Nature and Nurture: Surrounding Ourselves with Happiness

I was, at first, very apprehensive about making my very personal story a public one. The raw, personal confession led to a lot of unexpected conversations. People I haven’t spoken to in years reached out to me to thank me for writing my blog. I can’t keep track of how many people have told me that they had an experience with depression or knew somebody who has.

 

Taking the first step of telling my story actually led to an invitation to participate in my local library’s “Human Library” event. For those who haven’t heard of the organization, the Human Library hosts events throughout the world as a way to facilitate discussion among members of the community and the “human books” who each have a story to tell about adversity, stereotypes, or just a unique aspect of their identity.

 

I was honored to even be asked, but I had no idea what to expect. Would people even want to talk to me? Would my attending help anyone? It reminded me of how I felt right before I published my blog, which is now one of my proudest achievements; if that turned out for the best, then I’d certainly be OK doing this event.

 

The day of, there was no shortage of people who actually wanted to talk to me. For 4 hours straight, I barely took a break so that I could meet with everyone who requested me. I knew that many people’s lives were affected by depression, but it doesn’t fully hit you until you actually hear from them.

 

What struck me the most was the theme of family. Mothers, fathers, daughters, and sons all shared their own stories and the stories of those they cared about the most.

 

At this point, it’s common knowledge that mental illness has a hereditary link. There are various statistics floating around, but it’s undeniable that if you can trace mental illness to your family tree, you have an increased risk of experiencing mental illness yourself. There seems to be no consensus in the scientific community on how much depression can be attributed to genetics versus environment, but scientists believe that 40% of those with depression can trace it to genetics while the other 60% can be attributed to environmental and other external factors. Specific numbers aside, it’s clear that there’s no one internal or external factor that causes depression. That may be unfortunate to some, but I believe that should give us hope; we’re not completely beholden to our genes or our life experiences.

 

We obviously can’t change our genes (at least right now) so I wanted to tackle the other portion that contributes to depression. If environmental and external factors constitute any significant portion of depression (and research seems to tell us they do) then we can focus on manipulating our personal environments to be happier.

 

I’m a big believer in evolutionary psychology. There is evidence that natural selection runs every aspect of who we are as humans, and awareness of evolution’s impact on our psyche helps me understand why we think and act the way we do. Let’s look at our environment/surroundings in this case.

 

Our ancestors evolved a hyper-sensitivity to environmental characteristics because they needed it to survive. Accordingly, we prefer certain environments to others.

 

By evolutionary design, humans seek security, safety, and comfort. For example, a hospital that is noisy and cluttered will be more stressful and hinder recovery as compared to a hospital with inviting, bright spaces. Noise and confusion can cause high blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle tension, not to mention the negative effects of stress and the release of cortisol, the “fight or flight” hormone. An overload of stimuli makes us constantly calculate what is a threat and what is not. Essentially, our subconscious has to stay vigilant at all times. People with depression would receive undue stress from a chaotic environment with overstimulation.

 

Clutter itself correlates to higher levels of depression and detriment to overall health. Women with cluttered living spaces were more likely to experience depression and fatigue along with higher levels of cortisol. Even making your bed in the morning is associated with a better night’s rest.

 

There’s also a reason why an increasing amount of offices embrace plants and window views. Even pictures of natural, green spaces can lower heart rate and help people recover from stress. I know that surrounding myself with nature often helps my mood, but just based on this finding, maybe even a couple house plants might help.

 

This impact of nature might also relate to the aforementioned toll of overstimulation of the senses. If you’re walking in the woods or through a park, chances are there are fewer sensory distractions like cars, flashing lights, and industrial smelliness. In a study of young adults, those who walked through a campus park were less anxious and performed better than those who walked on a busy street.

 

I can personally vouch for all of the methods I’ve described, but there’s one factor that stands out to me as having an impact on happiness, and it’s one you’ve probably heard of before.

 

Be cognizant of the people with whom you surround yourself. Studies show that if you associate yourself with happy people, you tend to be happier yourself. Some scientists have even theorized that couples start to look more similar to each other as they age together because they tend to mimic each other’s facial expressions. If you’re mirroring the emotions and expressions of the people closest to you, hopefully it’s mimicry of happiness.

 

Sometimes you have a choice in the matter. You can choose your friends and your significant other, but you can’t exactly choose your family or your coworkers, for example. And that’s where things start to get tricky.

 

One study finds that treating mothers of children with anxiety and depression actually improves the children’s conditions without even directly treating the child.

 

This brings me back to those families I met with at the Human Library event. It also brings me to an email I received from someone I’ve never met when I published my blog. The mother confided that her son was struggling with depression and she had no idea what to do to make it better. As I started responding to the email, I found myself giving some advice that I hadn’t even understood until that moment.

 

“I know that in my case, there is/was not much anyone can do except be supportive and listen to me. That’s the problem with mental illness – you can talk and give advice all you want, but the actual person in the situation is the only one who can really make a change. I’m not saying this just to prevent you from feeling guilt…

Of course, there are contributing factors that come from family life. But I can tell you right now that the fact that you reached out to me tells me that you care about your son and you want him to be happy. That’s the first step.

Other than that, there is nothing you can do that is going to cure his depression, unfortunately. You can help by providing him with a stable, supportive home life and by being a good example for him. Don’t be afraid to be happy yourself and show him that it’s possible to be happy…


I’m not saying you should ignore his anxiety, but also don’t be afraid to show him that you are happy. Emotions are contagious, after all.”

 

So to all the mothers, fathers, and children who came to me asking how they can help someone they love with depression, maybe the “selfish” answer isn’t so selfish after all. Don’t feel guilty for being happy yourself, because it might be what your loved one actually needs to feel better themselves.

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