“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.
I remember feeling the same way countless times when it came to making doctor appointments, writing cover letters for jobs, or doing other small things. I felt so stupid, because I knew I was capable of doing these things, but I just could not do them. No amount of energy or trying would make it any easier. No one understood why I couldn’t just write a stupid cover letter, or pick up the phone to make a stupid appointment. I didn’t understand it either, but when I actually sat at a laptop to write, it was the hardest thing to do, and I couldn’t finish. Then whenever I didn’t do the thing that was so simple to do, like take out the trash, I hated myself for not doing it, which made me more sad, which made anything else I had to do ever harder. It’s stupid. Now that I’m not depressed, things like that aren’t hard anymore. If I need to make an appointment, after some procrastination, I’ll make one. If I need to take out the trash, I’ll do it. If I need to write a cover letter, after some dread, I’ll write it.
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. I’ll talk about the most important thing I learned about happiness last, but there are a few other things I discovered. Before I was depressed, I never read articles about happiness, because, well, I was happy. When I realized I wasn’t happy anymore, all of those “how to be happy” articles attracted me, and they were very interesting, though I don’t know how helpful they were.
The most annoying constant advice I kept hearing and reading was “be thankful… generosity leads to happiness.” I was depressed. Gratitude was not an easy thing to accomplish, nor did I want to try. I remember reading an article about the key to lasting happiness in marriage, which was kindness and generosity. These are nice ideas to talk about, but accomplishing them is another thing. If you don’t feel like doing something, or it’s too much work and you don’t have enough energy, sometimes it’s not possible to just be thankful and kind. So what do you do?
For me, I kept doing the thing that was easy, or at least easier than everything else. I wrote blogs and stories, because I loved doing both. My blogs make me feel like I’m helping others and myself at the same time. My stories are my creative outlet, and I just love writing. Cover letters suck though. I hate writing those. If there is something you love, or a routine that makes you feel good, then keep doing that. Maybe it’s just finding the time to surround yourself with people who love you, which also takes the effort of others, so it’s less of a burden on you.
Interestingly, around the time I realized I was depressed was the same time I joined a bible study group, and they were reading a book called Finding True Happiness by Fulton Sheen. This short book is filled with wisdom, but I find some of it cliché, untrue, or unhelpful, and since it is a religious book, the answer to everything is God. I believe developing a real relationship with God can lead to true happiness, but that doesn’t always work, and there are plenty of happy people who don’t know or have God in their lives.
Still, it’s worth including some of the wisdom this book has to offer. Sheen says, “Pleasure is of the body; joy is of the mind and heart” (pg. 14). He explains that pleasure is fleeting happiness and it has a limit. Too much pleasure can be painful, such as eating so much that you get a stomach ache. No matter how much you love food, having too much can physically hurt you. However, joy can always be increased, and then you’ll just have more joy. This is why simply doing what makes you happy doesn’t always lead to true happiness. Eating can make you happy. Watching Netflix can make you happy. But you won’t live a fulfilled and happy life just with those things.
Sheen also says, “Pleasure is like beauty; it is conditioned by contrast” (pg. 19). We experience more happiness after overcoming a difficulty. We have more appreciation for something when we know what it’s like to not have it. Thus, happiness and sadness are compliments of each other. He also says that a good conscience leads to happiness, and vice versa.
My favorite quote is this: “For if there is sadness in our hearts it is because there is not enough love. But to be loved, we must be lovable; to be lovable, we must be good; to be good, we must know Goodness, and to know Goodness is to love God, and neighbor, and everybody in the world” (pg.45). Basically, you’ll be happy when you are loved, but more importantly when you love others. A few pages later, he adds, “Joy is rejoicing in another's progress” (pg. 49).
Now for the most essential lesson I’ve learned about happiness – “Pleasure is a by-product, not a goal” (pg. 20). Sheen isn’t the only one who touches on this, but from my experience, 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. Even more crucial than that, happiness shouldn’t be your main goal in life, because there are far more important things.
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. Research today shows that though there is a lot of overlap between meaning and happiness, there are also major distinctions.
Psychological scientists found that, “Leading a happy life… is associated with being a "taker" while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a "giver." People correspond happiness with having all their needs and desires met, and when life is going well. “Happiness, they found, is about feeling good... The happy life is also defined by a lack of stress or worry,” says Smith. Interestingly, “People whose lives have high levels of meaning often actively seek meaning out even when they know it will come at the expense of happiness. Because they have invested themselves in something bigger than themselves, they also worry more and have higher levels of stress and anxiety in their lives than happy people.”
Throughout my college years, I was really happy, and back then, I would have chosen for my life to stay that way. I did not want sadness or difficulty. I did not want to deal with problems in this world. I wanted to be happy. And I was happy because I was in school, living with good friends, had a good relationship with God, working, and making good choices. I had all that I needed and wanted. I stopped being happy when I wanted more, because I was lonely and wanted deeper companionship than friends and family can give. Also, I started making bad choices and I stopped liking myself. Then my world just shifted and I lost a lot of things that were important to me.
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