rebelling against low expectations

“What do happy teens do?”

It’s an unfortunate reality that our generation struggles intensely with anxiety and depression.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), 32% of teens 13-18 years old struggle with an anxiety disorder.

There’s a lot we could (and should) go into here, but it makes you wonder what’s causing this and what can teens do to reverse the trend? What do happy teens do?

I recently read an interesting article by Psychology Today (PT), which asked this very question: What do happy teens do?

The article primarily pointed out what seems to make teens unhappy and it’s interesting.

They found the more time teens spent on their phones, the less happy they were and vice-versa. (Surprise!)

They also noted the effects of sleep and spending time face-to-face with friends. They said, “The strongest correlation with happiness is sleep — teens who say they get more than seven hours of sleep more nights are happier.”

Furthermore, they noted, “…with the exception of sleep, activities that usually involve being with other people are the most strongly correlated with happiness, and those that involve being alone are the most strongly correlated with unhappiness.”

Of course, the PT article is largely speculation, but I think it does provide some insight into what affects our happiness.

As Christians, we obviously believe there is more which plays into our happiness than mere science can tell–our fallen nature, sin, the devil, and all that. This is very important to consider and we do so all the time.

But sometimes we forget our own humanness and physicality and how poor habits can affect our mood.

The reality is, your body was not meant to spend hours a day watching YouTube videos or scrolling Instagram. God created us with a need for physical activity, social connection, and rest.

So, it might be obvious to you by now (I hope it is!), but if you’re feeling anxious inside or simply not happy, here’s three things I suggest you do. They’re not cure-alls, mind you. But they are super simple tricks any of us can start doing to be healthier and happier.

1. Get eight or more hours of sleep every night for a week straight

If you’re like me, the excuses are immediately popping up:

“But I’m a night owl! I love staying up late!”

“But I’ll just lay there thinking all night.”

I know all that and I’m not saying you have to do this for the rest of your life. I’m just saying, try it for one week and see how you feel.

If you need to listen to music, turn on some white noise, or read a book in order to fall asleep, that’s fine. Just no phones (we’ll get to that next).

Obviously everyone’s schedule is different, but it may be worth rearranging or re-prioritizing your schedule in order to make sure you get adequate sleep.

Best case scenario: you’ll have more energy (and thus will be more efficient during the day), you’ll be healthier (and thus spend less time on the couch sick or at the doctor), and overall much happier.

2. Put down your phone (a lot)

Whatever the reasons may be, it’s pretty well established that phones do not help our mood.

It may be because it stimulates the brain and hinders sleep or it may be because it distracts you from the joys of real life and real friends and the beautiful cloud formation that’s happening right above you but you’re missing out on because you’re reading my run-on sentence.

Trust me on this one. Put down your phone. Go outside, breathe in the fresh air. Pet your dog and run around your backyard like you’re seven again. Read a book or learn an instrument or make a new friend. Do something other than ogling at your phone all day.

I say this as someone who loves the internet.

I love surfing YouTube, scrolling Instagram, reading pun-filled Facebook pages, or listening to sports or political commentators argue about extremely temporal things. (Maybe I have some deeper heart issues to work on, too.)

Take a stab at happiness: Put down your phone and do so often throughout the day.

3. Go spend time face-to-face with friends

As we can see in Genesis, God did not create us to do life alone. Feeling lonely (in itself) is not a sin. Adam in his perfect state was “lonely” and God said it wasn’t good (Genesis 2:18).

Friends can make us laugh, have fun, and forget about the hard parts of life. They also can sometimes be the hard parts of life. That’s actually really good because it gives us an opportunity to stop focusing on ourselves and learn to love and forgive and be loved and be forgiven.

We were created for relationship. Contrary to online relationships, face-to-face relationships give you the ability to see the flaws of the other individual.

You can see the pimple on their face or the stain on their shirt and you’re reminded they’re imperfect, just like you. And it’s in face-to-face connection where you can laugh and joke and hurt each other and then work it out and realize that “Hey, there’s someone in the world who’s committed to not giving up on me no matter what.”

And that’s a happy thought.

BONUS THOUGHT A: True happiness will never be found gazing at yourself

I call this a bonus thought because it wasn’t extracted from the Psychology Today article. However, it’s really the most important point. Or one of the two most important points, at least.

Some of you have probably tried all these things and still don’t feel happy.

Perhaps you’ve tried all the conventional wisdom of self-care: spending time at rest, adding margin to your life, picking up hobbies. Maybe you’ve gone the spiritual route and in pursuit of relief have read Scripture voraciously and prayed incessantly.

I’ve tried most of these things and often I wind up disappointed. Not because there isn’t value in setting boundaries and creating margin for rest and hobbies in your life. Those are very good things. Nor is it because Scripture somehow lacks meaningful sustenance for my soul or because prayer is ineffective. Absolutely not!

No, the reason I’ve been disappointed so often is not so much because of what I was doing, but because of what I was focusing on.

When I focus on whether or not I’m happy, I usually end up less happy. I point fingers and blame my friends and family or God himself for not living up to my expectations.

The hard truth is we will never be fully and completely satisfied in this life. There will always be an ache in our chests, longing for something different.

Death, for example, is not something we were designed to understand. God didn’t create the world with death in it. But it’s still something every single one of us will face–and it’s going to make us feel unhappy.

Broken bones, stolen friends, and last goodbyes are not happy experiences, but experiences we all face at some point in our lives. And we’ll ache for it not to be so.

Sometimes the ache will be strong; sometimes it’ll be a faint murmur in the background nearly forgotten in the happy stages of life. But it will always be there telling us “This isn’t everything. It can’t be everything. There must be more.”

That old C.S. Lewis quote captures the feeling so perfectly: “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world” (Mere Christianity).

BONUS THOUGHT B: “Whoever loses his life because of Me will find it”

So is that all I have to offer: “Don’t focus on being happy because you’ll never be happy on earth?”

Anxiety, depression, sadness–all these things can be incredibly nuanced and varied. People are different. You may never figure out why you’re sad. Getting sleep, staying off your phone, and being around real, physical friends will be a huge help.

But ultimately, the only person who can love you unconditionally and is unconditionally committed to you and your well-being is Jesus. As John Piper loves to say, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.”

I don’t think I could ever say Jesus cures your unhappiness or that if you just read the Bible and pray more you’ll suddenly be happier. You won’t.

But running to him for comfort and restoration when we encounter those broken bones, stolen friends, and last goodbyes is what will get us through the unhappy seasons.

It’s not so much about curing your unhappiness or your anxiety or your depression–it’s about taking those things to the right place and simply abiding in his presence and from that seeking healing.

As you do that and you begin to focus less on yourself and your woes, he will open up your eyes to the people around you, to the needs around you, and to the joys around you (like that beautiful cloud formation, for example, he’s making right now just for your pleasure).

And every now and then you might wake up and feel happy. When you do and if you happen to notice it (because you might not even think about it), don’t focus on it.

Don’t try to capture joy because joy is wild and free and refuses to be caged. Instead, keep on loving people, keep on serving people, keep on searching for healing, and keep on being loved by God.

That’s what happy teens actually do.

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About the author

Christopher Witmer

is the 24-year-old Editor-in-Chief for Originally from Northern Minnesota, he lives with his family in Los Angeles where they moved to plant inner-city churches. He loves sports, travel, and music, but his passion is writing for God and lifting high the name of Jesus through his writing.

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By Christopher Witmer
rebelling against low expectations

The Rebelution is a teenage rebellion against low expectations—a worldwide campaign to reject apathy, embrace responsibility, and do hard things. Learn More →