I’ve been giving a deal of thought as to where to continue this series regarding depression, and I think that it’s worth taking a look at the alleged opposite – happiness.
I’m of the conviction that happiness is not a destination: a permanent state of happiness is not sustainable, or maybe even desirable. Certainly some of the behaviours associated with the pursuit of that “buzz” are not always healthy – comfort eating, or binge drinking. Sometimes these actions seem to me to be an attempt to re-capture something unattainable, the feelings associated with your first taste of a favourite food or a good night out. It’s possible that what we see is a scale problem, that people are not well calibrated to the distinctions between joy, happiness and contentment. Quite a few drugs are popular because they are a chemical “cheat” to something approximating the state of mind that people want when they think they should be happy.
Some people mistake depression for a lack of happiness, and if they care for you may even try to enforce some happiness upon you. In my experience, people have taken me out to favourite bars, out on favourite walks – and while this is a wonderful show of support, there is a problem is rooted in a simple misunderstanding. Making me happy will not ease my depression.The reason I think is to do with the fact that depression is a very long term state of mind; I’ve had depressive episodes which have lasted years (that first encounter of mine lasted very nearly four). Happiness and joy are far shorter burning emotions, something which I found became more and more of a problem as I became more depressed. As I mentioned in my last post a lot of the fun had already left my day-to-day, and my own attempts to recapture satisfaction from things that I used to enjoy did not improve things. It wasn’t that short term happiness wasn’t possible (except on the deepest areas of the depression – we’ll get to those), it was just that during the experience of that happiness my mind would be drawn to the inevitability of it’s end. Even during a particularly awesome walk, or while talking with good friends I would already be looking toward the point where this positivity must inevitably burn out, leaving only the depression.
On particularly dark days however, even the “fun” things in life start to hurt. There comes with every experience an expectation of what it will do to your mental state. If you’re a biker like myself, then when you throttle up your bike in the bright sunshine you’re probably used to a certain anticipation, and what wasn’t immediately obvious to me is that some of the satisfaction of emotion comes from the sensation of an experience meeting your expectations. When the day comes when you light up your bike (or open a book, or fire up your TV), and you don’t get the emotional response from yourself that you’re anticipating it is something of a disappointment. A friend or relative may therefore take you for a favourite happy-inducing time, and all you can feel is the disappointment of not being able to be happy for them. I certainly wanted people to feel that I appreciated what they were trying to do for me, but dealing with their expectations, my inability to be happyified, my disappointment that I wasn’t being happified, and the feeling that I would be effecting their happiness by not being so made for quite a busy depressive experience.
We’ll come onto social interaction and how “feeling a bit down” effected it in a later post, but all of the above made accepting kind suggestions from people more and more difficult.
One of the things which I found helped once I’d got to this point was the realisation that for my own mental balance (your mileage may vary), it was really important for me to stop reaching for happiness. What I needed was to adjust the way that I thought about positive emotions, and adjust my scale. I began to suspect that the opposite of depression – rather than happiness – is actually contentment. For me, one of the best things about a positive experience is the long lasting feeling of contentment afterward – coaxing the embers of that short “burn” into a gentle glow that can stay with you for hours. I stopped applying the expectation to myself that I needed to be happy, and rid myself of the pain of that ’empty’ disappointment when it failed to come, and instead tried to look for the things that would give me a small feeling of satisfaction that I could make last.
I’ll wrap up there for now, as ever; if you are currently experiencing depression or depressive thoughts then I strongly advise you to consult a professional as soon as practical.