What is Happiness?

This is going to sound odd.

I’ve been realizing over the last couple weeks that I’m trying to learn how to deal with not being depressed all the time. It’s really hard to explain to myself and other people that I’m depressed despite my ability to enjoy myself. I had the thought today, You’re either sick or your well. That’s not true for a lot of things, but with mental illness it seems to apply. You either have mental illness or you don’t. Right?

If that’s true, then how do I explain the laughter and enjoyment I experience every Wednesday night when I go to my knitting group? What about the weekend in Tucson from which Erik and I just returned? I don’t think I felt depressed even once during that trip.

Clearly I experience happiness in my life, however brief or temporary.

Dr. Theodore I. Rubin writes, “For me, happiness is feeling good, nothing more that. I know that feeling good, that is, feeling fairly comfortable and relatively tension-free, is no small matter and depends on the existence of many, many factors, most of which are not discernible, let alone controllable. Therefore, what I have come to view as happiness can only be sustained for limited periods of time, sporadically, and always on a relative level. Yes, even just plain feeling good is relative and cannot be perfect either in quality or duration. But illusions about happiness and ways of achieving it invariably destroy what happiness, however humanly limited, is possible” (Compassion and Self-Hate: An Alternative to Despair).

So, in other words, contentment equals happiness. But it seems to me that society has perpetuated a myth about contentment in which contentment equals complacency and therefore is to be avoided at all costs. Dr. Rubin describes the myth of happiness as the, “illusion [] that happiness is an orgastic high, a fantastic continuum of peak orgastic experiences.” When in reality, “such states of exhilaration almost always are related to depression and almost always are followed by depression.” And yet, this orgastic happiness is what we all seem to be striving for. Or is it just me?

Honestly, I don’t often think about what exactly I mean when I say, I want to be happy. I just know that I’m not. Or at least, up until now I’ve thought I wasn’t. But perhaps Dr. Rubin is right and happiness is an ethereal feeling, rather than a lasting state of being. Maybe my real goal ought to be a more frequent experience of contentment and beyond that, simply recognizing those moments of comfort and enjoyment that I do experience.

Perhaps it’s okay to only be sick some of the time. Enjoying my life does not negate my experience of mental illness. I can still say I suffer from depression and in the next breath, laugh at a joke. The world is not black and white, no matter how it may sometimes seem. I do not, in fact, have to feel depressed all the time.

Phew. What a relief.



2 thoughts on “What is Happiness?

  1. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this entry. I thought about when I was struggling with depression as a teenager/young adult and how things have changed since then. I remember feeling like I had so many moments of happiness when going through that, even a couple of “enlightened” moments where in an instant moment (and lasting all but about 10 seconds) I found myself feeling pure joy and peace, yet I was not on a regular basis “happy.” I remember actually thinking that sadness was a part of my identity, that I could not separate from it and should just embrace it. Yet, somehow, here I am today, identifying as someone who is neither happy nor sad, but trying to find joy moment-to-moment, any way I can, whether that is from outside experiences or my own inner thoughts.

    I am grateful that I know longer accept sadness as part of my identity and am no longer seeking out happiness as a some unattainable constant state of being. I truly believe in every moment we are forced to make a decision between happiness and sadness, and depression and anxiety and other mental illnesses really remove us from that free will to decide. So, when there is a brief moment in the present when mental illness is overcome and happiness is found, that, to me, is success. It should be celebrated and recognized as such.

    • I am regularly reminded by my husband and my counselor that I need to give myself a break. Your comment reminds me that rather than being a grand failure or a grand success, life is a succession of small successes and we must recognize them. Taken one step further, perhaps life can only be a success if we DO recognize the small successes and if we don’t know how to recognize the small successes, then perhaps life does become a grand failure.

      Thanks for reading and for your thoughtful comment. xoxo

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