Living long, and wide, and deep
It’s a popular trend to think that, since we don’t know that we will live long, we should live wide—taking in every experience possible with the motto “you only live once,” or YOLO. But research reveals that simply experiencing thrills and pleasures doesn’t make us truly happy. Maybe it’s time to also experience living deeply…where our consideration for others and making small meaningful sacrifices enriches our experience and brings lasting contentment and gratification.
Two articles in the Atlantic, both by Olga Khazan, discuss why more and more people feel isolated and depressed in today’s society. In “How Loneliness Begets Loneliness” (April 6, 2017) the author states that Americans are “facing an epidemic of loneliness and isolation.” She cites research showing that a lack of social connection can cause significant health problems including depression and anxiety. The statistics in the US and Canada are roughly the same in stating that a quarter of us are lonely.
It is no wonder, then, that 1 in 10 Canadians will suffer a depressive episode in their lifetime. Once you are lonely and depressed it becomes harder to get out and see people, and the spiral deepens.
In her second article, “Meaningful Activities Protect the Brain from Depression,” (April 21, 2014) Khazan discusses a study of 100 teenagers which found that kids are less vulnerable to depression if they are predisposed to selfless deeds.
Of course, depression is a real medical condition and it can’t be solved by saying “go do selfless deeds, you’ll feel better.” But it is heartening for parents to know that a little action on our part might insulate our children from depression and mental anxiety down the road.
Kahzan describes two kinds of joy. The first is the selfish kind of pleasure found in receiving a gift or purchasing something new. This happiness quickly fades. The second type of joy is the more gratifying feeling of contentment that comes from helping others, doing meaningful work, or “otherwise living a life well lived.” This sense of well-being lasts longer.
In other words, it’s better to give yourself and your kids experiences where you interact meaningfully with each other and the community, rather than worrying about giving them gadgets and vacations. What a relief.
It makes sense that if doing things for others protects young people from depression, the same should be true for the rest of us.
It also makes sense that many of the people that have been uncertain about their income and future over the past few years might have suffered anxiety, depression or isolation as a result. This is bad for your health and hard on your family. It can trickle down to the kids and affect their behaviour and confidence. We have a vested interest in learning to cope with and prevent isolation and depression wherever possible.
Rather than searching for ways to give yourself and your kids the thrills of a Disney vacation, teach them to appreciate the everyday wonders around them. Allow them to be bored and learn to entertain themselves. Teach them that feeling good doesn’t come with a price tag but rather that it takes effort to create a happy life.
Give them opportunities to volunteer and discuss how it made them feel. Show them how other people live and teach them gratitude. Let them feel the rush of bettering someone else’s situation.
Talk about the things that make them feel grateful and inspired, and do more of those. Have them identify what makes them feel unhappy—like seeing other people’s exciting Facebook statuses—and, periodically, have them unplug from it. Remind them that what they see online is not reality.
You only live once.
The idea that you can only enjoy the high points, the visits to the mountains, the bungee jumping, the gatherings with friends, is an idea that detracts from the rich, everyday miracles of northern lights, a good book, an inspiring conversation.
When you feel stressed at trying to provide your family with an amazing life experience, take heart in knowing that teaching them to have morals, a positive attitude and a good work ethic doesn’t have to cost a dime. Armed with these attributes and a dedication to helping others, hopefully your children will know how to cope with what life throws at them.
It would be nice to provide your children with a worldly upbringing, full of adventure and spontaneity. Preparing for an adulthood that is often hard and mundane is equally as important, though.
Being a provider in an economic downturn is not for the faint of heart. Relax about giving your kids all the vacations and toys that they dream of. Teach them to appreciate life’s small pleasures so that they can recognize joy when they feel it.