• Sophie O'Regan

Authentic Happiness & Mental Health

I have been interested in happiness since I was a teenager. In transition year, I actually did a whole project on what makes us happy and explored social engagement, charity, and money. It wasn’t exactly a scientific project but the curiosity about happiness has been a part of my life for a long time.

In one of the lectures in the RCSI’s free course on The Science of Health & Happiness (course is available here until the 4th of May) it discussed the 3 types of happiness in positive psychology.

The pleasant life is a life devoted to the pursuit of positive emotions.

The good life involves using your strengths to be in a state of flow - for me this is taking photos and creating things.

The meaningful life is about using our strengths to serve something greater than ourselves. For me this is teaching mindfulness and creativity as a tool to improve mental health and well being.

I am a happy person but I am also someone who is highly sensitive, has fluctuations in mood, is prone to anxiety and has a chronic illness. If I measured my happiness solely based on positive emotion, I am not sure how high I would score as I experience intense periods of depression and anxiety. I am learning to accept that I may always be someone who experiences intense emotions and low moods and that ‘negative emotions’ aren't a personal failing and experiencing them doesn’t mean that I am not happy.

I felt so much relief in this lecture as for the other two types of happiness (which in positive psychology would be seen as ‘authentic happiness’) I thrive in. I have reached a point in my life where I am regularly doing flow activities - photography, doing courses, creating content, even running my business is a flow activity for me.

As for using our strengths to serve the greater good, I believe a person's higher purpose can come in many forms. It can be inspiring people through beauty, art or music, it could be working in hospice care, it could be taking care of the environment or being a doctor. Your higher purpose doesn’t have to be a big dramatic thing and most importantly it also does not have to be something that you do for work or for money. I think we are taught that to make a difference we have to do big things - start a charity or devote our life selflessly to the care of others. For some people this is their purpose but for many of us our purpose can simply be to raise kind children, to bring kindness and patience to our interactions with people, to connect with nature, to share joy and inspiration.

When I got fibromyalgia I really struggled with my identity and my lack of purpose. But it was actually my experience with chronic illness that led me to my purpose - to live a creative life and help people connect with nature and themselves in whatever form that takes - through photography or teaching or writing.

Since connecting to this purpose I have felt a deep happiness that isn’t necessarily a positive emotion, but an underlying contentment and appreciation that I get to do the work that I love. Sometimes I feel guilty that I have the privilege to do creative work and have had to spend a lot of time undoing the grip that capitalism has on my way of thinking. I am learning to allow myself to prioritise mental and physical well being - and to allow myself to be happy.

My overall take away from this lecture was that there is nothing wrong with me for not experiencing a lot of positive emotion and that positive emotion isn’t the only measure of happiness. Authentic happiness can exist alongside depression and anxiety, and for me, it does.

Do you have activities that put you into a state of flow - where you get completely absorbed and lose track of time? Do you feel like you have a purpose? I would love to hear your thoughts below and if you resonated with this piece.

Kind wishes,


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