Six months ago, I had a mini burnout. I was miserable all the time, lacking in energy, unwilling to see friends and unable to work. I tried and tried to feel happier, forcing myself to soldier on and put on a smiling face. Nothing worked. Then, one morning, I found a passage in a book that shared this truth: you can't learn from pain if you keep running away from it. At that moment, I let go, bursting into tears and admitting that I'd got myself into a terrible state. I decided that I wasn't going to try to feel happy any more. I was going to let myself be unhappy, as clearly that was my reality just then. But, equally, my pain was telling me that I had been neglecting my wellbeing. I decided that I needed to look after myself better, not in order to be happy, but to stop myself from getting so overwhelmed in the future.
Here's a list of all the habits I have adopted since then to take better care of myself (you may need to take a deep breath): I've improved my diet (less meat, more veg); I limit myself to no more than two alcoholic drinks per night (this is the thing I've done that has had the single largest impact on my anxiety); I take more exercise (walking or cycling every day, plus I've taken up rowing); I meditate daily; I track my cycle so I can spot PMT a mile away; I found a life coach who taught me, among other things, to have better boundaries; I stopped reading the news because it was killing me with stress; I turn down work I really don't want to do even if it's well paid; I have rules on when I allow myself to look at social media (only between 12pm and 8pm Monday to Friday); I've cut down my phone time by wearing a (non-smart) watch and turning off almost all phone notifications (I actually leave it on Do Not Disturb at least half the time); and I've rearranged my living arrangements with my boyfriend so that I can work from home. That's on top of existing healthy habits: Alexander Technique; sleeping seven to eight hours a night (I am a lifelong devotee of sleep); not smoking, taking drugs or drinking caffeine; supplementing my diet with probiotics and vitamin D. Then there are other things that might look less obviously healthy, but are crucial for my wellbeing: regular, meaningful contact with close friends; nights in alone on the sofa, watching Netflix; sex, cuddles, masturbation (oversharing but true); and a subscription to The New Yorker. (I should add that those are in no particular order, though I really do love The New Yorker.)
Your mileage may, as they say, vary. My father's list would begin with daily cold-water swims, and he'd probably think probiotics and Netflix were forms of germ warfare. If you're on a tight budget or have young kids or are in chronic pain, your needs and resources won't be the same as mine, but the principle remains the same: we would all be better off if we figured out what was healthy for us and put it into practice. My list might sound exhausting to you, but every single thing on it gives me more energy and leaves me less stressed.
The key thing, though, is that none of it is aimed at turning me into a happy person. Happiness is a fleeting emotion. The French word for it is “bonheur” – literally, “good hour”. It comes and it goes; you can't catch it and keep it. There's a temptation to believe that if only we had a boyfriend/a baby/the perfect job, we would be happy, when in fact not only may we never be able to have that boyfriend/baby/job, even if we could we would still be unhappy much of the time. And pleasure isn't happiness, no matter how many chocolate ads will try to convince you that it is.
Good health may well foster the conditions in which you're more likely to be happy, but it's also about building resilience so that you can best cope with being sad
So, happiness is an elusive beast. Health, though – physical, mental, spiritual – is something that you can work on and get tangible results. This isn't about using healthiness or “wellness” as another stick to beat yourself with, feeling constant guilt about not doing enough yoga – it's about working out what you need to function as your best self. You'll know you're succeeding when you feel better in your body and your mind; it's not about the shiny high of happiness, but something steady and solid, a foundation you can build on. Being healthy is about creating a sustainable way of living. It may well foster the conditions in which you're more likely to be happy, but it's also about building resilience so that you can best cope with being sad.
The paradox of this article is that I am preaching health over happiness but, after six months of healthy living, I do feel much happier. What I find interesting is that I can't put my finger on exactly what has changed – the circumstances of my life are almost identical. By focusing on being healthy, I've crept up on happiness from the side – I feel calm and rested; I'm enjoying work again; I'm more present as a partner and a friend. Perhaps all along I already had what I needed in my life to feel happy, but only in working on my health did I become well enough to appreciate it.