The 5 Pillars of Happiness

Hello, long time no write. I have several unfinished drafts on here that I never felt were good enough to post. But today I am bringing this blog back from the dead because, well, I need it again.

I’ve been depressed. I thought the cause was loneliness, living in my semi-basement studio apartment up in Seattle, with the unseasonably wet and cold spring we had. But I’ve since moved in with my boyfriend, and almost every day this summer has been a bright and sunny 90+ degrees. Yet my mental health has not improved.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the cause of my depression, but I don’t have an answer. Perhaps I was always doomed to feel this way due to my genetics. Maybe the stress and trauma of everything that has happened in the world over the past two years have finally caught up with me. Or perhaps it is a sense of failure over not hitting the physical health goals I set for myself, and unresolved body image issues. It’s probably all of these and more.

While knowing the causes of my sadness may be useful for my therapist, I’ve found it to be overwhelming. There’s no way I can fix all of this, especially when so much of it is out of my control. But maybe I don’t have to. Maybe instead of resolving every little thing that might be making me sad, I can shift the balance by doing more things that make me happy. This is what led me to posit my own theory of happiness.

I call this theory the 5 pillars, as I believe that by participating regularly in activities in each category I can create a foundation of happiness stable enough that none of life’s depressants can keep me down for long.

1. A Creative Outlet. 

I spend so much of my life as a passive consumer. I scroll through social media. I spend hours watching YouTube and Netflix. And while I do get fleeting moments of happiness from my entertainment, it does not provide the same level of personal satisfaction as putting something I created out into the world. Even if no one sees it, or it turns out horribly, the process of making something new with your own unique style can be so fulfilling. Whether it’s painting, sewing, writing, woodworking, graphic design, making miniatures, or even just coloring in a coloring book, there is reward in stretching your imagination muscles. If nothing else, focusing on the task at hand for a few hours is a great way to keep your mind off things and ease anxiety.

I also think a related subcategory is puzzles and games. The end result may not necessarily be something new that you created, but it requires the same imaginative problem solving, and there is the same sense of accomplishment when you have finished.

2. Physical Activity

This one is pretty obvious. We all know that getting up and getting your blood pumping releases endorphins, which are happiness chemicals in your brain. The mental health benefits of working out are well documented. It’s a great way to release tension and ease anxiety. But there is a caveat. Exercise only works if you’re doing it for the joy of the movement itself.

I know so many people who work out solely to change their appearance. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with setting goals for yourself and working towards them, but if the goals are always losing 20 pounds of fat or gaining 20 pounds of muscle, anything where the focus is changing your body because you don’t like it, then your motivation stems from negativity. This makes the entire process mired in negativity. How can exercise make you happy when the entire basis of your routine is steeped in self-hatred? It’s also very hard to sustain negative motivation. If you work out solely to see a physical change in your appearance and you don’t see one right away, you’re more likely to quit. But if you exercise because you enjoy the workout itself, why would you ever want to stop?

The trick with this one then is to find movement that you enjoy. Maybe it’s yoga, hiking, kayaking, dancing, or surfing. Or maybe it’s a team sport if some friendly competition is your thing. Anything that you enjoy in and of itself, and that gives you the good kind of exhaustion at the end of the day.

3. Something Outdoorsy

There are so many reasons to enjoy being outside. There is a sense of discovery in seeing plants and animals you haven’t seen before. The awe and beauty of natural landscapes. The temporary escape from the manmade world and a respite from all our manmade problems. Nature can remind us of the enormous size of the world and show us how small we are in comparison. It is humbling in a good way, pulling us out of our own heads and grounding us in the real world. There is a sense of peace when connecting back to nature.

4. Volunteering

This one is often overlooked since the pursuit of happiness is inherently self-centered. Most of us were taught as kids that helping others can make you feel good, but perhaps since it was often taught alongside the golden rule, the lesson boiled down to “don’t be mean to others” and the rest was forgotten. The narrative around charity work is often wrapped up with moral aggrandizing and virtue signaling, which can be a real turn-off for most people. But that childhood lesson was not just about teaching us to be good people, it was a life hack: If you want to be a happy person, help others.

In a way, it’s actually better for you to go into volunteer work for self-centered reasons. If you truly cared about all the hungry people in the world and want to make a real impact towards ending world hunger, you would quickly become overwhelmed by how impossible this task is. No matter how many people you fed, it would never feel like enough, and it wouldn’t be long before hopelessness and cynicism overtook you, and you stopped trying.

But if you go into volunteer work just to make yourself happy, you only need to have an impact on one person to feel fulfilled. To feel like you’ve done something, you’ve had a real effect, and you matter to someone. This is why I prefer giving back in a way that isn’t based around money. You rarely get to see what kind of impact you’ve had when you donate to charities. But when you give your time and effort to people, you can see the difference you’re making in real-time.

Helping other people can give you perspective. Your problems never seem quite as bad when you are confronted with people who have it worse. Like the other activities on this list, it gives you a break from your own head and your own life, giving you the chance to focus on something else for a change. It’s humbling and can give you a sense of purpose.

5. In-Person Social Interaction

In the age of social media, Discord, and Zoom, we are far more connected than we have ever been, but these connections are also weaker. We may think we are being social, but texting and even video chatting do not have the same effects on our brain as the real deal: in-person social interaction. Humans are hardwired to need to feel accepted and part of a community. I think for me at least, loneliness, boredom, and depression are all deeply interconnected. I’m not a very extroverted person, but spending too much time alone with my thoughts is never healthy. All of my happiest memories involve other people. I might be able to keep myself entertained when I am alone, but I rarely have fun without other people present. It is also a lot easier to get down on yourself and think you don’t matter or that no one likes you when you don’t consistently surround yourself with people that are important to you.

The nice thing about these 5 pillars is that you can easily cover more than one of them with one hobby. Joining a hiking group can check off exercise, social interaction, and time spent in nature. Knitting baby blankets can be both creative and a way of helping others. There is so much variety, everyone can build their 5 pillars in their own way. I think the key is consistency, and not waiting until you feel down to start. Balance is also important, as these activities are meant to create happiness, not add stress.

Today I checked off one of my pillars. I created this blog post. Now I just need to figure out what to do for my other four.

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