Mental Health and the Complexity of Living

Happiness Hack #5: What if we could only subtract to be happy?

Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychology professor, speaks persuasively about mental health and the complexity of our lives.

Most cases of mental illness, says Peterson, are not actually mental illness at all. They are instead a result of desperate complexity which, added to over time, eventually resulted in a blow-out at the weakest point (depression, alcoholism, gambling or a thousand other possible outcomes).

Depression and anxiety are the two conditions that make up the great majority of all mental illness. By several estimates, depression and anxiety affect somewhere in the region of 10-15% of adults at any given time. 

Some other numbers:

  • More than 1 in 7 of employed people in the United Kingdom are effected by a common mental condition
  • Mental illnesses are responsible for 1 in every 8 “sick days”
  • Mental health and behavioural issues are the primary driver of disability worldwide

In short, mental illness is a big f***ing issue.

The more I read and study and ponder and listen, the more strongly I come to believe that depression and general anxiety disorder are not illnesses at all, not by any accepted definition of illness.

That does not denigrate depression and anxiety. It does not diminish them at all. I know first hand only too well how debilitating depression is. While I’ve experienced panic attacks on more than one occasion, I have not suffered from anxiety disorder, or at least not being diagnosed, but having listened to those who have lived with anxiety for years, it is painfully obvious that it is equally incapacitating. And that incapacitation is absolutely real.

The fact that it is real, however, does not mean it is an illness. Instead, what Peterson has said and written repeatedly — and as both an internationally renowned psychology professor, a practising clinical psychologist and someone with the personality to be totally without fear in speaking what he sees as the truth, he is someone whose opinion I highly respect — is that depression and anxiety are, for the overwhelming majority of the time, less medical illnesses than more symptoms of the terrible complexity in our lives, the terrible challenges of living as a human being.

(This is not a new point of view. In 1960, psychologist and academic Thomas Szasz wrote a scathing paper that claimed that mental illnesses were a myth, and effectively an heir to the likes of witchcraft, demons and theological beliefs, and that the real problem is the big challenge that faces us all, once our basic needs of survival, shelter and security are met, namely how we choose to live. Szasz was both criticised and acclaimed throughout his life, and his paper has been negatively critiqued in recent years.)

I don’t say that mental illnesses are myths. Depression, or anxiety, are very real, but all of this calls to mind something I’ve been thinking of in relation to my own situation, and something I feel strongly about: that my depression was much more of a symptom than an illness. Jim Carrey, the actor, is someone who might share this view. He has made a compelling connection between the terms depressed and deep rest, in that being depressed is a sign that your mind and body needs deep rest to reset and refresh.

Complexity of being, and its relationship to mental health

Given that we’re all products of our environments, the complexity of the world around us has added greatly to the complexity in our own internal worlds. For the vast majority of people in what we might call “the western world”, the basic needs of human existence — air to breathe, drinking water, food to eat, a safe place to sleep — are taken absolutely for granted.

And when that happens, we are faced with different challenges, many of them related to the way we think and what we do. And I humbly suggest that because our basic needs are met each day, the way we think and the things we choose to do are potentially more complex now than at any time in human history

So if we accept that the complexity of our lives is one major cause for what we call mental illness, what can we do about it?

Where are we given to complexity?

Let’s think for a minute of a few ways in which we voluntarily impose utter complexity on our lives.

Complexity in relationships

We don’t talk clearly and honestly and openly with our partners, families and friends. We prefer, instead of clarity and honesty and openness, to “keep up appearances”. We prefer, instead of clarity and honesty and openness, to skirt around deep issues because dealing with them brings us intense short-term discomfort.

Complexity in finances

Is there any area of our lives that are typically more complex than our finances? Everything about the finance industry is confusing. It appears deliberately so. There’s an adage that goes “the confused mind never buys”, but when it comes to finances that just isn’t true. Almost everyone selling us financial products, from investments to insurance to indebtedness, does so in a manner that is entirely cloak and dagger. We buy often because we feel that we must. Health insurance? It’s better to have it than not, we think to ourselves, so we look at the headline factors and gloss over the six pages of small text where there be dragons. Even something as small as a mobile phone contract is dense and virtually illegible. We sign it because signing it gets us our phone and internet. We routinely hit “Accept” on terms and conditions screens without thinking for a moment what exactly we’re accepting.

Complexity in health

From yoga to meditation to spiritual retreats to “couch to 5k” to the latest must-have superfoods to grocery shopping in aisles adorned by hundreds of thousands of products, right through to the list of drugs and other medications we ingest to combat countless illnesses or conditions, our health has surely never been more complex.

In all of this there is a massive conundrum at play, and it is this.

We know, deep in our heart, that simplicity will solve many of our problems. And yet we are compelled to move in the opposite direction.

We are compelled to consume. We are compelled to buy more, collect more, do more. We are compelled to make things more complex rather than less.

But what if we decided to take firm action, to set an intention and follow through on it, to make things less complex?

Mental health: What if we decided to subtract rather than add?

Whether we know it or not, and most of us don’t, we spend almost every minute of every day trying to solve our own complex swirl of competing and conflicting thoughts and emotions.

The way we typically do that is to add something new:

  • A new car
  • A new dress
  • A new television set
  • A new gym membership
  • A new job
  • A new app
  • A new workflow
  • A new project
  • A new holiday
  • A new sexual partner
  • And on, and on, and on…

But instead of adding something new, what would happen if we took something away?

It’s an open question.

I don’t know the answer.

But I think it’s worth trying.

Some things you could subtract, and see what happens.

  • Your smartphone (at least for a day)
  • Facebook (or Twitter, or Instagram…)
  • Email notifications
  • Those shoes/shirts/jeans you never wear
  • Some of the half-dozen small subscriptions that leave your bank account every month

Point to note: Subtracting often involves saying no. And any chance we get to practise saying no is definitely a good thing.

Point to note #2: This owes lots to something in software development called “scope creep”, also known as “kitchen sink syndrome”.

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