We need to talk about the millennial malaise. It’s muddy. It’s revealing. It’s necessary. Huddle in
Think of the many words attached to millennials: entitled, self-interested, lazy, unfocussed, impatient and unhappy. The last one – unhappy, it’s the big one, latch on to it, because I’m diving in. It’s a baggy topic with lots to consider because happiness isn’t a straight line. But by a process of rumination I want to make some inroads with this most elusive state of being. Are you still with me? Good. Welcome to group therapy, everyone.
What does it mean to be happy?
Most of us millennials know we want to be happy but we can’t really identify what that looks like. I tend to think of happiness as a frosted glass door: you can kind of make out the shapes of what lies ahead but the whole picture isn’t clear. It’s translucent, not transparent. And because there’s so much talk about happiness – the internet is packed to the gills with happiness pieces – there’s this pressure to display delicious levels of dopamine 24/7. I don’t know about you but that makes me spiral into a self-questioning maelstrom, which in turn, and I hate to trivialise what is a profoundly medical term, makes me feel really depressed.
I’m in my late 20s and thus far life has tended towards the ecstatically high or the devastatingly low, with nothing in between. Once I fled the familiars of home life and started to adult, that steady happiness – which was realised in retrospect – started to wane. Because up until you’re an adult, your world is pretty much pre-programmed: born, crawl, walk, school, exams, university…LIFE. The gaping abyss of life stretches open and it’s a case of choices and consequences. On that point of choice: imagine rolling around in a bed of dollar bills; that’s my visual analogy of how much choice we have in 2018. This is why millennials are oft regarded as flighty, because we have a rich roster of options. If we don’t like something – job, apartment, partner, takeaway – we make a run for it and seek pastures new. But where choice should be a privilege, it becomes a burden. Because we are ping-ponging from one thing to another, we’re fatigued and dissatisfied. And I’m talking mainly on the job front, here.
Because we had a rough landing into a miserly economy, I feel like we have automatically cast ourselves into victimhood – thanks a lot 2008. I hear my ilk strain on about “not being used properly” or “being over-qualified, overworked and underpaid”, which I too have chanted. Misery loves company, after all. Woe is us.
But is all this blue banter just a tad indulgent? Or is there a genuine problem?
Our parents did not chase after happiness like we do. “No. We had the mindset of survival,” says my dad, born 1945. “We aimed to work hard to meet our needs.” And then, by way of good fortune and timing, the boomer generation prospered – beyond their wildest imagination. They could do and buy things their parents couldn’t, so they were on a high and they then pinned that enthusiasm on us, silver spooning us from when we were spawned. Depending on what fairy-tales were hardwired in our brains, some of us don’t have a literal definition of happiness and simply roll with the punches. Others feel special enough to have anything in life, just because they want it that badly, not necessarily by way of merit.
What do we want?
Well, it’s definitely more than free food and bean bags. I did actually forget to mention in the opening that we are also an incredibly indecisive cohort. Bringing back the frosted door motif: there’s a rough outline there, but nothing concrete or uniform, as one person’s heaven is another person’s hell or to be less dramatic, everyone is different and priorities vary. But if I had to put a few things on the boil that we specifically want more of, it’s meaningful work, a better relationship with ourselves and companionship. In theory, if we have this trifecta of fulfilment in place, we’ll move along quite merrily in life.
Note that none of these are things. According to research, the idea of happiness is not predicated on material goods but more on wanting to feel more positive emotions than negative ones. Of course, a purchase of some kind can generate positive emotions but in the long run it’s not going to increase your life satisfaction.
What will, as per counselling psychologist Christine Kritzas from LightHouse Arabia, is a change in mindset, not a change of things around us. What that means is, the world around you can be harsh, hostile and brash but you can still think your way to happy through your cognitive resources. To be honest it does sound overwhelming especially when happy seems like an impossible destination.
Happiness in the UAE
The annual United Nations report, which surveys the state of global happiness, routinely sees our Nordic brethren at the front of the line (looking at you, Denmark) but when you arrive at DXB Airport, the sheeny floors point you in the direction ‘towards the happiest city’.
Mama Bradley always chirps when she sees Happiness Street on her Dubai visits. Mama B (complete with big Greek hand gestures): “I appreciate the sentiment. It makes me happy to see happiness written out loud.” Indeed, Mama Bradley goes into ‘high-five’ mode whenever she is in Dubai. “Everything you need is here. For example: we don’t have this brand of stock cubes back home. I just love that I can find it here.” Cute.
Needless to say, the UAE offers any kind of life you want, assuming you can live within its means. Basic needs here are met with smooth-sailing services, orders are delivered in double-quick time and the fare is fantastic. And all that can make you happy, right?
But these are external markers of happiness. Rather than outsourcing our happiness, how do we achieve internal happiness? By getting educated on happiness in its most rudimentary form. Hold the cynic sauce for a moment.
Abu Dhabi University have implemented a happiness course as a core requirement for their Public Health programme, which supports the mission of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum to become the happiest country in the world. Dr Deena Elsori, associate professor of biology and chair of the department of applied sciences and mathematics at Abu Dhabi University says: “Our course focuses on the core components of happiness and positive psychology by focusing on the positive side of human nature and the most effective ways for individuals to thrive, flourish and become their best self. The topics we cover are: strength, optimism, appreciation, positive communication, positive relationships, connections, self-compassion, kindness and creativity.”
We can’t ignore the facts. According to the World Health Organisation, one in four individuals is experiencing a mental health illness and the cases of depression in recent years has ballooned by 20 per cent globally. So, it’s an incredibly forward initiative to have a course that addresses the issue, and start em’ young as it were. “The course is largely experiential and includes several classroom activities, interaction, group activities and practical homework. It presents practical ways of using strengths, positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment in promoting and maintaining wellbeing and happiness,” adds Dr Deena.
We could all do with a bit of happiness 101.
The sins of social media
It would have been remiss not to spill social media into the mix, after all we will be spending a staggering seven years of our lives on our phones and every day, we bang out “4.5 billion likes a day on Facebook” and “2.77 billion of us will be using social media by the end of 2019″, according to Katherine Ormerod’s book Why Social Media Is Ruining Your Life.
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Who else has fretted that an uploaded photo on a social media account got less likes than a previous post? I’m imagining being on stage right now, TED-style, looking out to 2,000 audience members, seeing every hand go straight up like a pole. Me too – and I’m only a smidge embarrassed about it, as I probably should be.
In the vortex of validation, we’ve found ourselves increasingly slick at putting filters on things. We’re good at showing everyone how we’ve got it all figured out – even when we’re actually sobbing into our hygge blanket in the throes of an existential crisis.
When all we see are the optical illusions of everyone’s edited worlds (aka self-promotion) on social media, it does start to chip at the ol’ self-esteem. Even if we know full well that only half the story is being portrayed, we still use other people’s achievements as a yard stick for what we haven’t achieved and then we slip into the quicksand of comparing and despairing – a term bandied about a lot in the context of social media, with “research proving that a high usage of Facebook and Instagram has led to depression,” notes Christine, because “when we live through our ego, we’re never satisfied with what we have. We are constantly chasing after the next best thing.”
Social media is not going anywhere. It’s only going to evolve and unless we regulate our personal terms and conditions with it, we’ll find ourselves in a rut. I suggest regular, and I mean regular, breaks to come back down to analogue – “happiness only lasts as long as the likes keep coming in,” as Katherine says.
So, when will we be happy?
Will our happiness levels peak in the sunset years of our lives? Well, that’s up to us. But as Dr Deena highlights: “Research does show that there is a direct correlation between aging and happiness, with it increasing steadily from adolescence through old adulthood. Peaking in happiness occurs when people are in their 60s and 70s, when maturity generates a higher level of contentment, and the ‘moodiness’ that comes with being young becomes dormant.” Indeed, Meik Wiking, author of The Little Book of Hygge and the CEO of The Happiness Research Institute in Denmark, confirm this with the ‘smiley-curve’: “We are happiest at our youngest and then grow less and less happy until we reach about 40 and then our happiness increases again. We explain this with the youth being open for life and expecting good things. A little older, we realise life is not going to turn out as we thought as we have to balance life and work with responsibilities. After this, happiness increases again, where we start to become more content with our lives and adjust our dreams to reality and become grateful about the many good things in life.”
Overall, I am very partial to the whole ‘thinking your way to happiness’. I was once taught that your thoughts become your emotions, which then become your actions. Negative thoughts > negative emotions > you know what. It takes a lot of work and courage to dig into the trenches of the self and find that prized pot of glee. But a lot of the times happiness is hidden behind the simplest of realisations. If we make peace with the fact that sadness is part of happiness, in that life isn’t always sunny, then we might actually be authentically happy? Just a thought…
10 things I’ve learned about happiness
‘You do you’ – My ex-boss speared this at me when I was laid off. It was a very smooth punch.
Everything that could possibly go wrong, goes wrong sometimes. Then it goes right. There’s no formula for happenstance.
If you turn off your phone, social media goes away.
Don’t let anyone rush your timeline. Do life as it happens.
Self-care is as straight-forward as a tall glass of water and a shower.
A life without Dr Google is a far less painful one.
Have your dreams and visions but be pragmatic too.
Stop playing the game of getting people to like you. You’re not for everyone, my dear martyr.
Allowing yourself to trip over air is one of life’s greatest reliefs.
Knowing what you don’t want is more important than knowing what you do want. Read: self-respect.