05 February 2014

On Happiness and Mental Health

A friend asked me recently if I consider myself a happy person. I do. Most people would say I am. One of the most frequent comments I get is about how much and how often I smile. Even in spite of the I love humanity/I hate humanity dichotomy that lives in my brain, my default is positivity. Sure, I'm happy. Easy to answer. The next question was a little tougher.

What makes you a happy person?

Well, hell. That's a hard one to verbalize. It's sort of like asking why my hair is brown. Short of the scientific explanation offered by genetics, the short answer is "It just is." I can chemically alter my hair to make it a different color, and I can do that for a multitude of reasons, but it doesn't change the fact that my natural state of being is to have brown hair.

Same goes for my happiness. It's how I am and how I've always been, at my core. My default position is to smile, to trust, to love, to go with the flow, to see the good and to actively look for it if it's not immediately evident, to laugh, to be content. How do you break down something that's as much a part of you as the nose on your face so that someone else can understand it and adapt it for their own life?

Depression, Anxiety, Sadness, etc.

The fact that I'm generally a happy person doesn't mean I haven't had my own emotional struggles. I know sadness and fear and anxiety. In my teens and early 20s there was an undercurrent of tension and sadness in my head that most people wouldn't have known was there. Being a shy introvert probably didn't help matters, since talking it out with someone didn't even register on my list of coping mechanisms. I preferred working through it in my own head, or on paper. My "standard" of happiness didn't go away during that time, though. It coexisted either simultaneously with the sadness or as a reminder of who I really was during those times when I could not figure out why I was feeling so bad.

I didn't learn to drive until I was in my mid-20s and even then it took me a couple years before I actually got my license at the age of 28. My anxiety about it was that overwhelming that I truly had no desire to get behind the wheel of a car. I'm coming up on three years with my license and I still get slightly anxious when driving to new places, or driving more than a few miles in the dark, or in the rain/fog/snow. I won't go anywhere for the first time without my GPS. When I joined a choir last fall I used the GPS on my phone to get there and back the first time... but also for every weekly rehearsal for three months after that until the anxiety about driving in unfamiliar areas subsided.

The struggles I've been through are the equivalent of coloring and cutting my hair. My hair has looked all kinds of crazy ways temporarily, but there's nothing that will change the fact that my natural state is brunette. And while I've had moments where my mental health looked a bit different, I honestly don't think there's anything that can change my happiness default. For some reason, that was a big surprise when I realized that.

Is Happiness Rational?

My fear of driving was not rational or logical. The sadness and frustration that sometimes crashed over me when I was younger was not rational. But that didn't make them any less real to me at the time or any easier to conquer. They just were. I couldn't really explain those things to other people without feeling a little silly. But the same things goes for my happiness. I don't know how or why I'm happy, and trying to dissect it makes me feel weird. There's no logical reason for it.

Part of me believes strongly in the power of positive thought. I don't mean thinking about being a millionaire so you'll magically attract all the right things to make you one. I mean having the ability to recognize and change thought patterns to reclaim my happiness when I feel it slipping. A teacher in high school would often say "Today is going to be a good day" out loud in class and I find that helpful still. It's not about ignoring or denying the negative. When I find myself drifting into one of those irrational funks, I look at it and ask myself Is there a reason I'm feeling this way? Has something happened to make me feel this way? and if the answer is no I'll ask myself Is this mood serving any purpose besides making me moody? and if the answer is still no then I decide right then and there that I will strive for something more positive. There are times when what I'm feeling is the direct result of something happening in my life and/or what I'm feeling is driving me to make positive changes or get things done that I need/want to get done. And when that happens, I acknowledge what I'm feeling and even embrace it for a short time before sending it on its way in favor of my usual happy disposition. It sounds easy, but it's not. I don't mean to imply that it's easy. It's just a place to start. (Let me be clear that I'm not trying to say that anyone can and should just "positive think" themselves out of depression or mental illness. Please don't be afraid to seek professional help.)

Positive thinking is more a coping mechanism for when I feel unlike myself. I wouldn't say it's why I'm a happy person because it's something I've had to learn to do. And like I've been saying, being happy and upbeat is just who and how I am without reason. In talking with my friend it hit me:

It's likely that all the people who've ever asked me about my positive outlook on life and my happy disposition were just as baffled by my explanation as I was about the notion that I could do or be anything other than how I've always been.

I don't like to think that I've been so oblivious that I haven't realized that not everyone is happy. I know they aren't. But it was a bit of an epiphany to think that not only are some people unhappy, but some are unhappy (or at least "less" happy relatively) because they just are and always have been. We have different baselines and my happiness doesn't make any more logical sense than their unhappiness.

My friend and I have always had certain different ways of approaching things and that's part of why we're such great  friends. I like to think we've challenged and checked each other over the years in ways that made us both better people. But I admit to qualifying my feelings and private thoughts now and then with sentiments like "if only you were happier." How things would just be so much better "if only you were happier" because I was convinced that that was the answer to my friend's troubles. I never understood that our differences in how we see the world extended so far beyond political and social ideology all the way into that non-rational space of happiness. I never thought that other people weren't equally as happy as me, down in their core. I figured their unhappiness was either a temporary state of being brought on by whatever biochemistry is responsible for our mental health, as mine often was, or the result of any number of external factors and experiences and that they would return to their natural state of happiness with time or counseling or medication. Those things can affect happiness, no doubt, but that's not the point.

I can't change my friend's baseline any more than they could change mine. It's not a huge revelation, although it feels like one to me. But it does change the way I'll think about, talk to, and empathize with my friend. I love this person like mad and it breaks my heart to see them struggling with something that comes so naturally to me. All I can do is continue to say I love, I'm here for you. Most importantly, I hope my friend and I can take a bit of the pressure off - me off myself for feeling like I should somehow be able to explain my own happiness in a way that they can make it their own, and my friend for feeling like my or anyone else's happiness is the gold standard.

Happiness doesn't make any more rational sense than anything else. My happy isn't your happy. Mentally healthy is what we should strive for, not the amorphous sliver of happiness in anyone else that they likely have no more control over than anything else.

And to my friend, who may be tired of hearing it by now: I love you. And I'm sorry if I've ever made you feel like you should just look at things through my happy lenses in order to make all your troubles go away.


  1. Sounds like we approach the world from a very similar place, JL. I don't claim to be the most cheerful person on the planet, in fact, I'm a pretty cynical guy a lot of the time. :) However, I tend to view things from a positive angle on a personal level. I try to focus on the things I can do and/or control, and block out the things I can't. If someone is crappy to me, I tend to just say, "sucks for them." and move on. My first instinct when faced with a problem is how to solve it, not how it's going to bring me down.

    I agree that it's hard for some people to relate to that, and I'm sure it's infuriating at times. (Sometimes folks just need to be down in the dumps before they're ready to tackle climbing a mountain.) But if I start to let negativity seep in, it has a way of taking over I guess. I've found my good friends love me for my outlook, even if it aggravates the crap out of them from time to time. :)

    1. I think we have cynicism in common too, EJ! But I usually keep my inner cynic under wraps because, like you said, if I let negativity in too much it can take over. And I don't like that. Thanks for reading. :-)

  2. We are soooo soul sisters.

    I am generally happy and positive as well and I tend to get flummoxed by peers that are pessimistic. Why? Why waste your energy? Yanno?

    Also, I internalize when I'm upset or depressed and I cannot share it with anyone else until I've rationalized it all out in my head.

    Anyways, I am glad you are a happy person! And I agree that thinking positive attracts positive forces into your life. Or maybe, you are just able to see the positive more clearly than those "glass half empty" types :)

    1. Goat soul sisters! :-)

      I find myself saying "why?" a lot too when faced with someone else's negativity. I find it exhausting to be miserable and I've never seen pervasive negativity help anyone around me. Ever.

      Thanks for commenting. :-)


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