How To Be Happy, According to Hugh van Cuylenburg

Hugh van Cuylenburg
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Words by JOHN AGNEW

Hugh van Cuylenburg is changing how we deal  with depression in a device-driven world. Make a mental note.

Let’s start with some alarming statistics: in Australia, one in seven primary-school-aged kids, one in four adolescents and one in five adults struggle with mental health issues. Hugh van Cuylenburg is trying to reverse those stats through The Resilience Project, an initiative that teaches young and old Australians more effective mental health strategies, using techniques like asking the question: What are three things that went well for you today?

When you make yourself vulnerable as a storyteller, you give people the permission to trust you. It’s a way to navigate a very difficult topic to talk about.

His greatest adversary is social media and in 2019, when the pull of technology is stronger than ever, van Cuylenburg’s is a modern-day David and Goliath story. Luckily, he’s persistent. ‘The biggest challenge for me initially was being resilient and practising what I preach,’ he says. ‘Because, for the first couple of years, no-one wanted to hear from me. No schools or businesses wanted to have me in.’

Over time, he has learnt that storytelling is the key to breaking through. ‘When you make yourself vulnerable as a storyteller, you give people the permission to trust you. It’s a way to navigate a very difficult topic to talk about.

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Hugh van Cuylenburg
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During one of his talks, he might mention the time cricketer Steve Smith called him for advice or how much value football players Billy Slater and Dustin Martin said they got from hearing one of his talks or even how he began his journey as the founder of The Resilience Project.

While volunteering at a school in India, van Cuylenburg came across a boy he describes as the happiest kid he’d ever met. Only later did he realise that same boy had no home or family and slept on a dirt floor, with a piece of cardboard fashioned into a pillow and blanket. The encounter convinced him to stay in India for another three months to try to understand what it was about life in this small community that inspired such unfettered joy. He returned to Australia with three things on his mind: gratitude, empathy and mindfulness.

If you want to be happy, and you want to be mentally healthy, it’s like anything in life: you’ve got to practise. It’s as simple as that.

Fast-forward eight years and The Resilience Project has reached more than 500 schools and 300,000 Australians. And its message is not just resonating among kids; it’s hitting home with professional athletes too. ‘Seeing the looks on their faces as I was presenting – and I was quite nervous about whether they were going to like it or not – I realised, “Wow, these boys really need this stuff”,’ he recalls thinking during a presentation to NRL team the Melbourne Storm. ‘A lot of elite sportspeople will base their happiness on how well they’re playing and if they’re going to win the finals. It’s a really dangerous model to live life by… so [if] you can’t play, does that mean that you can’t be happy? My job is to teach them to find purpose and meaning outside the sport.

It’s an uphill battle, especially in a world of instant gratification. ‘Social media is what terrifies me the most,’ says van Cuylenburg. ‘Young people are trying to get their basic psychological needs met through social media – the need for validation, to feel loved and like they belong – but it’s not real. It’s a parody of real life.’

While he doesn’t advocate doing away with devices or social media completely, he does recommend switching off notifications and removing attention-grabbing apps on the device’s home screen. Offline, van Cuylenburg suggests following a daily routine that involves practising 10 minutes of mindfulness, doing one kind deed for another person and writing down three things that went well for you during the day. ‘That way, you reframe your brain to start scanning the world for the good things, as opposed to what we’re naturally so good at doing – looking at the negatives. All up, it takes about 15 minutes of your day, but it can lead to  a very powerful transformation.’

Van Cuylenburg also created The Resilience Project app to help people stay on track after listening to one of his talks. But he does want people to be mindful of how they engage with technology, even if it’s only for 15 minutes. ‘Some people might say, “I don’t have 15 minutes, I’m very busy”. But I’d be fascinated to see how much time they spend on social media. If you want  to be happy, and you want to be mentally healthy, it’s like anything in life: you’ve got to practise. It’s as simple as that.’

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