Jonny Wilkinson on finding happiness in who we really are


He is officially rugby’s greatest ever player, but happiness for Jonny is so much more than a career fit for the history books

Jonny Wilkinson mental health Vitality

What does it mean to be truly happy?

A dictionary definition is ‘a state of being happy’, but what does that really mean?

Is it to do with finding contentment in the person that we are, the people around us, or the things we own?

Or is it all of them, or even none of them? For Jonny Wilkinson, England rugby legend and Vitality ambassador, happiness has a different meaning.

“Definitions of happiness are actually more to do with fleeting pleasure and brief moments of feeling good about yourself,” he tells Vitality.

“But happiness, for me, is far deeper than that.”

Knowing your self-worth

At the height of his international career, you might think that Jonny Wilkinson, a former fly-half and England’s 2003 World Cup hero, had it all. But his mental health suffered devastatingly from his high-pressure role as rugby’s greatest ever player - an accolade he officially received last year.

And achieving a rugby career fit for the history books hasn’t stopped Jonny from searching for his happiness.

“I think that happiness is an exploration of what it means to be alive, not what it means to be winning at life,” he explains. “Society is so driven towards this idea of that we will all find ever-lasting happiness when we have ‘this’. 

According to Jonny, happiness is sacrificed when feelings of insufficiency and a lack of self-worth take over in the pursuit of an idealised version of what we think we want. He says: “We get that short, truncated version, which plays to our sense of insufficiency that we are lacking or not enough.

“The actual opportunity here, is to explore the truth of the fact that we are enough, and ultimately, when we start to recognise that, disappointment can’t touch your self-worth.”

He adds: “Losing or feeling sometimes weak or vulnerable has got nothing to do with self-worth, your actual self-worth.

“Neither has winning or being recognised by everyone, or feeling powerful, the self-worth part is on a deeper more subtle level and it’s available right here, right now.”

But trying to find self-worth and trying to believe that we are each enough is easier said than done.

Moving from survival to 'create' state

Survival mode - sometimes referred as ‘fight or flight’ - occurs when our bodies are activated by stress, releasing hormones, such as cortisol, into our body that activate our stress response systems.

While stress was something that originally evolved to help us handle threats, consistent stress can become emotionally harmful and trigger us into prolonged survival mode.

“Survival mode just means, for me, that if I can get through this situation, unharmed, unchanged, then that’s a good thing,” says Jonny.

“That desire for freedom to feel good about myself, that relationship with myself, my self-worth, all that disappears as soon as I go into survival mode.”The experts say that connection is key to removing yourself from consistent stresses is learning how to live, not just survive in a situation.

When in survival mode, we often overlook what it is that we need, and instead focus just on getting by. Something Jonny knows all too well.

“Undoubtedly, my journey was about a disconnection with myself,” he admits.

But learning how to move into a more creative state - what he calls his “create state” - was what helped Jonny reconnect and find self-awareness.“As you move into the create state, it completely redefines the situation,” he notes.

“One of the biggest things I do, even throughout my day, to help me with things I find more challenging, is to be aware of relaxing; and whether that’s physically, letting go of my shoulders, or feeling the floor when I walk, it’s also hugely to do with my breathing rhythms.”

He adds: “Hugely, another one is to do with self-compassion and self-love, and to explore those as often as you can throughout your day.

“We can’t often realise how often we are triggered into survival mode, how often we are holding our breath, how often we are trying to get jobs done around the house.

“But we need to challenge that idea that we can’t be at ease when doing anything throughout our life.

“And whenever you do feel yourself opening up, even just for a minute, just breathe and relax, and allow your whole system, essentially, embrace it, explore and engage with it.”

If you are a member of Vitality with qualifying health insurance and life insurance you could get 12 months membership to Headspace on us. 

All you need to do is log into Member Zone for more details. 

The power of goal setting

Goal setting is also a powerful way of giving us a sense of meaning and purpose to life.

These can be as big or small as you feel capable to manage, the importance is to set them, as Vitality’s founder, Adrian Gore, states: “When people have an aim, it sets them on a journey that gives them agency and an affirming sense of self-determination.”

In his very own goal, Adrian, set himself the challenge of running a mile in five minutes... at the age of 58.

As well as raising the awareness of physical activity, as part of Vitality’s core purpose: to make people healthier, he wanted to connect the concept of ‘loss aversion’ to goal setting.  

By this, he wanted to show that humans dislike losing something twice as much as they like gaining somethingBut the speed, distance or magnitude of the goal you set yourself should be something totally personal.

For Jonny, achieving relaxation is part of his small set of goals that he wants to achieve every day – not just as a coping mechanism, but as a growth mechanism. “I think there’s a misrepresentation that winning will bring you ultimate joy or ecstasy, but it doesn’t compare to the depths of absolute relaxation.

“One of them is a fleeting moment, but there is something so much deeper about being able to connect to yourself.”

He continues: “It could be a moment where I find myself tensing and I catch it and I breathe into it, that’s a small goal won.

“Whenever we win enough of those little goals that can keep us on the path and as we start to gain momentum and feel good about ourselves, things start to unfold more effortlessly.”

Jonny acknowledges, though, it’s not just about the goals we set ourselves, but it’s about how we get them done. “And this idea of once you get something done then you can be you and then you can relax, that shouldn’t be the case.

“You should ask yourself if you can get all the things you need to get done in the way you want to do it.

“And that there in itself is a beautiful thing, because everyone can get through stuff and get stuff done but can you do it in a way that connects you to you, because it will connect you to everyone else in the same way.”

So, whatever your route to finding your purpose might be, be it to reconnect with yourself, like Jonny continues to do on a daily basis, or Adrian’s mission to bring attention to physical activity by setting himself a personal challenge - goal-setting can have a powerful and profound impact on finding a deeper sense of happiness.

At Vitality, we’re all about encouraging our members to make small positive lifestyle choices that can make a big impact to their lives. 

As a Vitality member with a qualifying health insurance or life insurance plan, you can receive mental health support through a range of partner brands.

Log into Member Zone to find out more on how to support your mental health.

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