Will Young on life's challenges, self-mastery, and the importance of intention
Where there's a Will... there’s a way to embrace wellbeing, and singer, songwriter, actor, podcast host, and author Will Young seems to be on the right path, as he discusses self-mastery, the importance of intention, misconceptions about fame, and the love of a good dog
"That’s my dog snoring in the background, I’m so sorry!” Will Young explains, smiling from the other side of the screen. His handsome rescue, Domino, the source of the melodic snore, is oblivious to the conversation as Will continues, sharing the experiences that led him to write and release his most recent book, Be Yourself and Happier: The A-Z of Wellbeing.
Will has so much to offer when it comes to talking about mental health. Back in 2011, he had a breakdown, accompanied by crippling agoraphobia. This period of severe mental ill-health was also the beginning of his desire for deep personal exploration, and he went on to work with multiple therapists, trial different modalities, and proactively educate himself on the mind-body connection.
For the past eight years, Will notes, he’s been fully immersed in the world of wellbeing, and he’s eager to help others if he can, by sharing the insights he’s gained along the way.
“It’s enlightenment really,” he says, reflecting on his discoveries. “When I got into myself and broke into past traumas and behaviours, I hit a wall – a wall that I had, through survival, not wanted to climb over, or even break through. As I learnt more about my humanity, I just wanted to share it. I’m really fascinated, I love the subject of mental health and wellbeing, and it’s sort of become my passion.”
To keep the mental health conversation going and growing, Will now hosts ‘The Wellbeing Lab’ podcast, a weekly exploration of therapy and life’s challenges. He’s covered an array of topics including shopping addiction, body dysmorphic disorder, sex addiction, and loss of sex drive, and he’s spoken to experts about boundaries, somatic therapy, CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), and dealing with rumination. Listeners write in and share their experiences, and, in turn, Will shares how certain topics resonate with him.
Putting his lived experiences front and centre of his work in wellbeing is crucial to Will. It helps him to develop an authentic connection with people who are looking for a more positive way forward, as he was. “All the stuff I do, comes from my own behaviour, so it’s from a place of absolutely no judgement,” he says. “Hopefully my book opens a door into a way of becoming what my old therapist, Louis Evans, used to call a ‘functional adult’ and gaining self-mastery, which is what we all want.”
Listening to Will talk about wellbeing and how we manage ourselves is really refreshing.
He’s taken years of therapy and study, and reframed it in a way that’s accessible. He advocates for a series of small personal behaviour tweaks and daily self-awareness practices that can make a huge difference in how we show up for ourselves and others.
Will believes that it’s imperative to start with how we, as individuals, speak and behave when it comes to our wellbeing and the energy we project into the world.
“There’s lots of tiny things that are so nuanced but actually really powerful that I’ve learnt over the years. We’ve got to be really quite rigid and watch out for certain language. Notice how often we use the word ‘but’. ‘Today I’m feeling positive but quite anxious,’ or ‘Today I’m feeling positive and quite anxious.’ It takes away the judgement.’
“The use of the word ‘I’ in conflict resolution is crucial. Always talk from the ‘I’ position,” Will continues. “And intention is key, too. I use the example of apologising; if I apologise because I want to make you like me again, my intention isn’t to own my stuff. Or if my hope is that you’ll apologise too, then it’s not a real apology! Drill down into intentions, and really try to find the most authentic one, otherwise you’ll always come up short, and you’ll remain frustrated and unhappy.”
While Will is fascinated by the use and impact of language, he’s equally interested in how everyday tasks can improve our sense of wellbeing, including gardening and cleaning.
“Weirdly, since lockdown, I get a lot out of looking after my house, and I’m not actually the most clean person in terms of my house – it’s not perfect!” he laughs. “I do little and often cleaning, that’s my rule. I love nurturing my house, because it’s an extension of me.”
There’s a sense that the simple, everyday tasks are key elements of Will’s wellbeing toolkit, and with our chat taking place over Zoom, it’s easy to see how settled and grounded he is at home. There’s absolute generosity in the way that he shares his experiences and our conversation is peppered with reality checks to ensure that he’s by no means portraying himself as having reached the summit of balance and wellness.
Will’s ready to bust some commonly held myths about his profession, too. Having been in the public eye for more than 20 years, he’s a household name. As a singer, songwriter, actor, author, and podcast host, he remains in the media glare, too. This is not, he insists, a source of difficulty for him.
“It’s not tough, honestly,” Will says on the subject. “If I got lost in the fame side of things, or that pressure… It’s not reality. It would be so easy for me to say, ‘Oh the difficulty.’ We could have a whole conversation about trolls online and haters, but I don’t even want to be involved in that area of life! I don’t read anything on social media, I don’t read reviews. If there’s a problem, people will tell me.
“That’s how I react to it,” he offers. “From the very beginning, I just saw it all as an illusion and nonsense, so I wasn’t going to make it a reason for my difficulties in life. I’m very, very fortunate. So I just navigate getting away from the negative stuff as much as possible.”
Growing older and more comfortable in his own skin, Will shares, is something he has a deep appreciation of, and it could be a contributing factor to his ability to care less now about what others say and think. He knows who he is, what he stands for, and he owns it.
“I love getting older, it’s so brilliant. I’ll never forget, years ago, Michael Gracey, a great director and friend I worked with, said to me, ‘The thing is, cool is being yourself, so just be yourself.’ I think I needed to learn lessons growing up though, I don’t think you can fast forward through them.”
In addition to the experience he’s gained over the years, the work he’s done on himself and the pursuit of his passions, having dogs is a big part of Will’s sense of being grounded. He has two dogs – Esme and the gently snoozing Domino, who came into Will’s life last year. He rescued Domino and his sister Diamond, who now lives with Will’s parents. Both were just hours away from being put down.
“I feel like it’s a miracle Domino’s here,” he explains. “Everything aligned. I didn’t need any more dogs, I wasn’t looking to get any more dogs. Now we go to the cafe everyday, he gets chicken, that’s the deal, and what’s so great is that I interact with the world through him. I can find mornings quite difficult – I can wake up quite groggy and anxious – so it’s a lovely safe way of doing that. He’s almost like my emotional support dog!
“He’s just so loving,” Will continues, looking fondly at Domino. “And now I’m obsessed with videos about rescue dogs. My friends tell me they can’t watch them because they’re so sad, but I say, ‘Look, they’re so happy now!’ They get these dogs and they’re so traumatised, but then they enact these simple acts of gaining trust, play, eating, exercise, socialising, and you just see the dogs transform. It never fails to amaze me – and we can do the same things for ourselves.”
‘Be Yourself and Happier: The A-Z of Wellbeing’ by Will Young (Ebury Spotlight, £14.99) is out now.
Photography | Joseph Sinclair