Breakdowns, Breakthroughs, and Finding Happiness with Author Todd Patkin

By , Columnist

In his mid-30s, Todd Patkin had a full-on, misery-inducing, completely overwhelming nervous breakdown. But he now insists that it was actually a breakthrough.

Indeed, as author of Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In, Patkin has turned his nervous breakthrough into a way to help others, as he shares many of the things he learned from his 1/3-life crisis, from forming happiness-inducing habits to developing ways to combat the workaholic, guilt-inducing lifestyle that led to his breakdown.

Here he shares with me his insights and recommendations for 20-somethings looking to lead a happier and less anxious life in the face of a tough economy, an uncertain future, and what could (but doesn’t have to) be a looming quarter-life crisis.

An unhappy lifestyle like the one you initially describe sounds like an addiction. As young people, we’re told to follow our passion. Is that like saying no to the "unhappy lifestyle drug"?

Yes and no. I think that following your passion is one element of “saying no to the unhappy lifestyle drug,” but overall it’s more complicated than that. You see, we’ve all been wired to focus on the mistakes we make—ostensibly so that we can learn from them and do better next time. However, this fixation on what we do wrong can also lead to low self-esteem, anxiety, and even depression. So even if you are following your passion, you still have to retrain your brain to also look at what you do well, and you have to learn to love yourself and stop beating yourself up all the time. We must remember that we are human, and thus fallible, and so it is impossible to be perfect without any mistakes. However, doing things that you enjoy is definitely a factor in living your happiest life!

Looking at your recommendation to avoid being your own worst critic, I wonder: what would you say to 20-somethings in the midst of a quarter-life crisis, feeling lost in the face of their futures and feeling guilty about feeling lost?

I certainly understand why young people in their 20s feel lost in the face of their futures. Ultimately [though], life isn’t about “figuring it out” so much as doing good where you are and when you can, as well as forging meaningful relationships and surrounding yourself with as much love, positivity, and happiness as possible. It’s important for all of us, no matter how old we are, to live in the moment more and worry about the future less. Being too fixated on what might happen, what should happen, or what you do or don’t want to happen will literally waste your life. (Also, dwelling on regrets from the past are life-killers too.)

Being of the melodramatic 20-something female demographic, the idea of being told that we should "surround ourselves with positive people" is like a breath of fresh air for me. Do you have any tips for attracting these types of people and avoiding the drama and upset that comes from being regularly exposed to negative or unhappy people?

I wish there was a foolproof, magic bullet answer to this question. But the truth is, surrounding yourself with more positive people is a process, and you are in the driver’s seat. First of all, I have noticed that you tend to attract what you are. If you are constantly complaining, worrying, and pointing out everything that’s going wrong, chances are so will the people you’re with. However, if you’re hopeful, constructive, and positive, your friends and co-workers will gradually become this way as well. Think about it—it’s harder to carry on a gripe-fest around the water cooler if someone in the group is calling attention to everything that’s going well! Plus, when you’re positive, others with similar mindsets will tend to seek you out. ... Being conscious of who you’re spending your time with is very important; in fact, studies have shown that you will be the average of the five people you spend the most time with in terms of your happiness levels.

Along those lines, if you could've given your 20-something self a piece of advice to help you avoid or mitigate the effect of your mid-30s breakdown, what would it have been?

I would have helped myself to realize that I will never be perfect. I would have told myself, "If you continue your quest for perfection and always focus on attaining and achieving more—to the exclusion of everything else—you’ll eventually burn yourself out and break down. Or you’ll wake up at age 70, realizing that you wasted your life, that you were never home with your wife and son, and that you never developed meaningful relationships."

At the end of the day, you only have one life . . . what matters and lasts after your time is up are the people you have loved and affected and touched.

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Emmie Scott is an English major-turned-marketing exec, with a passion for writing, humor, sharing knowledge, and "pink drinks." After hours, she started Are Toe Rings Professional Attire?, a blog for college grads and twenty-somethings looking to find their way through that daunting labyrinth called…

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