Is Happiness the Opposite of Depression—or Its Enemy?
The quest for happiness may increase the likelihood of depression.
Posted Jan 28, 2020
“So, is it Finland or Denmark that is the happiest nation in the world?” Thus began a book club discussion I participated in recently.
No one googled the answer, and as the conversation continued, I contemplated how happiness is defined. In the U.S., we do spend more time than people in other cultures focused on achieving happiness. It does not appear to be working.
Also, I have been thinking a lot about the rising rates of depression in the United States. In my psychological world, there is frequent discussion about why. Social media? Income inequality? Lack of civility? Less opportunity to get out of debt or buy a home? Inability to swipe right and find a soulmate? I wonder if our national obsession with “I just want to be happy” is really one more driver of depression?
Advertisers have escalated marketing strategies that tap into this goal. Being happy. Everyone is subject to the insidious influence of ads even if we do not buy the product the happiness guru is promoting. We see ad for items promising happiness, but we do not see that the goal to "be happy" is likely unachievable.
We cannot buy one thing that will guarantee a life of happiness. There is no one experience that will guarantee a life of happiness. The more we try to find exactly the right experience to feel happy, the more likely we are to fail to achieve the state of happiness, because moments of happiness are transient. We would need to have one moment after another to "be" happy.
When I consult with individuals who are depressed, and when I give training on how to cope with symptoms of depression, I focus on changing cognitions. I know that our brains are wired to hold memories in networks, and when we mentally dwell on unhappy thoughts, we light up that network and trigger a cascade of similar unhappy thoughts. We also have networks of memories of happiness, but trying to get into that network—times when I felt happy—is not the antidote to depression.
For many people with depression, trying to evoke happy memories also puts them in mind of losing it. And logically so. Happy moments pass.
Is it possible that by trying to defeat depression by embracing a life aimed at achieving happiness, we create more depression? Loss, failure, sadness, disappointment, and hurt are part of the human condition. It is worth remembering the occasions when we had those experiences and knowing that we will have them again.
When we live through those times, we experience fortitude, perseverance, strength of character, and other emotional states—states that can lead to self-confidence, self-satisfaction, or even pride in ourselves. Life’s dark moments are an excellent contrast to see the sweet moments more clearly. They are not "epic fails" if we have times of distress, but rather evidence that we are human.
Social media tends to create the illusion that everyone out there moves from one perfect moment to another, and it is easy to feel alone if we are in a tough spot. It is too easy to believe that others are happy when we are not. We believe the fallacy that others have perfect lives, because we do not see evidence that our acquaintances are also having days when they eat mac ‘n’ cheese out of a pot, feel crushed during a breakup, see no hope to find love, lose a job, have children who hate them, or otherwise have difficult, even tragic situations to work through.
Satisfaction may be the antidote to depression that the happiness gurus overlook.
If we try to climb out of depression, but ignore the reality that we, and everyone else, have tough times, we lose a vital opportunity to feel good about having felt bad. That is because the darker moments of life do not last either. We get through them, often by dint of an effort we should feel good about.
What if we counter depressed thoughts by changing our negative cognitive state to recall what we did to accept, rise above, or dispel those moments? Those times of our lives say a lot about our character. And it is quite possible that those moments are the ones we can recall and feel satisfaction from. Happiness is a moment. Satisfaction is a state.
If you are working to lift yourself out of depression, consider making a list of the things in your life you feel satisfied with. But pay attention to a few simple ideas to notice why and how you are satisfied.
1. Do not compare yourself to others. For example, If you are satisfied with a promotion, do not compare yourself to someone who achieved it at a younger age or got a bigger raise with it.
2. If you got through a tough time—like a divorce or breakup—make a few notes about what you learned. Notice that you feel better today than when it first happened.
3. If you are on the mend from an illness or learning to cope with a chronic illness, take time to appreciate yourself for taking care of yourself and note the ways you have shown strength.
4. If you are working through a financial setback, notice your daily progression rather than focusing on the loss or on not having yet fixed it.
Satisfaction can grow over time and stay in place even when the transient moments of happiness fade.