Note: I’ve been curious this year about the relationship between happiness and mental/emotional disorders, and really happiness in general. This blog is the result of my thinking that I now have something new to share on the matter. Please keep in mind: I’m not a physician nor do I consider myself a mental health expert, but I am someone who experiences mental and emotional challenges, has become curious about these challenges, and has learned a great deal over the past few years. There is great therapeutic value of peer-to-peer expression of lived truth, which in my mind and for this purpose, is more important than empirical, pinpoint accuracy. So please forgive me for where my articulation of things may stray from the DSM-5. As someone picky about word choice, this feels important to state up top.
Happiness. We’re not particularly smart about it. We’re good at selling happiness- drink this beer, wear this dress, go to this thing; happiness with friends awaits! But we’re not particularly good at even articulating where happiness comes from, never mind promoting it. Our soundbite and clickbait culture tends to highlight the byproduct of happiness-people smiling, often with other people- without paying much mind to why they are happy. What about that beer, that dress, or that event made those people happy? Where does happiness actually come from? Even the United States Constitution protects- in theory- the right to pursue happiness without ever defining what it actually is or identifying how exactly ones pursues it.
In fairness to the Constitution, happiness means something different to everyone, so how could a government document possibly define it or the path whereby all people can discover it? It can’t. That’s the answer. But isn’t it interesting that even without clear definition, the simple idea of pursuing happiness and the importance of protecting that idea live forever within America’s foundational document? Does that not tell you something about the seeming importance and perceived power of happiness, at least in America since 1776? So while I’ve been tempted to suggest that the idea of happiness is worth setting aside for blog about mental illness and emotional healing, I’m choosing instead to go in the other direction and explore how these concepts might be inextricably related and even synergistically helpful.
Dissatisfaction or unhappiness, especially if experienced when “things are good,” is an insidious, toxic, and sabotaging force. Paired with shame- perhaps shame felt as a result of being unhappy when “things are good”- it can lead to lonely and ugly self-destruction. If this kind of dissatisfaction or unhappiness is experienced over a prolonged period of time or chronically, most likely it’s related to some form of mental illness; something in the brain that is communicating outsized, incomplete, or otherwise inaccurate messages to other systems in the body. For the purposes of this blog, I’m primarily addressing this type of “prolonged and outsized experience” of emotional pain (AKA the type of pain that might indicate someone has a “disorder”), though I’m sure aspects of this line of thinking could be beneficial for addressing more acute negative thoughts and feelings as well.
External circumstances, however positive or seemingly ideal, can have no impact on someone in the throes of a mood or psychological disorder. Just as no amount of Rest Ice Compression Elevation (RICE, for the hemophilia peeps reading) can eliminate or sometimes even adequately mollify pain felt from a bad internal bleed. This can be difficult for “unaffected friends and family” to appreciate if they’re unfamiliar with clinical research or the work of leading psychological disorders experts. Conversely, external circumstances can sometimes make things worse by triggering elevated levels of internal pain. This is why getting to know one’s triggers is rather important, and why external circumstances are not necessarily always what they seem when considering someone in chronic emotional pain.
Internal circumstances, I’ve found, have a bit more to contribute toward a positive outcome. For some, there is a biochemical component that may predispose one to a major depressive disorder, a panic disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, body dysmorphia, and so forth. Then there’s also the ways our habits, patterns, and routines carve out neural pathways in the brain- for better and worse- lead to the production of emotions, which in turn drive us toward behaviors. Medication can impact the biochemical component; meditation, journaling, breathing exercises, nutrition, sleep, body movement/exercise, challenging negative thoughts and maintaining a gratitude practice are some of the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) tools that can positively disrupt the thoughts-feelings-behaviors triumvirate, as can a committed practice of talk (psychodynamic) therapy, while support groups and e-therapy platforms help dig into the loneliness through community and accountability.
Listing out these tools (including medication), it seems that with a strong commitment to self-exploration and healing that, in fact, there are many resources available to help people heal. So what’s the problem? Why are so many people unhappy? Why are so many people mentally and emotional dissatisfied or disturbed? Why is the rate of youth experiencing a mental health condition continuing to rise?
Could it be our culture? That’s certainly got to be a part of it. Our healthcare system? We inarguably do a below satisfactory job accounting for mental and behavioral health. Our scientific system? We only know what we know about the brain, about the body, about being people, really. The tools we have are the best we’ve got for what we understand, as best we understand it, right now. And if that sounds imperfect to you, that’s because it is.
It stands to reason that there are numerous factors contributing to an alarming level of mental unwellness in the United States. Okay, fine. That can be really overwhelming to think about, so let’s shrink down the scope of this thought exercise. Taking my big picture hat off for a moment and just thinking selfishly about myself, what I ultimately want to know above all else is how do I reduce the pain and discomfort from my day-to-day life and increase my experience of happiness without turning to unhealthy behaviors or substances as a form of escape? That’s the $100,000 question.
(Sidebar: do people still use the expression “$100,000 question,” or am I showing my age? And is the $10,000 question or the $100,000 question? Is it the 10,000 foot view or the 30,000 foot view? Big questions for other blogs).
Okay, so let’s dig deeper into what seems to be the key to all this: pain. In this case, we’re focusing on emotion pain, but nevertheless, let’s treat it clinically. What type of questions would a doctor typically ask if the pain was, say, in your knee, rather than in your brain- Can you describe the pain? How long have you had this pain? Did anything unusual happen around the time this pain began? Has the pain changed at all since it started, or stayed the same? Have you experienced this pain in the past? Is there a family history of such pain? What have you been doing to manage or copy with the pain thus far?
Someone who regularly experiences outsized and prolonged periods of mental illness and/or emotional pain and who earnestly answers these questions will likely identify some thing or two or fifteen in need of healing. And just like an injury to your knee could take weeks, months, or even years to heal, the brain is no different. And like the knee, even when healed, it won’t necessarily be “the same.”
Again bringing this back to the Almighty Me- what does this mean for almighty me? It means that after a few years of seriously addressing my underlying dissatisfaction, discomfort, and pain through what’s now totaled to be several hundred hours of therapy and therapeutic activity to look at the role anxiety, stress, depression, and trauma play in my life, that I’m beginning to accept two equally important truths:
Healing the brain is a healing process just like any other bodily healing process, and it’s going to take longer than I want it to, just like they all do.
I am genuinely engaged in that healing process, using my tools and resources, consistently recommitting, and it’s important for me to note that I am making steady progress. And that’s what’s leading to being fully healed (eventually), progress. Progress > perfection.
Coming back to this idea of happiness…We all want it, right? If life was only about eliminating pain and discomfort we’d all be monks, but we’re not! We want more. We want “to be happy.” Well, okay, but that’s craving, and craving- sooner or later- leads to unhappiness. So how do you square that circle?
Well for one, I’ve taken to reminding myself that it’s never mandatory for me to be happy. I’m permitted to be exactly as I am, as we all are, but also happiness, like all emotions, is largely uncontrollable. It’s a byproduct of needs, wants, and desires and the degrees to which they are being served in the present moment. This is something we spent a lot of time on in acting school- you can’t control emotion; you can’t act emotionally (though not all directors understand this; another topic for another blog). To be an effective actor, focus instead on 1) what the character wants, 2) what’s in the way, and 3) what’s at stake. The emotion, acting teachers would say, is the result of imaginatively committing to that process and keeping your human vessel/instrument well-tuned through craft work.
So if wanting to “be happy” is something of a misconception, then what? How am I do find happiness if the entire ideal of “being happy” is a false premise? Let’s go back to the Constitution and this idea of “pursuing happiness.” Pursuing happiness is meaningfully different from “wanting to be happy.” Pursuit is active- it has purpose. It suggests a goal, some obstacles, maybe even a little strategy and some tactics. A pursuit’ll keep ya busy! Whereas “wanting to be happy” is pretty passive. Kinda lazy, wishful thinking, really. Success never comes knocking on your door, and happiness certainly ain’t sneaking in through the window; you gotta go get it.
If I accept this, then a pretty powerful impact I can have on my happiness is to address, for myself, those three character motivation questions I listed above: What do I want? What’s in my way? What’s at stake? I’ve literally written out my answers to these recently, treating myself like a character I’m preparing to play for a film; trying to understand my own inner world and point of view through an exercise that gives me just a little comfortable distance from myself; the closest I can be to an “outside eye” for myself. To be honest, it was a more revealing exercise than I anticipated. Writing things down for yourself can be a very clarifying exercise, I’ve found. Also, the nice part about doing this exercise is that you can totally do it by yourself and tell no one if you don’t want to. There’s nothing to be afraid of; it’s only learning about yourself. (Pro tip: I wrote out the answer to “What do I want” a few times until I could appreciate that I was finally writing the truthful answer and not the one I thought I should or the one that would be “better” for sharing with others. A little embarrassing, but true.)
Bringing this toward a close… if we appreciate the meaningful difference between the constitutionally-protected right to “pursue happiness” and the dangerously passive desire to simply “be happy,” then we’re back to defining words for ourselves as individuals again: what does it mean, for you, to pursue happiness? What does that pursuit look like, for you?
The answers to those- just like the responses to the character motivation questions- will be different for everyone, but I bet almost all who pursue happiness would answer this question the similarly: Does your pursuit of happiness include room for self-improvement, so that you might reach aspects of your potential that you never realized? Anyone answering “no” to that? Of course not! In fact, it’s illogical to expect positive results from a happiness pursuit that doesn’t include self-improvement whatsoever.
Then last piece of this puzzle: What if, as part of your happiness pursuit, you could internalize the incremental experience of healing as a reason for joy; as a reason to feel one step closer toward your happiness goal, as it were? Does your pursuit of happiness include room for joy- however large or small- that you feel as a result of incremental healing? If it doesn’t, can it? Because if so, then you’ve not only redefined happiness to include room for your healing process, but you’ve also redefined happiness as an active pursuit rather than as some frustrating, elusive, passive experience you’re just supposed to be having because “things are good.”
That’s what I’ve got for now. I always appreciate those of you who comment or send me messages about these things. Feel free to share. We’re helping each other. :) P