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Illustration: Ben Jennings

Run, swim, cook: the new prescription for happiness

As three new books show, keeping active can be great for mental health. But government has a role to play as well

When Ella Risbridger was at her lowest ebb, sitting with a psychiatrist trying to explain why she had wanted to throw herself under a bus, help came from a wholly unexpected source. Her mind was “looking for a puzzle” to occupy itself, as she put it, something to take her outside the horrible thoughts she was having. And it settled, most unexpectedly, on baking.

She came home from hospital and made a pie, and from then on cooking became a sort of comfort and salvation. For her, the rhythmic and predictable act of making meals became a self-soothing ritual, a way not so much of curing her chronic anxiety as living through it. Even the recipe that provided the title of her wholly unconventional cookbook, Midnight Chicken, came from an afternoon spent lying on the floor wondering if she would ever be able to get up.

For Bella Mackie, the answer was running. One foot in front of the other, settling into a rhythm, pounding pavements to keep the dark feelings at bay. Her memoir Jog On, half love letter to running and half explanation of what it’s like to suffer from anxiety, appeared on the new year bestseller charts almost the minute it was released. January used to be the season of diet books and gym memberships, but judging by the boom in therapy memoirs – Spectator journalist Isabel Hardman’s book on how she took up cold water swimming and otherwise immersed herself in nature to help with her mental health is due later this year – young women don’t want to be thin now so much as they want to be happy.

The cult of wellness that brought us spiralised courgettes and mindfulness apps is rapidly moving on to something deeper, and arguably rather more honest. Interviewing fitness influencers last January, I was struck by how many talked about the gym as a means of keeping the black dog at bay. Millennials’ greater willingness to be open about their mental health seems to be peeling the lid off a vast subterranean pool of depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders and often low-level but chronic illness that was perhaps always there but never so openly acknowledged.

It should be said, too, that cooking and swimming are no substitute for properly funded clinical services under which people don’t have to wait months for the most basic forms of treatment (or indeed for early intervention in the lives of neglected and abused children, which might arguably go a long way towards preventing lifelong emotional damage).

In fairness, these writers aren’t pretending that anyone can bake or run or swim their way out of being sectioned; they are open about the more conventional treatments they’ve pursued alongside these activities, and the relapses they’ve suffered on the way. Nor are they arguing that what works for them will necessarily work for everyone – although anyone who has ever calmed themselves down at the end of a horrible day by stirring a risotto, deadheading a flowerbed or dragging the dog around the block can understand the value of doing something gentle, but just absorbing enough to distract from the problem at hand.

However, once an acute episode of mental illness is over, many people need a means of living with what’s so often left behind: a darkness pushed only to the corners of the room, and the knowledge that it could always come creeping back again. If you’ve had one episode of depression or anxiety, it is best to be prepared for the possibility of another.

For many people a chronic mental health condition is never quite cured so much as managed, by learning to recognise the early signs of the fog descending and doing whatever you can to stave it off. Hence the hunger for practical ways to keep yourself out of the doctor’s surgery, which cost next to nothing and should be accessible to most people in possession of a saucepan or a pair of trainers, which this new genre of self-help books is tapping into.

These writers may only be advocating what your granny would have called taking up a hobby, something to soothe and distract a troubled mind. But they are grappling on an individual level with an area all of us should perhaps be thinking harder about, since none of us know when we too might find ourselves poleaxed by a bereavement or a traumatic experience – and that’s the preventive side of the mental health argument. If we know now reasonably well what keeps people physically fit – moving more, eating less, staying socially connected into old age – we’re only scratching the surface of what might make people more mentally resilient.

David Cameron was mocked a decade ago for raising the concept of general wellbeing, or the idea that politicians should seek to raise and sustain the happiness of the nation in the same concerted way they have traditionally sought to raise GDP. But while all that was blown away by his government’s response to the financial crash, the idea of treating happiness as a serious and legitimate political goal remains an interesting one.

Beneath the all-enveloping fog of Brexit there are glimmerings of renewed interest in the politics of wellbeing, from the government’s creation of a minister for tackling loneliness (inspired by the work of Jo Cox MP) to shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s interest in shortening the working week. The argument is that by working less, and giving people more time to relax and do whatever drains the stresses from their lives, we could ultimately become a more productive nation. Or at least we might, so long as we didn’t fritter away all that extra free time in staring at a smartphone.

But the missing link in the jigsaw is connecting what has always sounded like a rather vague and fuzzy happiness agenda – nice to have, obviously, but hardly urgent – to the emerging scale of Britain’s mental health problem. Viewed through that particular lens, the pursuit of happiness begins to sound anything but trivial. It’s good to be reminded that, sometimes, happiness is in the small things. But it may take bigger changes in national life before everyone has the time and freedom to pursue them.

 Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist

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