What Happened When I Took Mental Health Off My To-Do List and Stopped Searching for Big Happiness

Mental health isn't something extra to focus on – it’s omnipresent in our lives.

by Verena Milasta , May 18, 2022
mental health happiness

“Many people lose the small joys in the hope for the big happiness.” — Pearl S. Buck “

Conversations around mental health have gathered steam over the years. There are so many apps that remind us to carve out “me time” and articles about the benefits of incorporating mental health in a daily practice. However, somehow I realized they had the opposite effect on me and it became just a thing on my To Do List. I got stressed out for not conforming to the demands that these tools exert - forcefully trying to integrate these practices into my life only sent me further down the wrong track.

Fortunately, I had the honour of hosting an SOS Children’s Village online event titled: Mental Health – the underestimated strength. Dr. Teresa Ngigi, an expert for trauma informed care, said something that has stuck with me ever since: “There is no health without mental health.”

Mental health is not a “fancy add on in our busy lives” that we focus on when we have time for it. The WHO defines mental health as a “state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community”. This shift in perception was crucial for me. It’s not something extra to focus on – it’s omnipresent. Either I nourish my mental health with activities/ thoughts that uplift my energy level – or I don’t. It’s a little like Watzlawic’s saying: You cannot not communicate.

In our program called Arena for Change, I have also had the pleasure of participating in the ritual of gratitude journaling where children aged 8-14 meet once a week and share an experience that made them happy. One might assume that children effortlessly and naturally cultivate their mental health, that a playful approach to life and an optimistic outlook is somewhat engrained in being young. However, this idealistic idea of childhood is far-fetched. As multiple studies show, depression, fear of the future, lack of energy to go out and explore present themselves at an early age. This trend has worsened over the last years with isolation due to the Corona pandemic.

In the sessions, some children initially struggled to find things to share. Over time, we all realized it doesn’t need to be a big thing. As Pearl S. Buck famously stated: “Many people lose the small joys in the hope for the big happiness.” Sharing seemingly tiny moments of happiness makes a big difference. Sometimes we still struggle to find something “worth sharing” and it’s amazing how the group picks up then. “Haven’t you got a good grade in art recently?” “Didn’t you do something cool with your family this weekend?”

Focusing on positivity doesn’t necessarily cast a shadow over the reality that surrounds us. Instead, it can empower us to change that reality, harness the creativity for new solutions, and hopefully reveal our shared vulnerability that shows people when we need them. This is an underestimated strength that most of us do not exploit to its full potential. Moving forward, it must become an inalienable aspect of our lives.

Our ritual of gratitude has changed my perspective in so many ways. Through it, I learned that the mere appreciation of moments of happiness and the awareness of other people’s joy on a continuous basis reduces stress and positively impacts mental health.

Gratitude journaling shouldn’t feel like another must-do mental health technique on your to-do list. But the philosophy of gently approaching things in a playful and positive way can, over time, lead to a change in mindset. Professionally speaking, it can sometimes be easy to focus on the negatives at work, as we fixate on the problems that need solving and the areas that need to improve. What would happen if you expressed gratitude for your team, for the small joys and the little things that went well. And what if you applied that to all areas of your life? You might, overtime, find your big happiness.