Thursday, August 14, 2014

There is More to Life Than Happiness

I grew up in a culture deeply invested in understanding right and wrong. This distinction was the guiding lens through which I interpreted the world around me. There was a right way to do everything, and a wrong way. In any given situation, there was a right way to feel and a wrong way. The ultimate right way was, of course, happiness. In the religious tradition of my youth, it is believed that living rightly, or morally, will unfailingly lead to happiness. Of course, there is also an acknowledgment that bad things happen to good people, but even still, there is the belief that if you are doing, thinking, feeling and being the right things you will be granted at least some measure of peace and hope through any storm life can throw at you. In other words, happiness was linked inseparably to morality. This particular way of thinking is pronounced in Mormonism, but I find that aspects of it are ubiquitous in American culture at large. Happiness is the highest good. And we believe in the individual’s ability to go out there and grab happiness by the horns. That’s mostly kind of an awesome belief. And we’re so lucky to live in a place that really does afford us a great measure of freedom in seeking our own happiness.

Sometimes, however, I fear that we let our obsession with this emotional state cloud our understanding of reality, and more problematically, cloud our ability to be empathetic towards our fellow human beings. It’s easy to forget that happiness isn’t always the healthiest emotional response in any given circumstance. We acknowledge to some extent that there are times when it is appropriate to mourn, as in the event of someone we love or admire passing away. There are a vast array of negative emotions that have their proper place and time, many of which we prefer to ignore or simply label as “bad”. Anger is radically looked down on. We fear many of these negative emotions because of their capacity to overwhelm us or hinder our self-control in dangerous ways. We’re afraid of them because they have potential for horribly negative outcomes. So we label them and try to keep them as far away from us as possible. We see somebody get angry and we think, “Danger, Will Robinson!”. There are reasons for that. But the problem is, we have an even more intense fear of those emotions when they arise in ourselves. Having a momentary lack of trust in someone else makes sense sometimes, but losing trust in ourselves undermines our own sense of reality in a much more threatening way. Our anxiety over losing control can cause us to picture our worst selves when confronted with negative emotions. To experience an emotion that we often think of as dangerous or unpredictable, or at least morally blameworthy, can bring on feelings of embarrassment, lack of worth, and guilt when we think that this negative emotion IS who we are. The intense social pressure to feel the right things is the very root of shame. There have been many times when I was afraid my negative emotions (since they were “wrong”) meant that everything I was thinking and feeling was illegitimate, and that therefore my voice didn’t count. In essence, it seemed as though my very consciousness and identity became moot. As a highly emotive and expressive person, that aloneness and fear was acutely painful.

The irony is, it’s usually our fear of the negative emotions, and not the negative emotions themselves that lead us to do things we regret. The problem isn’t that you’re angry; the problem is that you didn’t attend to your anger because you were afraid of it, and you neglected it long enough that it came out in an uncontrolled outburst. Negative emotions are kind of like these little animals inside us that need tending to and nurturing, rather than simply banishing them. The fact is, they will always be there. They are part of you and part of me, an inevitable part of being human. “Get behind me Satan” is not going to do the trick. (Trust me, I tried.) You need to build a little fence so they have a space of their own, and when they beg for your attention, listen to them. Talk to them. Remind yourself that they are there for a reason and that sometimes it makes sense to be angry. Find a way to express the anger (or whatever negative emotion), give it air and make an appropriate place for it. When you nurture these parts of yourself, you are in control. When you neglect them, they take control. The worst possible outcomes of anger and other negative emotions are fearsome, indeed. But the irony is, our fear of them is what leads to those outcomes. Shame just doesn’t work.

Depression is its own animal. It’s not one that everyone has on their mental farm. But for those who do, it has a life of its own and it can be really tough to manage. While it isn’t exactly a healthy mental state, it’s similar to other negative emotions in the sense that just telling it to go away doesn’t really do anything, but this is even more true for depression. It’s an animal that makes a lot more demands, and screws around with the entire operation of “the farm” in very tricky ways. That’s why we sometimes need help, in the form of medication and/or therapists who have studied this animal and can help guide us in learning how to talk to it, learning how to nurture it and tend to it in healthy ways. If we could simply “try real hard” and tell it to take a hike, it wouldn’t be depression. For those of us who struggle with it, we have to reach a point of acceptance when we acknowledge to ourselves that this thing may likely be with us for the long haul. That doesn’t mean we can’t be happy. But it does mean that we need to stop shaming people, and ourselves, when they/we don’t feel happy. Happiness isn’t permanent. It’s an emotional state, like any other emotional state. They come and go and being able to roll with it is really what it’s all about. 

Everyone is so different. If you haven’t experienced depression, don’t give advice on it. You don’t know how it feels. You don’t understand the experience. If you have experienced depression, know that everyone experiences it differently. For a long time, I was afraid to get help. I didn’t have any suicidal ideation, so I thought my depression didn’t count. I thought it would be insulting to those who have more severe depression for me to get help and take up precious time with a therapist who could be helping someone else who needed it more. Looking back now, I see that doesn’t make any sense at all, but that’s just how it works, isn’t it? Ultimately I didn’t think I was important enough to receive help. But I’m so glad that I did. Therapy is awesome! I learned a lot about how I relate to myself, and unhealthy thought patterns that were so deeply ingrained in me I wasn’t even aware of them. I know in this whole conversation everyone means well. Nobody wants people to be depressed or commit suicide. Fortunately, we’ve learned a lot about the condition through scientific study. Our greatest hope in preventing suicide and helping people with depression is to familiarize ourselves with the science, not attach morality to moods or shame to suicide. Yes, suicide is horrible. Obviously. But what use is blaming those who fall prey to it? Our primary object should be finding the most effective methods of preventing it. And compassion is a good place to start.


  1. Hey Maggs, you are great! I think more of us Mormons agree with you about negative emotions
    Than you think, I do. The study of happiness is quite interesting. If you haven't watched "Happy" on Netflix yet, it is pretty cool. You also might want to look up Brene Brown who has studied shame. She has some amazing TED talks. Thanks also for your great thoughts on Depression as well. Love you, Wen

  2. I reject the premise that individuals and society avoid negative emotions primarily because of fear or shame because we think they are wrong. I think that many people do fear their negative emotions, and those people certainly have to work that out. But I think the vast majority of people simply don't like them, they are unpleasant, or they don't work for us.
    I agree 100% with everything else and I really really liked the analogies. Now I'm going to ponder my mental farm....

  3. I think in addition to finding negative emotions unpleasant, there is a fear of what they may say about us. Time and time again I've seen people set up emotional mechanisms to hide from their insecurities rather than accept their fears and negative emotions. I do it myself. It takes practice to recognize and face them. Like getting angry at kids. Sometimes we think, "I shouldn't get angry. They're just kids! I need to get over it!" So we try to tamp it down and fight it, for good reason. We don't want to have an outburst and say something we would regret or do something we would regret, especially not something that could be harmful to a child! That deep fear of harming a child may push us even harder to hold in our negative emotions, and maybe even neglect them, until they do end up exploding. And then it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe instead we need to find some other way to direct the negative emotions productively so that you are nurtured and the kids are cared for. That's just the first example I could think of off the top of my head. But there are lots of other circumstances where it applies.

  4. Wendy- any time I bring Mormonism into the mix, I'm commenting on my experience of it, not necessarily everyone else's. I know there are plenty of Mormons who have healthy outlooks on these things. For me, the focus of the Church and its culture naturally led me to some of my unhealthy habits. But a million different people could hear the same song and be influenced by it in a million different ways. All I can do is relay my own experience. Thanks for reading as always! And for commenting! I'll have to look up your recommendations, they sound great!