, or keep, as physically as fit as possible. Good mental health is strongly associated with good physical health, so: lots of aerobic exercise, preferably out of doors; a good, balanced diet (not one that eliminates whole food groups) that includes mood boosting tryptophans – turkey is a good source – and plenty of veg; and sleep, good quality and with no phones or tablets to disturb it.
- Boost that bonding chemical, oxytocin, by belonging to groups, but especially groups that do community, rather than ‘single issue’ things. Choirs are good, and volunteering in general, but pressure groups are often less good as they create tensions and often isolate one part of a community from another. The idea is to come together as widely as possible.
- Be adventurous – not just open to new places, but to new ideas, too. Get out of any comfort zones and join a debating society that structures rational consideration of other points of view into your life. Do things that involve people not in your normal peer/age group etc.
- And finally, and notwithstanding what I wrote earlier – if there is one thing that matters most, it has to be – don’t think so much of, or about, yourself. Greater use of the first person singular pronoun – that is to say ‘I’ – is associated with greater levels of depression. It is not surprising that with the rise of the ‘me’ culture there has been a corresponding rise in mental health problems, but the association is complex and I cover it in detail in my book.
Think, talk and act as if ‘we’ are more important than ‘I’, and we might just thrive.
The Significance Delusion – Unlocking Our Thinking for Our Children’s Future by Gillian Bridge is out now, published by Crown House Publishing, priced £12.99. For more information please see gillianbridge.co.uk.