Fear, Flow And How to Hack Your Happiness

The pandemic is a threat to everyone’s mental health, but it shouldn’t take a deadly virus to reveal that modern lifestyles aren’t producing a sense of wellbeing.

Article by Helen Hawkes

Clockwise from top left: The Plant Runner kids’ indoor plant kit (pictured with Monstera deliciosa), $35, The Little Growers apron, $59, “A Forest” by Marc Martin (Picture Puffin), $17, Honeys plant climber, $32, Poppy & Daisy mini garden kit, $49, Burgon & Ball watering can, $42, Playdate by Mudrik hat, $45, The Little Growers magnifying glass, $22, seed packets, $8.50 each, and kids’ hand tool set, $30, all from theplantrunner.com. Photographs by Edward Urrutia. Styled by Aleksandra Beare.

COVID-19 HAS BEEN devastating. All the deaths, isolation and restrictions have been a wrecking ball against our communal psyche. Any sense of certainty has been erased, any illusion of control obliterated, any sanity barely sustained with liquor, sugar and binge-streaming. A study into mental health in the first month of Covid-19 restrictions found 26.5 per cent of the population was experiencing mild to moderate symptoms of depression and 24.5 per cent was suffering anxiety.

Now, with the possibility of social distancing and waves of infection extending blearily into the future, a sort of insidious pandemic fatigue has settled in. Our challenge, then — apart from survival — is to consider how each of us can reshape our mind to increase our mental strength and be genuinely happy in a world where the future has never been more unpredictable. “Screw the plan, embrace the uncertainty,” Penny Locaso says. The acclaimed author of “Hacking Happiness: How to Intentionally Adapt and Shape the Future You Want” delivers advice on wellbeing to clients such as Deloitte, Google and Coca-Cola.

Happiness, she says, lies on the other side of the things that scare us most, whether that’s a potentially lethal virus or the idea of appearing onstage in a bathing suit, something Locaso has done. “Fear is everywhere,” the happiness hacker says. “You can either be safe or strong.” She suggests that rather than wait for the next pandemic, job interview or spider to test us, we practise being uncomfortable in our daily lives. “Epidemic or not, we know that anxiety is a huge challenge for the connected, busy world and it isn’t getting better,” Locaso says. Do “one small thing — an act of micro-bravery — that puts you out of your safety zone every day”. Think of it as bench-pressing reps for your courage muscle.

Next, get in touch with Mother Nature. Have you considered gardening? If you were living on planet earth in 2020, then yes, you probably have. About a millisecond after shoppers decimated supermarket supplies and everyone streamed “Contagion” to see how much Hollywood got right, fruit and vegetable seedlings began to sell out. Having watched people fight over toilet paper, we were convinced that kale sprouts would be next. Suddenly we were all considering producing our own food to avoid riots. But were we self- medicating, too?

A cascade of international studies suggests that regular exposure to plants and green spaces increases mental and physical health. Engaging with plants may even boost feelings of “self- mastery,” says psychologist Dr Katie Cooper, the author of “Plant Therapy”. Cooper believes our loss of connection to plant life at a socio-cultural level could be directly linked to the increasing incidence of mental illness.“After a stressful experience, it seems that people recover more quickly when they are exposed to natural, rather than urban, landscapes,” she says.

Photographs by Edward Urrutia. Styled by Aleksandra Beare.

Time spent in the dirt is more therapeutic than hours logged on social media, adds Dr Narelle Lemon, an associate professor in education at Swinburne University of Technology, who is interested in how creativity and mindfulness apply to mental health. “I think we knew before Covid-19 that engaging in something that helps us slow down and be present and gives us a sense of efficacy was important,” Lemon says. “But lockdown highlighted it.”

Just one piece of the mounting evidence: a study of more than 5,000 people, published in the “American Journal of Epidemiology”, concluded that regular use of social media has a negative impact on wellbeing. Who knew that filtered photos of other people’s perfect lives would make us feel awful about ourselves? Add in doom-scrolling and the sweaty palms and psychological damage ramp up by about 100 per cent.

According to the renowned psychologist and author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the secret to happiness is not a Lamborghini or even Ryan Gosling — it is what he refers to as “flow”. That is, allowing ourselves to be immersed in what we are doing — being in the present. Flow can remove us from reality, give us greater clarity and prevent us from worrying about ourselves and an uncertain future, Csikszentmihalyi says.

Ditching the iPhone and picking up a paintbrush, or “taking it back to analogue”, as street artist Chester Garcia calls it, is one way to enter a state of flow and may loosen the clammy grip of anxiety. “As humans, we have this innate need to be creative,” says Garcia, the co-founder of Work- Shop, which offers art and craft classes in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. He likens creativity to
a meditative state.

Lemon adds that creative acts also offer “the achievement and celebration of something that takes time, which is quite different from most other things in our lives”. During the pandemic, interest in all kinds of Work-Shop classes surged, from papermaking and channelling your inner psychic to welding and finger-painting for adults. “Guitars were dusted off, sourdough was fermented, and crochet and drawing were suddenly being explored,” Garcia says. “We have our phone pinging with emails and messages, and it’s hard to allow ourselves time.”

We view creative hobbies as something we do in our spare time but to increase our happiness, we need to start prioritising them. “Schedule them first,” Locaso says.

Lemon agrees: “Creativity isn’t an add-on. It’s an experiment in what keeps us going.” By disassembling the work-oriented, social media-dominated lives we previously thought were a path to joy, we may truly be able to embrace a new mood. Crocheting a tea cosy or making a Japanese moss ball may not imbue your life with a dreamlike quality but, all things considered, they’re a good alternative to another all-night Netflix binge.


Six Ways to Improve Your Mental Health

• Stop doom-scrolling and feeding your brain with fear, says the happiness hacker Penny Locaso. “Your internal dialogue impacts your mindset, your behaviour and your environment. Don’t begin the day on your phone.”

• Use cognitive distraction: brain teasers, games and creative hobbies engage the mind and prevent worrying, says Dr Amy Silver, the author of “The Loudest Guest”.

• Just as some joy-seekers preach eating dessert first, schedule the fun stuff, such as hobbies, before Zoom meetings.

• Listen to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s TED talk about flow, which he calls the secret to happiness.

• Interact with nature, whether that means gardening outside or surrounding yourself with indoor plants. “Aspects of the natural world can provide psychological reinforcement,” says Dr Katie Cooper, the author of “Plant Therapy”.

• Encourage your kids to help out in the garden. Children benefit from engaging with plants just as much as adults do — and they’re not so worried about getting their hands dirty.


Readers seeking crisis support can talk to Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.

A version of this article appears in print in our launch edition, Page 44 of T Australia with the headline:
Fear, Flow and Happiness
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