“If we banished dragons, there would be no heroes.”
- Andrew Solomon
I spent about a year and a half being depressed, but I didn’t realize it until a year after it began. I am, thankfully, not depressed anymore, but that doesn’t mean I’m necessarily happy, neither am I unhappy. I’m in the process of growing into the person I want to be, and I hope to find happiness along the way. Even if I don’t find it, there are a few very important lessons I’ve learned in the past couple years that I would really like to share.
Everyone has an idea of what depression looks like – crying, sluggish, loss of interest, etc – but in reality, there are different kinds of depression and it affects everyone differently, which is why it took me so long to see that I was depressed. My dad, who had struggled with it before, had to tell me for months that I was depressed before I believed him. I was in disbelief, because I had many moments of happiness and I was functioning. I never missed a day of work, I spent time with friends and family, I was writing. That didn’t look like depression to me.
But I was stuck. For over a year, I felt like I wasn’t moving forward, and worse, I felt like no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get anywhere. I was stuck in the same emotional place, and even when I did experience happiness, it wouldn’t be long before I was sad again. For eight months, I cried at least once a week, and I felt weighed down by life. I did not like myself, and I was angry at my life circumstances. Worst of all, I couldn’t see an end to it. I couldn’t see a day when things would be better and when I would be okay again.
I was experiencing something called walking depression, which means you could be a perfectly functioning person, carrying on with your life and responsibilities every day, but you feel hollow or empty inside. Because people who experience this type of depression are so functional on the outside, it’s hard for anyone else to notice how much they are suffering on the inside. Often, they can be ignorant or in denial about it, like I was.
When I first learned about walking depression, I read a quote by Matthew Quick that described exactly how I felt: “… succumbing to depression doesn’t mean you are weak, but that you have been trying to be strong for too long, which is maybe a form of denial.” When you are missing something inside of you, it makes it so much harder to move forward with your life. I remember trying to so hard to just be happy again. I tried changing my circumstances, my attitude, I tried exercising more, going to bible study, but it was so hard to just keep trying to do these things when I wasn’t getting any happier. It was exhausting to just keep trying. The result was that I would give up, and then later try again, only to give up once more.
Then I listened to Andrew Solomon’s Ted Talk, “Depression, the Secret We Share,” and he made so much sense to me. He was describing a time when he was lying in bed and the phone was ringing, but he just couldn’t find the will to answer the phone. He says that no one talks about how stupid depression is. It’s makes everyday simple things infinitely harder to do, such as answering a phone. He knew he could answer it, because he had done it many times before, but this time he just couldn’t.
Before I was depressed, I used to have this underlying happiness and peace that helped me through any difficulty in my life. I knew that the difficulty would pass, and that I would be happy again. Looking back, I know when I became depressed because my mentality flipped. Happiness seemed fleeting and sadness was what I would revert to.
The most important lesson I learned in the past two years was that depression and happiness are not opposites. It is completely possible to experience happiness while depressed, and vice versa. In Andrew Solomon’s Ted Talk, he says, “The opposite of depression isn't happiness, it's vitality.” Being depressed doesn’t mean you’re sad all the time, it means that you’ve lost something inside of you. No matter how hard you try, you just can’t or don’t know how to get it back. Often, it’s just too hard to even try. That something you lose is different for everyone.
The second most important lesson is that sadness is necessary, and not something we should avoid in the pursuit of happiness. For anyone who has seen Disney Pixar’s Inside Out, what I appreciated the most about that movie was how they acknowledge the necessity of sadness. According to that movie, everyone has five core emotions, and there’s usually one in particular that governs above the rest. I think that’s true. My governing emotion has been sadness for most of my life, but I don’t see that as a bad thing. It means that I’m compassionate and willing to see the tough things in this world, while also remaining hopeful. I don’t like running from sadness, I embrace it, and that doesn’t make me depressed.
Contrastingly, one of my closest friends is definitely governed by joy, and I like to reference the movie when I tell her she puts sadness in a sadness circle. As the movie points out, that is dangerous and unhealthy. You just can’t be happy all the time, and you shouldn’t be. In Matthew Hutson’s article, “Happiness: The Upside of Feeling Down,” he explains that though our unpleasant feelings (jealousy, envy, anger, sadness, etc) have been called sins and looked down upon, they aren’t inherently bad. Emotions are neither bad nor good, because each one has a job to contribute in our “changes in motivation, physiology, attention, perception, beliefs, and behaviors.”
Hutson says, “Sadness comes in response to a real or potential loss and signals that restoration is needed. As a result, it motivates change, and different types of sadness stimulate different types of fix.” This a beautiful way to look at sadness. Being sad, or depressed is a signal that you need healing, and there is something in your life that needs to be fixed. Sadness also has a lot of other benefits, such as reducing how you see stereotypes, making you more sensitive and compassionate toward others, and it increases your politeness and fairness, as well as your rationality. Ironically, Hutson says when you accept sadness, it lowers depression. Conversely, happiness can lead to superficiality, excessive pride, and risk taking. Sadness can definitely be a good thing, and happiness can also be bad.
Happiness is still by far a good thing to have, and I’ve learned some things about this feeling too. While I was depressed, all I wanted was to not only be happy, but to keep it. I had moments of happiness, but they never lasted. The most essential lesson I’ve learned about happiness is that happiness shouldn’t be your main goal in life, because there are far more important things. I’ve discovered that if you’re main goal in life is to be happy, then happiness will be more difficult for you to obtain.
Emily Esfahani Smith agrees with me in her article for The Atlantic, “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy.” She features the story of Victor Frankl, “a prominent Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist in Vienna, [who] was arrested and transported to a Nazi concentration camp with his wife and parents” in 1942. Three years later, his camp was liberated, but most of his family, including his pregnant wife, had died. He went on to write the bestselling book, Man's Search for Meaning, which is about his experience there.
In his book, he wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing… the last of the human freedoms – to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way." When the Nazis had first begun sending the Jewish people to concentration camps, they started with the elderly. Frankl got his visa so that he and his new wife could go start a new life in America, where he could further his career as a psychiatrist. But, he knew his parents would be taken to the camps soon, and he had the choice to go to America where he’d be safe, or stay and take care of his parents in the camp. He chose to stay.
In the camps, he worked as a therapist to those who were there with him, and it became one his highest duties to help suicidal people find a reason to live. He writes, “A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the "why" for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any "how."” Here, he is referring to a man who had a son in another country, and another man who wanted to finish a series of books he had been working on. They had both wanted to die before Frankl reminded them for a reason to live.
Frankl could have chosen happiness in America. He could have had success and a family. He chose something more important, which led to a lot of suffering, including losing those he loved, but he also saved a lot of people, and helped countless more. He chose a meaningful life over a happy one.
Though it was one of the worst and hardest experiences of my life, I’m thankful I was depressed. It helped solidify my choice in becoming a therapist, and I feel I can empathize and help others more. It also shifted my goals and perception on life. I don’t aim to be happy anymore. I aim to be a better person, to further my life, achieve my goals, and help others. Frankl said, “But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to 'be happy.'" I’m confident that as I follow my dreams, happiness will follow, but I feel even more assured knowing that if I’m not happy, I will live. I just have to be doing something more with my life than living for myself. I have to have meaning.
"Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself -- be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself -- by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love -- the more human he is." - Frankl
p.s. My favorite interesting find about happiness was that ‘awe’ is the best emotion for you to experience. Gretchen Reynolds writes that research shows experiencing awe promotes health over all other positive emotions.
Finding True Happiness by Fulton Sheen