When it comes to our mental health and self esteem, we do all kinds of things to make ourselves feel good — from buying new clothes, to fixing our appearance until we feel better about how we look. It makes sense to want to feel good about ourselves, but the means in which we go about doing things to feel better about ourselves may be worth a closer look. If the end goal is to simply feel better (a positive emotional state), you might experience happy feelings from buying a new outfit, or by spending time with a good friend talking about old times. The reality is there are countless ways to improve our emotional health, and simple things like a hearty laugh with a friend, or watching a beautiful sunset at dusk, can provide the same (and arguably even better) feelings we experience after buying new clothes or playing the slots in Las Vegas. Sadly, in too many instances we look past the things right in front of us in exchange for buying things we can’t afford, or taking unnecessary risks that often leave us in a worse position than before we made the risky decision.
Understanding emotional moments
Emotions are defined as mental states brought on by neurophysiological changes, variously associated with thoughts, feelings, behavioral responses, and a degree of pleasure or displeasure. Psychologists have identified six different types of human emotions, including happiness, sadness, fear, disgust, anger, and surprise. When we look at our mental health, of the six emotions it is the feeling of happiness we most desire — and we often direct our behaviors toward experiences that give us the best chance of feeling happy at any given moment. One person might take a vacation to feel good, while another person might go to a spa for a massage to feel better, and yet a third person might invite a friend to lunch to share laughs and enjoy each others company in an attempt to lift spirits. As you can see, all three of these routes (i.e. a vacation, trip to spa, or time spent with friend) can lead a person to temporarily feeling better, further illustration of the wide variety of things we can do to boost how we feel.
Feeling good about ourselves is important, and this includes our self-esteem, feelings of pride over our accomplishments, and the confidence we have in ourselves when presented with life challenges. The emotions we experience change from moment-to-moment, as the “high” we had from last month’s new clothing purchase may have already be a distant memory. It is normal to live our daily lives with experiences designed to help us feel good, and when we keep those experiences in check, life is generally quite enjoyable. But what happens when people go to extreme lengths to feel good, or to attract more attention from others? Spending money we don’t have can lead to future financial problems, and going overboard on risky body modifications can leave a person with deep regret after attention decreases.
As a mental health clinician of 30 years, I have had clients disclose to me the following things they did to feel better, only finding out later that none of these objects/choices provided ongoing happiness — and that their happiness would have improved by better understanding all the simple things they could have done for improved emotional wellness:
- Buying expensive items, often things they could not afford. Expensive cars, clothing, and other items can lead to a quick spike in emotion, but they won’t keep spirits high forever — and there are debts to pay when acquiring expensive things. When bills become overwhelming, the previous positive emotional rush is soon replaced with the opposite emotional experience while trying to manage stress and stay out debt.
- Drawing attention by means of extreme body modifications and/or tattooing. A wild haircut, face piercing, or big tattoo will certainly attract attention, but these decisions often come with risk as they contribute to positive emotions and mental health. Yes, people will look (and some may even ask questions), but those exchanges are short-lived and often leave the person in the same spot again — longing for attention and validation from others in order to feel good.
- Dressing in revealing ways. Attention-grabbing outfits will often do just that, but are people impressed, or simply reacting out of surprise? Shock-attention may turn heads, but may not be the best long-term solution for improved self-esteem and better overall mental health.
- Physical fitness obsession. Getting in shape is great, but obsessing over physical appearance to feel good may lead to more problems than answers. People who obsess over their physical fitness often devote more time working out then they spend with family and friends, and can experience increased anxiety as a result of adhering to perfectionist standards by means of restrictive diet and exhausting physical training. Staying fit is vital to optimal health, but it is important to balance our efforts rather than be consumed by perfectionism.
Take note of what’s right in front of you!
Since emotions are dynamic, ever-changing mental states, there are literally endless ways in which we can create enjoyable feelings. Sure, buying a new watch, or driving a new car off the lot are experiences that feel good — but what other simpler (free!) life experiences provide the same or similar emotional state? The following is a short list to help you get started:
- Sitting down with a close friend and sharing old stories.
- Helping your child overcome a life challenge and working toward a healthy solution.
- Taking a walk around your local park and enjoying the fresh air and great scenery.
- Completing a task around the house — like cleaning out the garage!
- Doing a small, unexpected gesture for a friend or family member.
- Planting a garden, then taking care of it daily.
- Picking up a new sport, hobby, or activity.
- Volunteering to help kids, the elderly, or any group of disadvantaged people who could also use a smile, laugh, and boost of spirit!
When you stop to think about it there are many things right in front of us, right now, that we can engage in that will jump-start our emotional state. Why over-spend on clothes you don’t need (or can’t afford) when a good friend is a phone call away? A quick, spontaneous 10 minute chat filled with laughs might be all you need to carry the day!
Emotions are fleeting, for better or for worse. Just as those bad days won’t stay around forever, the positive emotions you experience in life move along, too. The key to improved emotional states and overall better mental health is to take advantage of all the things right in front of you, right now. The sunny day, the big laughs with a close friend, the sharing of a special moment with your child — all free, and all there for the taking. Chasing after expensive, shiny objects won’t lead to a better feeling than enjoying the great people in your life, so be sure to take advantage of what you already have rather than always looking for the next “thing” for a quick boost.
The ways in which you spend your money or adorn your body with modifications are entirely up to you, as each person has the right to make their own choices. But when risky decisions are made with the intention of drawing attention and feeling better about oneself, it may be worthwhile to examine how many free, safe, and exciting people and things are in our lives now that provide us the same good feelings.