Comment Column Road

Columnist: Target your happy side for once

Statistically, the unhappiest day of the year is January 23rd, popularly dubbed ‘Blue Monday’. Six weeks on, it’s slightly less wet and slightly less cold, but there are still reasons to feel blue.

Third years are probably having the worst time, or at least in my opinion. Without realising, the weeks have trickled away and I have less than two months until my final deadline. In that time, I have to work hard enough to achieve the marks I need and get involved in everything I pledged as an eager-eyed fresher (while accepting I’ve probably left it too late to use Act 1 to launch my showbiz career now).

Above all, I have internships to plead for and two interviews that need some sort of preparation, as the possibility of unemployment dawns on me as sickeningly as a Lash-induced hangover. Even for first years it’s a stressful time, especially for those studying demanding subjects (medics, I’m looking at you). That too-good-to-be-true 40%, the equivalent to a D or an E at A-level may be harder than first thought, with the release of January exam results serving as a wake-up call for many.

In cases of severe anxiety or depression a great amount of student support is available, but huge numbers of people simply just feel a bit crap about everything. There’s endless advice on mood enhancement and relaxation.

Saying that, I tried to meditate once and no one told me that trying to reach ‘a higher level of awareness and inner calm’ was so demanding. ‘Imagine a lotus flower sitting in your belly, unfurling its petals with every intake of breath’, the website suggested, as if sitting still for five minutes would turn me into some sort of pot plant.

My finally achieved ‘empty mind’ was then swiftly filled with the sound of someone switching on Friends downstairs. My ‘zone of peace’ didn’t stand a chance. ‘Allow fresh air and natural sunlight to pour through your open window’, was another nugget of wisdom from a happy-clappy blog I encountered. That sounded like a brilliant idea: if I didn’t live in a country that has a passionate love affair with rain and grey sky, or have the nearby pleasure of Gassy Jacks, living up to it’s namesake and filling my room with the nauseating stench of the deep fat fryer. These efforts seemed pointless to me. I doubt if I even managed to achieve the ‘belly flower effect’, that my life would be profoundly enriched with meaning.

This is why the personal goal appeals to me. You may have already heard of ‘100 happy days’ and you may or may not (like me), find it as irritating as Jedward, ‘neknominate’ and Katie Hopkins’s twitter account combined. It’s become less about happiness and more an excuse to Instagram a bowl of cereal or a duck-face pout: ‘my new lipstick #100happydays’.

However, the concept of doing something ‘for you’ is still important. When life gets hectic, the things that aren’t going to get you a first or propel you into your dream job are often neglected, however much you enjoy them. Turning a hobby into a goal could be the solution; forcing you to prioritise your own needs, often boosting confidence and mood levels in the process.

If you want proof, take Richard Branson. Despite acquiring a self-worth of around $5-6 billion, he’s found time to Climb Mont Blanc, became the oldest person to kite surf across the English Channel and was the first person to launch a hot air balloon across the Atlantic. If Branson can still find time to pursue his own goals, then surely as students, we can too?

There are more examples of successful individuals who pursue personal interests adjacently to their working lives. Christina Hendricks, Katherine Heigl and Sarah Jessica Parker are all keen knitters (my granny is now officially cooler than I am), Ricky Gervais enjoys painting in his spare time and Minnie Driver is an avid surfer. Even Nick Clegg has an alleged penchant for Warhammer and who knows, perhaps he’s practicing an improved power strategy to knock D-Cam off his perch at the election next year?

To really understand how personal goals can improve success and wellbeing, I spoke to Joe Taylor, who founded a charity called ‘The Wave Project’. Offering surf lessons to young people with low-level mental health needs, the project has overwhelming evidence to prove the benefits of goals and new skills on everyday life. He believes, “it’s not just surfing. Even just the sensory impact of being in the sea, an all-encompassing environment, offers the chance to temporarily forget problems and reduce anxiety levels. There’s also the element of overcoming a challenge and breaking your limits. Some of our clients have never experienced pride before. We give them something to be proud about.”

Whilst university students are all in a position to feel proud, through the very achievement of getting into university if nothing else, everyone needs a confidence boost every now and then. Although trekking to Newquay and embarking on a rigorous surf course may not be a financial or time-efficient option, there are endless possibilities.

Sport related goals are the easiest and most obvious. However, if physical exertion breaks you out in a sweat just considering it, then why not make cooking a more serious pursuit, particularly if stir-fries and pasta are all that exist in your current repertoire? There’s something surprisingly therapeutic about chopping, stirring and multitasking that serves as a brilliant therapeutic release, as well as eventually creating culinary masterpieces to rival The Great British Bake-off.

I have one friend who has a strong interest in arts and crafts. Initially a hobby, she now creates and sells jewellery (resembling more Camden vintage than the fraying friendship bracelets you made as a five year old), as well as glasses made from old beer bottles and quirky picture frames.

For once, I’ve taken my own advice and found a personal goal. Before I came to University, I used to genuinely love running, which I know makes me a bit weird in some peoples eyes. Although I drag myself to the gym regularly (my half-hearted attempt to offset the damage of too many Dominoes pizzas), I’ve stopped running seriously. ‘It’s raining’, ‘I don’t have time’, ‘I’m tired’: these are all excuses I regularly persuade myself. So on April 27th, two weeks before I have five assignments due in, I’m signed up to run a half marathon.

With butterflies in my stomach as I write this (no flowers still, unfortunately), my goal is to pass the finish line under two hours. Maybe this will cause me more stress than I need and maybe I’ll end up crying in a heap of trainers and unfinished essay plans. But saying, ‘I don’t have time to go running’, can no longer be a valid excuse if this is in place. To end with the wise words of Richard Branson, “Don’t think of work as work and play as play. It’s all living.”

Charlotte Wace