After our conversation yesterday, Heather sent me 2 articles about happiness. One (from Fast Company – www.fastcompany.com – which appears to be a career magazine) was about jobs, and the author was interviewing a career specialist who seemed to think that choosing your job based on personal happiness was ridiculous, and that people should be doing what will improve their skills and advance their position, whether they like it or not. The other one (from Yoga Journal) was about how the expectation of happiness results in extra pressure on people who aren’t happy – so that if you are depressed you feel like a failure, and the cycle continues.
Today, there was an article in the Montreal Gazette about an upcoming forum that Canada and the United States are holding on mental health, which they’ve decided is necessary since a recent poll shows that 1 in 6 Canadian and American adults have been diagnosed with depression.
So here’s the questions? Number 1 – should we expect to be happy? And, number 2 – does our expectation of happiness actually lead to more depression?
So first – should we expect to be happy? In the article from Yoga Journal, the author notes that the concept of a right to be happy is a relatively recent thing, and that through most of human history, there was no such expectation. In the American Constitution, the “pursuit of happiness” is protected. But Americans, along with us here in Canada, are suffering from an alarming rate of depression (but that’s maybe getting into question #2). Should we expect to be happy? Well – of course I want to be happy, but I don’t know if it’s fair to expect it all the time. Awful devastating things happen in the world, and we should be able to engage with them when they happen to us, or people we care about, or even to complete strangers – and we shouldn’t be happy, because they are not happy things. It seems that if we selfishly pursued happiness at all costs, we could never truly love – because love involves compassion and empathy, and it can also involve sacrifice. I think that love is more important than happiness.
The next question – are we making ourselves unhappy through our pursuit of happiness? I don’t want to make any kind of blanket statement about this because, just like depression can be worsened by the feeling that have failed by being unhappy, it seems like blaming the depressed person for even wanting to be happy is equally unhelpful. So, with the caveat that I don’t want this to turn into some kind of victim-blaming session, I will proceed: yes, I think that we are making ourselves unhappy. First, I believe the idea that the expectation of happiness is stressful. It comes out in our worries about jobs – the idea that we have to find the most amazing fulfilling position right away, or we’re selling out – there’s all this stress, because of the feeling like we need to be fulfilled, as well as making money and developing skills.
I think that one of the fundamental problems, beyond the stress of unfulfilled expectations, that leads to our pursuit of happiness resulting in more depression is that we don’t even know how to pursue happiness. We get all these images of what happiness is supposed to be – whether it’s a perfect wedding followed by a white picket fence, or a backpack and the open road, or a hot tank-top and a club. And then we end up in these moments that we orchestrate, and feel like they’re supposed to be enough, and now we should be happy, but then we realize that they’re not enough, and we’re not happy, and don’t understand why the people in the movies seemed so ecstatic when they were in these situations. . . . enter the feeling of failure for not being happy, and the depression that you are trying to live the dream, and the dream is hollow.
And so here we are, the wealthiest and the most depressed continent in the world. It would seem like living the dream isn’t quite what it’s cracked up to be. . . but I don’t want to leave on such a bleak note. I think that we can reach beyond trying to blindly pursue happiness. We can pursue truth and love, and these things will lead to happiness some of the time. And some of the time they will lead to our hearts being broken, but we will be closer to being real and to being fulfilled than if we binge on soma (Brave New World? Anyone?) and just try to be happy all the time.