Last Wednesday’s post, Tips for how NOT to be happy, provoked a lot of controversy.
I think one major reason was the question: what does it mean for a person “not to be happy”?
Many people understood this to mean a person who is “depressed.” Which is not what I intended.
I spend most of my time thinking about happiness, not its opposite, and this discussion has made me realize that I need to do more research in this area. What follows is my own way of thinking about…non-happiness.
People use the word “depression” in different ways. In the first sense, the word describes feeling low, sad, or blue – but not in a way that disrupts your capacity to live a normal life.
In the second sense, the word describes a major mood disorder of intense sadness, despair, paralysis, etc. that does disrupt your capacity to live a normal life.
People with clinical depression need serious expert intervention. I’m a huge believer in medication. Some of what I write about in the Happiness Project might help people with clinical depression – exercise, for example, is astonishingly effective – but I would never claim that the measures I describe would cure them.
There are also people who are depressed because they’ve suffered a major loss, like the death of a spouse or child, a devastating career blow, etc. They fall someplace between the two categories above. Perhaps anti-depressants would help for a time, but not be necessary forever. Their lives are disrupted, but then come together again. They, too, might benefit from some of the measures I talk about, but time is probably the thing that helps most.
My Happiness Project is aimed at what I would call “ordinary unhappiness.” Not the tremendous pain that comes from a divorce, not the paralyzing despair that comes from clinical depression, but the low-level, grating, downward slide toward unhappiness.
Most people in the United States consider themselves “happy”: 50% say they’re “pretty happy” and 34% say they’re “very happy.” When I started my project, I also considered myself “happy.”
My inspiration for writing the Happiness Project was my epiphany that I didn’t appreciate how happy I was (I was too focused on the negatives), and insofar as I wasn’t happy, it was largely because I wasn’t demanding enough of myself. I was haunted by a line from Colette: “What a wonderful life I’ve had! I only wish I’d realized it sooner.” I did NOT want this to happen to me.
My research and experience has convinced me that, in general, many people can be happier. Certainly I’ve become a lot happier since I started my Happiness Project. However, it’s a lot of work, and people fall into habits that drag them down.
Last Wednesday’s Tip List was meant to point out some habits that contribute to people’s “ordinary unhappiness.” I absolutely agree that a person with clinical depression can’t just decide to go to a party and – bam, he’ll feel terrific. On the other hand, a person who feels blue can push herself to go to a party and – most likely, studies show, she’ll feel better.
Interestingly, studies show that positive affect and negative affect (feeling good and feeling bad) aren’t two ends of the same continuum. They’re different from each other, and move separately. So you can feel very happy and very unhappy at the same time. So “unhappiness” isn’t the opposite of “happiness.” Neither is “depression.”
Newsflash: after I wrote this post, I saw that in today’s New York Times, Benedict Carey has an article, Many Diagnoses of Depression May Be Misguided, Study Says. The article discusses the question of how to categorize people who have suffered a severe blow. Apparently, I got it right when I said that such folks were between categories 1 and 2.
Ariane Benefit of Neat Living has challenged some professional organizers (and me, too, because I love clearing clutter) to post photos of their desks – as is, no tidying allowed. Here goes — fortunately, I’m pretty tidy today: