We're an unhappy nation that likes to take drugs. While illicit drug use is down, one in six Americans is on some sort of medication like antidepressants or sedatives. That’s up from one in ten just six years ago. At that time, in 2011, less than one-third of the people taking antidepressants were actually in therapy, meaning they were medicating symptoms of depression but not actively seeking a happier lifestyle.
Longitudinal studies conducted since 1975 show that teens’ overall feelings of unhappiness and dissatisfaction are also increasing sharply. While they’re less likely to drink and do drugs, they’re more likely to engage in other isolating, escapist behaviors such as gaming, tweeting and watching YouTube. Be sure to like and comment below!
While the dialog about depression, abuse and related issues is finally opening up into the mainstream, there is very little discussion about why it’s so damn hard to be happy. Here's why:
1. Our Beliefs: We’re told from an early age if we get that toy and eat that cereal we’ll be happy. Shoe brands will makes us happy. Getting into the good school will make us happy. If we can get that job and enter into this relationship we’ll be happy. We believe happiness is contingent on some outside factor. And we are happy as long as we get that thing, whatever it is. People belive they're happy so long as they're getting what they want.
But when we don’t get that awesome toy or those sick shoes or that acceptance letter or that dream job we find it hard to be happy. When that relationship fizzles we feel robbed, bitter about what happened. Society conditions us to believe happiness come from attainment, not from an intrinsic sense of self-worth and contentedness. Even relationships are a commodity. It's common to obsess on FB status and take couple's selfies and gush about anniversaries, flaunting my partner like a football player flaunts his Super Bowl ring.
We also carry much more personal beliefs that interfere with happiness. I did a lot of drugs as a teen and young adult (and beyond.) Mr. Mackey told me drugs are bad, mmmkay? That means my decision to buy drugs and do drugs and get fucked up is bad. That means my behavior is bad and that means I am bad. For many years, I walked around with the belief that I was a scum-bag because I was a drug user. It made me want to take more drugs, of course. We might believe we’re too tall or too short. Too fat or too skinny. Too bald or too poor. And we allow that belief to define us without seeing it for what it is: just an idea that we can change if we choose to. My drug use wasn't the act of a bad person. It was the act of a depressed kid who lacked resources for getting healthy. Changing this belief about myself made me instantly happier.
Yet, sometimes when our beliefs change, it also defeats our feelings of happiness. While I was young and supremely depressed I started exploring the teachings of Buddhist philosophy, the most basic of which are the Four Noble Truths:
1. Life is suffering
2. Suffering is caused by desire
3. Extinguish desire to end suffering
4. Follow the Eightfold Path and meet the wizard
It made sense. I wanted material things outside of myself I couldn’t obtain, so, if I gave up on those attachments I'd be happy. I believed I'd found the golden key to understanding life, the universe, and everything. I gave up on attachments and stopped wanting. But I also desired to eat and ending my attachment to food did not end my suffering. It created pangs of hunger. Plus, I desperately wanted happiness. Yet if I extinguished the desire to overcome depression, I'd be surrendering to its hoplessness and my depression would worsen. So the Four Noble Truths seemed like a lie and my premature belief that I’d found The Answer got crushed. I felt more unhappy than ever for being so stupid to think there was a solution out there that worked.
Our beliefs are like the tools we utilize to get through the job of life. We may believe in a policy of honesty but we’re never going to say it’s an ugly baby, no matter how cross-eyed the little beast looks. We also believe in manners and civility and so we use those tools when we're talking to the infant's new mother. Beliefs are no longer a barrier to happiness when we accept that our beliefs can change and no one belief or system of beliefs is the answer to every single problem we face.
2. Our Failures: We’re told that winners win and nothing succeeds like success. So we try and fail and we feel like total losers, especially since there’s so much evidence that everyone else is winning at life. We see posts of cute outfits and exotic drinks and attractive people doing fun things. Then we look at our stained sweat pants and bedhead and blemished skin and we’re reminded of how much we suck at everything. Plans fall through, relationships end, shit breaks and we can’t fix it and it just reinforces all those feelings of defeat. Nobody's happy in defeat but then we can be unhappy even when we start to win for once.
Sometimes we set new goals to be healthier and happier and start to feel better. I quit drinking like a fish and started actual medication from a psychiatrist and started seeing a therapist. I made it out of the depths of my depression and this progress made me feel damn near cured. No more bad days, for once, I was on top! Then, for no reason I went out and drank too much and caused a big scene and made my family angry with me and failed at wellness in every way. I was back to sucking at everything. I told my psychiatrist nothing was working, everything was a failure, including me. He said, look, it’s part of the condition. What if you had a heart condition instead of a mental health condition? Would you feel like a failure and hate yourself if your arrhythmia was acting up?
We’re bound to have failures and the cliché is true, they can be a learning experience. And while no one ever wants to learn that way, it’s wrong to think failures won’t happen then crucify ourselves when they do. What’s worse is when we find excuses for why the failure isn’t our fault. No one learns or grows when they’re being dismissive of their responsibility. Failure is not a barrier to happiness when we accept that it’ll happen and identify what we did wrong and move on with the confidence gained from making it.
3. Our Perspective: Often times, I’d realize how wrong my beliefs were about things and how much I failed all the time and I wanted to give up. I asked myself, why did I stop doing drugs and drinking? Hangovers suck but not nearly as badly as the psychic anguish of failing to recover one's mental health. Nothing that I was doing was working at all. None of the wellness tools I’d learned were stopping me from being a maniac. The perspective was: it's all bullshit! Of course, when we’re unhappy, it’s difficult to see anything good or recognize how far we’ve come.
At the time I wanted to give up on my mental health, I’d already committed to a year of wellness including therapy, medication, community involvement, support groups and writing. I finished the first draft of my memoir in six months’ time. I’d come a long way from where I was. Yet my perspective focused on the epic breakdowns and none of the long-term success.
Then I took a walk along the road one day. I realized that the self is like a vehicle and the coping tools we learn are like the tools we can use to fix that vehicle. When a car breaks do we say none of it works, get rid of all our tools, and abandon the car, too? No, we try to fix the car with the tools we have. Now, if it’s a spark plug and all we have is a tire iron it seems impossible to fix. We could have 100 tire irons but they won’t pull a spark plug. The tool we need is obtainable, it’s just not something we've got yet. Once we get that right tool and learn to use it, the fix is easy. Suddenly, we wonder why it all seeemed so hard.
So happiness seems unreachable when we only focus on what’s going wrong and forget to see what's going right. It's hard to be happy when we bemoan our situation but fail to look for the things we’ll need to fix that situation. Some people avoid this perspective because it implies a responsibility, one they refuse to accept. If they didn't shirk this task to find a new perspective, we wouldn’t have 2/3 of them popping antidepressants with no other therapeutic action to change their beliefs, their failures and their perspectives.