Professor Peter Kinderman is Head of the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Psychology, Health and Society
“Many things contribute to our well-being, but many things also make us miserable.
Our mental health is affected by our diet, by our level of physical fitness and activity, by money worries, by work stresses and a host of other factors. It’s not too unreasonable to consider how January could be a pretty difficult month for many people for all these reasons and others.
Many of us find ourselves overweight, unfit and in debt after Christmas, with the poor weather making it difficult to enjoy nature, to exercise, even to enjoy natural light. Adding to the weight of January misery, we’ve got to return to work, cope with the guilt of broken New Years’ resolutions and face the prospect of six months of work before we get a summer holiday.
So it’s really not surprising that early January can be a little difficult. Adding a little magical pseudoscience, a mathematical formula has even been calculated which suggests (tongue in cheek, I hope) that today – the Monday of the last full week in January – is the most miserable day of the year.
Should this be taken seriously? Is it a dangerous myth? Well, many people have dismissed this as ‘pseudoscience’. They argue that many of the factors that have been included in this official-looking formula – ‘weather’, ‘motivational levels’ or ‘the feeling of needing to take action’ are essentially immeasurable and, in any case, there’s no real evidence that one particular day is particularly likely to leave us miserable (although, of course, by definition one day must statistically be worse than the others, by definition).
More worryingly, some commentators have suggested that this is rather worse than merely unscientific fun, it actually perpetuates myths about mental ill health.
Leaving aside the idea that people might actually take these kinds of equation seriously as scientific methodologies (and I’m not convinced that anybody except UKIP-voters would be so foolish), some of my colleagues are concerned about the implications for our understanding of depression.
The fear here is that such playful equations send a dangerous message – that serious and potentially life-threatening clinical conditions could be dismissed as fleeting and trivial fluff; “something everyone goes through with inexplicable regularity”.
I’m not so sure. Don’t get me wrong – I agree that this equation (and those like it) is merely entertainment. But I don’t think it sends a dangerous message. In fact, it might actually support a rather more positive and helpful truth.
All my professional work and academic study as a clinical psychologist tells me that there is no cliff-face cut-off between happiness and depression, between good mental health and a ‘clinical condition’.
Research, including research conducted at the University of Liverpool, has emphasised how our mental health is dependent on the events that happen in our lives , our social circumstances , and how we make sense of the world . It equally seems clear that our definitions of ‘clinical conditions’ are reflections of temporary social norms .
So while this equation is scientific nonsense – you’re not really particularly likely to feel miserable today – it does point out something that I think is important and true. Our mental health depends on a very wide range of factors that interact and change, and contribute in complex ways to our emotional well-being. I think (while, again, this equation must only be seen as a piece of fun) it’s probably quite good to consider all the factors that impact on our well-being and think of what we can do about them.
Luckily, we can do things to maintain our mental health. I’ve written earlier on the (slightly tricky) subject of self-help. I’m very reluctant to offer advice but hopefully some of what follows will be helpful for some people:
Get the basics right
Eat good, nutritious food. Get saturated fat content down and keep salt content low. Eat enough fresh fruit or vegetables each day and drink plenty of water. Aim to get your BMI in the healthy zone. I don’t want to sound prudish, but don’t smoke, drink moderately and be generally quite cautious with recreational drugs. And get at least seven hours sleep a night. Sleep is really important and studies suggest the brain needs sleep to also remain physically healthy.
There’s lots of advice and specific help out there. But the message is the same: get the basic physical fundamentals right.
Well-being: five tips for the price of one
- Keep active – do something physical each day. It could be as simple as taking the dog out for a walk (if you’ve got one).
- Maintain your relationships – for all kinds of reasons, friends are vital. Good friends, supportive friends, friends who won’t judge you or try to take advantage of you. We can all take steps to maintain these friendships; phone, write, text. You might even consider a kind of semi-professional approach; self-help groups to meet people in a similar position.
- Learn – I would say this, I’m an academic. Keep your brain active. Engage it. Your brain is the most fantastic machine ever created.
- Give – this isn’t political brainwashing. There’s good evidence that getting involved in charitable activity (and it’s probably better to give your time and effort, rather than money) makes people happier.
- Stay open-minded – perhaps the trickiest thing to do but in part, it means becoming able to decide where to focus your attention. Because if you’re good at this, it’s less likely that your thoughts will always drag back towards rumination.
The CBT approach
If you’re aware of what’s happening in your own mind, you can start to change things. My colleague, Sara Tai, and I put together a neat summary of cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT. We’ve even created a smart-phone app that does the same thing, which addresses the following:
Catch it – Identify what you are thinking. It’s often really useful to do this when you notice a change in your emotions or if you start doing something that may be a sign of something else, like drinking too much. So if you think someone you know ignores you in the street and you feel sad this can be a cue to examine the thought.
Check it – Are you thinking sensibly, wisely and proportionately about the situation? Weigh up the evidence – what makes you think they ignored you? Could it be they didn’t see you? Did you “assume” they ignored you and is your mood also now affecting the way you’re thinking?
Change it – Generate an alternative point of view; question the evidence for your negative thoughts and find possible alternatives. It’s not about lying to yourself – maybe they did ignore you. But when in a negative frame of mind, we can assume the worst.
If you’ve tried all that then you could try therapy. I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone – many people are probably better off avoiding therapists and using everyday resources and support. But it can be a chance to think things through with a professional in a calm, supportive and nonjudgmental atmosphere, which can be helpful. I personally prefer the straightforward approach of CBT, but there are many others. It’s a question of finding one that suits you.
The point of all of this isn’t to say it’s easy. If all of this was easy, I wouldn’t have a job and you’d have found the secret years ago. And I’m not trying to say that the problems that bring people into contact with mental health services can be seriously summed up in light-hearted pseudoscientific equations.
I work in mental health services, and none of my colleagues ever trivialise their work. But this does offer us an opportunity to consider those many things that contribute to our well-being, and those many things that make us miserable. And that, possibly, could help us take action to make things better.