COLUMN: Living in the 'present' is how we can best experience true happiness

Cathal O'Reilly's Mental Health Matters column

Cathal O'Reilly


Cathal O'Reilly

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What is the key to happiness and good mental health? If we are living in the past, we cannot experience true happiness and equally if we are thinking about the future, we cannot enjoy the present moment.

The present moment is when we can fully experience our surroundings in all of its beauty. For example, your favourite food, the trees around us, the smells of freshly mowed grass and the smile on our loved ones faces when they experience joy. But how do we get into the present moment?

Many studies have been done on mindfulness and staying present.

Breathing is an essential part of the process. That is to first be aware of our breathing, the inhale and exhale and staying completely focused on the breath in order to stay present. But can happiness and good mental health exist when we are not fully present?

I am not talking about fleeting moments of laughter when you watch a comedy series or when someone tells a joke. I am talking about a continuous level of contentment and ultimately happiness and prosperous health.

One of the problems we encounter when we fully meet ourselves, i.e., when we are present and fully aware of our thoughts – is that, what comes up in our mind and body may be difficult to deal with. Hence, we are increasingly distracting ourselves with our phones, television and other addictions.

But, is it ok to refrain from going to a place of introspection? And can I have happiness without looking within and having to analyse myself?

I would suggest that looking within can be a difficult but also a rewarding process and also I would observe that each individual experiences the world differently and hence the process of looking within.

Therefore, while looking within and meeting yourself may be a beautiful experience for one, for another, they may not have the ability to fully do so.

I would argue that happiness can be sought without the need to fully “look within” as it were. I believe we can meet ourselves through mindful activities that may offer more of a snapshot or glimpse of ourselves that may not involve the deep, heavy introspection that many of us avoid.

I personally found that when I suffered with my mental health and happiness – instruction to be present just felt like another task at hand that I did not have the capability of achieving.

I was doing well to pull myself out of the bed, find the energy to get into the shower and than get dressed and go about my day.

I think, for anyone going through a tough time, doing these basic things is a hell of an accomplishment and it is often overlooked. We often have these harsh phrases that may be playing in our head, or at least I did. Phrases such as “get on with it” or “come on, pull yourself together”.

I think the process of recovery and the road to happiness is different to each individual and one that may be beneficial to one person can be detrimental to another.

There is an old saying – “What is one man’s fruits, is another man’s poison”. I would argue that this is the case with mental health advice, including much of the scientific evidence behind it. For example, 30 minutes exercise is proven to be beneficial for our mental health.

However, if you give that advice to the wrong person, it could be counter-productive to their mental health happiness. There can be many reasons why it is not beneficial.

For example, one person may not have the energy to achieve 30 minutes of exercise and ultimately feel terrible for not achieving this – this person had an inner critic that many of us suffer with.

Some people ask the burning questions like – “How can I be happy” or “how do I look after my mental health”. The reality is that there is no quick fix with your mental health and well-being.

In a world where instant gratification is becoming part of our daily lives and in a highly pressurised environment that now demands perfection, I appreciate that it can be difficult to here that there is instant “fix”.

Yes, there may be tips for mental health that exist online however the reality is that to narrow down or compartmentalise our mental health to a step by step guide would be dismissive, ignorant and borderline irresponsible.

I have been asked in many interviews, “What advice could you give to someone to look after their mental health”.

The answer I give is nearly always the same. In general terms, mental health is far too complex for one person to give an answer on how we can mind our mental health. While, yes we can speculate, and yes I believe that a lot of the science out there is speculative (regardless of their sample test size), as to what is good for our mental health.

I would also suggest that there exists an ever present adult mentality of boxing people in and destroying their inner child with the demands of conformity. To survive in modern society, there needs to exist a certain level of conformity however, I would suggest that the level of conformity that we are now accustomed to, through education, religion and other institutional thinking, has questioned our very way of being in the world.

An individual may have poor mental health because of their inability to be their true selves. Take the example of the accountant who has spent his whole life working in an office that he hates.

He always had a love for dancing but because it was not seen as masculine enough in our world, he was pushed down by his peers and eventually fell into a profession that although is respectable and provides financial security – which he ultimately doesn’t enjoy and has fallen into a deep depression because of his rejection of his true self and his true passion.

To be our true selves we need to reignite our passions in life again.

To answer the question of happiness and mental health in a single blog post, would be, again irresponsible and dismissive of the complexities surrounding mental health.

I think we can experience happiness without having to deeply look within and examine or to “meet ourselves”. This can be done through mindful activities or finding the inner child.