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Happiness, Depression, and Humor

August is Happiness Happens month. Happiness can be contagious.

The month of August has been known as Happiness Happens Month. The idea is that each day, you should do something that brings happiness, either to yourself or others. The effort can be as small as smiling at a stranger, to doing a good deed for someone in need. When looking after one’s own happiness, you might want to just run through a grassy field, jump in the ocean, blow bubbles, or drink something pink. It won’t be long before you discover happiness is contagious.

It is ironic, however, that during this month of happiness, Robin Williams, one of the most poignant and talented American comedians and actors, life has ended tragically in suicide. Williams was found by his personal assistant, hanging from a doorframe. How much pain must he have been in to end his life in such a way? A dark cloud must have been hanging over Williams’ life on that full moon weekend and a deep sense of helplessness must have set in. Apparently, Williams had been battling the demons of depression, and although he was reportedly sober at the time of his death, he had seen his share of struggles with alcoholism and cocaine addiction. He also seemed to be predisposed to depression, because his suicide happened close after his recent diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease, which can understandably change someone’s vision of the world.

While he was making the world around him laugh, he was hurting inside. It is an interesting phenomenon that those who are the funniest on the outside are so often the ones hurting most on the inside. When used on a regular basis, can humor be considered a mask for internal demons? Some say yes, but humor may also be considered a coping mechanism, allowing the depressed individual to function. Having a sense of humor also has its rewards because it places the focus on others or on a specific situation or set of circumstances. When our focus turns outward, we can avoid the pain of turning in and so it can be seen as an escape from one’s own problems.

In his article, “Robin Williams and the Mask of Humor,” Mikhail Lyubansky. Ph.D. discusses humor in the context of the incarcerated youth he works with who use humor and making others laugh as a way to cover up the pain encompassing their family life. He admits that in that moment when they are making someone else happy, these troubled youth are hurting less. Personally, I don’t find anything wrong with this, as long as the individuals are also addressing the painful issues or problems in their lives that need to be addressed. The alternative to making people laugh is making them cry or inflicting pain upon others. Clearly this does not adhere to the tenets of positive psychology

Happiness may be thought of as a genetic trait and so might depression, but the environment and what’s going on in our lives also plays a huge part in our attitude. But in both cases, happiness is something that we should try to nurture every day. Sometimes life just seems to get too difficult and depression gets in the way of happiness, such as in the case of Williams when he made the extreme decision to take his life. We do not know for sure, but perhaps his propensity for depression, coupled with his early diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease just put him over the edge into suicide.

My first exposure to suicide was losing my grandmother when I was ten years old. I found her lying peacefully in her bed with an empty bottle of sleeping pills on her bedside table. I was too young to understand the possible ramifications of depression and dealing with the demons of one’s childhood. My grandmother was orphaned during World War I. Not that there’s an excuse for suicide, but understanding someone’s past helps the living come to grips with tragedy. Now, as a sextogenarian, I get it. I understand how illness and pain can make someone so sad they find no reason to go on. Addictions are only the symptom of the problem, not its cause. People reach for drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling and other addictions as a way to treat their deep sadness and keep it at bay. The “high” they may experience may be false and only temporary, but preferable to the “low” they’re feeling inside.

The Dalai Lama wrote a wonderful book called, The Art of Happiness, and points out that essentially happiness may be viewed as the quest that keeps us going. Wars happen because people want what they want. Fights happen for the same reason. I cannot help but believe that if we all did our part in our own little world then happiness spreads in the same way that a contagion might spread through a culture. On that basis, The Dalai Lama offered the following tidbits of information as a key to discovering what really makes us happy: ask yourself if you need something; think about the fact that our enemies can be our teachers, and that compassion, both toward yourself and others brings peace of mind. In the end, we learn that like meditation and yoga, the art of happiness is attained through regular practice. It’s work. It’s a daily effort to seek what brings you joy.

Maybe at some point, those like Williams give up the fight because they do not have the energy to fight any more. Sometimes news like having Parkinson’s disease can be good cause of a depressive episode, but a positive psychologist might suggest focusing on the positive and surrounding yourself with positive influences and uplifting individuals. My suggestion would also be to interconnect, get out in the world, do something for someone else, get out of yourself and surround yourself with people who make you feel good. The fact is, comedians do just that—they simply make you feel good about yourself and the world around you. They have a way of focusing on universal or common issues that make others laugh and take their own problems less seriously. It may be minimalizing their own issues, but if it helps them survive, then what’s wrong with that?

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