In working with people who struggle with depression, there has been a noticeable pattern of how people tend to approach the idea of happiness. The fantasized expectation is that a person becomes happy, and then stays this way…forever. If, at any point, the happiness goes away, then it means they’ve become depressed again and have failed in their quest to maintain happiness, and are therefore “not happy.”
Sound reasonable? It isn’t. It’s a perfectionistic belief that is bound to cause defeat — which is what generally happens with fantasies of perfection. Though depression isn’t as simple as a product of a distorted perception of happiness, the mindset that people “become happy” and fully leave sadness behind can make it tougher to fight against depression.
States of happiness don’t last forever without interruption. Emotional states are temporary. It’s possible to be an overall happy person while still having days, hours, and moments of sadness or lethargy. Striving for happiness that will last uninterrupted can only result in failure, and only increase feelings that you can’t achieve happiness, which will only exacerbate the depression.
There are also varying degrees of happiness. People often mistake excitement for happiness. This is the fantasy that being happy means walking around in a smiley, energetic, overactive state, having engaging conversations with everyone, and nearly becoming the life of the party in all life’s contexts. This is the fantasy of manic happiness. If this was happiness, people would be exhausted from being happy, and also would be denying the experience of other necessary emotions. Happiness isn’t meant to be an exhausting feeling or even a constant feeling.
The lesson here is to learn to allow room for a range of emotions, and to take notice of the positive emotions you experience, even if they’re currently a smaller part of the picture. The ability to understand that emotional states are temporary will hopefully lead to more of an acceptance of all of our emotions, including happiness. The problem comes when we dismiss the other emotions and focus only on the feelings of depression. So, if you feel depressed ten hours a day, and feel balanced and content three hours of the day, and happy for a half hour, people tend to dismiss those balanced and happy hours and only count the depressed hours since it was the bulk of the day. In the end, this disregard of non-depressive emotions leaves a person under the impression that they’re constantly depressed, and only reinforces the depression.
Sounds too simple to really make a difference, right? However, taking more notice of positive emotional moments will start a process of opening us to other states of emotion we experience, which will eventually shrink the pressure of the sadness and depression. The more we can allow room for other emotional states, the less room there will be for depressive states. People are amazed when they find that they may have 30 minutes of happiness or enjoyment in their day, even if they felt down for the remainder of the day. The more we can regard the existence of positive emotion in our lives, and the more we learn what causes positive emotions for us, the greater the likelihood that we can come to experience more happiness.