Is it okay to be happy?

In a couple of decades living with anxiety and depression I frequently wondered about the correlation between my mood and my view of the world.

I’ve always valued the search for truth, and part of that search was to understand anxiety and depression themselves. But what if this “search” is itself a symptom of anxiety and depression?

What if looking for answers is just putting a positive spin on endless rumination?

Depressive realism

Sometimes it seems like happy people live in a bubble, unwilling or unable to grapple with the grand humane and existential challenges of life.

The popular notion of “depressive realism” offers a kind of perverse satisfaction in being miserable: the idea that depressed people see the world more clearly, or that happy people are buffered from harsh realities by self-serving delusions of competence and optimism.

If you find it difficult to be happy, you can console yourself with the idea that happiness is just for dumb, superficial, or morally unserious people.

But is this kind of depressive realism any better than a sour grapes attitude toward happiness?

Ironically, this consolation is itself the fostering of a self-serving delusion aimed at making us feel better, as we pride ourselves on being both willing and able to face the harsh realities of life.

When life hands you lemons, sure, you could make lemonade…but a real man will just eat that lemon and grit his teeth against the sourness, because lemons are supposed to be sour!

Intentional optimism

In the past few months I’ve made a conscious effort to change the way I think about life, in order to improve my mood.

In the process it’s become clear to me that despite all the suffering implicit in decades of anxiety and depression, despite being desperately unhappy, I couldn’t honestly say that I wanted things to be different.

We all want to be happy, but our desire for happiness is typically framed and delineated by very strict conditions.

We want to be happy in certain ways, under specific criteria; we want happiness on our own terms, even if those terms are largely unconscious in daily life.

When I first considered changing my thoughts in order to improve my mood, I immediately worried about becoming “delusional”, like one of those dumb, superficial, happy people who lives in blissful ignorance of life’s deeper meaning and struggles

It was very important to me that I maintain a sense of my own realism, honesty, and clarity about the nature of life; so important that I was more comfortable being deeply unhappy than risking a change to my self-image.

I put limitations on my pursuit of happiness, limitations that turned out to be based on little more than crude stereotypes.

Crude stereotypes of happiness

If I was truly honest with myself, wouldn’t I have to acknowledge that those supposed “dumb, superficial, blissfully ignorant people” were just a fantasy?

In all those years of looking for answers, I hadn’t once gone out of my way to examine people who were actually happy, preferring to think that I understood what superficial, derogatory happiness looked like.

In fact, my own experience belies the notion that happy people are ignorant or deluded. I don’t know anyone who matches the caricature that exists in my own mind.

People who are genuinely happier than me tend not to go around thinking and talking about their depressing problems, but to cast that as a moral failing is misguided.

I’ve met others similar to me: deeply depressed, yet repulsed by the thought of having to “delude” themselves in order to feel better.

Such people would never have the audacity to claim that they are free from “delusion”. They might say that they try not to delude themselves, but it’s more a statement of values and ideals than an objective assessment of their overall knowledge and beliefs.

It’s as if we’ve tried and failed at just “getting along” in life, and instead of admitting the failure, tried to redefine the parameters of life itself until those who get along well are the ones who’ve failed the test of moral seriousness.

Temperament defines happiness

The problem is that we aren’t all the same in what excites us and makes us happy, and therefore we can’t and shouldn’t try to “get along” in the same ways.

Those of us who struggle most with anxiety and depression seem to have an (un)healthy dose of what ancient proto-psychologists called melancholic temperament.

Melancholics are excited by meaning and ideals, and not much else. Yet we inhabit a society full of people who find happiness and fulfilment more easily accessible – in the pursuit of power and prestige, the enjoyment of sensual pleasures, or in simply being left alone to do their own thing.

Meaning and ideals are hard to reconcile with a world ordered to more tangible and readily accessible pursuits. That alone is enough to explain a depressed and anxious outlook.

But if we can at least recognise that meaning and ideals are what motivate and fulfil us, and that we are not all motivated by the same things, then we can dispense with attempts to universalise happiness and justify our own preoccupations.

In other words, it is not superficiality that makes others happy; they are happier (in general) because they have greater ease in identifying and accomplishing the things that make them happy.

Likewise, we are not less happy because of our bold embrace of harsh truths and discomforting realities; we are less happy (in general) because we have not succeeded in identifying and accomplishing the things that make us happy, and have in fact gone to the other extreme of denying our need for meaning and ideals.

Putting meaning and ideals first

I think the most important thing is to recognise what it is that makes us happy as individuals – whether that be meaning and ideals or something else – and seek to enlarge that aspect of our life.

For melancholics the initial challenge is working out that it is meaning and ideals that excites us, and the subsequent challenge is learning how to approach meaningful things for the sake of the meaning they provide.

I used to study philosophy, but I couldn’t really articulate that it was the search for meaning that drove me to it. So I tended to go along with other people’s perspectives of what philosophy is and why it is meaningful or important.

There came a time when I ceased to find philosophy meaningful. And it turned out that I didn’t really care all that much about the other aspects of philosophy that people find valuable. I didn’t really care very much about critical thinking or rationality or asking big questions or seeking answers generally.

Ironically this makes a melancholic surprisingly pragmatic in a way that can even resemble a choleric. A melancholic is like a choleric whose ambition is finding meaning, and everything else is subordinate to that goal.

I think that’s what drives my interest in mysticism, philosophy, and religious practice and thought. I’m looking for a pure meaning that can encompass and imbue all of life.

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Enlightenment and Depression

So…if your sense of self is really just a bunch of thoughts and impressions created by your mind – or more profoundly: the mind, Buddha-nature, God, consciousness, Brahman – then doesn’t that mean experiences of negative mental states like anxiety and depression are also products of this same mind?

All thoughts and impressions come from the same place. So although on the relative level your depression can be viewed as your reaction to negative life-events, on the absolute level there is no difference between “you” and “your reaction”. Both are products of mind.

Which is pretty weird, if you think about it.

It’s as if you’re a character in a story, and you think the things that befall you are due to your beliefs and choices and actions. But in fact both you and all the circumstances in and around you are created by the author. You have no control, because “you” are just another part of what is being written.

So when “you” start thinking about this, it’s not as though “you” are exercising your autonomy and control over your thoughts and circumstances. It means the author has gone from writing “you – who doesn’t think about this stuff” to writing “you – now thinking about this stuff and realising how weird it is”.

Likewise, these mental states like depression and anxiety; it’s not that “you” suddenly become afflicted by anxiety or depression. There’s no central, coherent, unified “you” who suffers those states. Instead the author has gone from writing “you without depression” to writing “you with depression”. If the depression stops, it will be because the author is now writing “you with depression stopping and feeling relieved about it”.

So what’s going on? Is the author an arsehole? Why is he or it inflicting so much suffering on everyone?

Well, the weird thing is that there is no “everyone” on whom suffering is inflicted.

There are temporary thoughts and impressions, some of which contain the belief that there is an “everyone” who is suffering.

But there are other temporary thoughts and impressions that recognise all thoughts and impressions as coming from the same place.

The thoughts that are full of suffering only think they are full of suffering. They aren’t actually full of suffering.

In other words, if you are depressed, but you then recognise that all thoughts and impressions come from the same place, then it’s not that you would stop being depressed, but that the “you” who feels assailed by depression would no longer be a separate, distinct, enduring entity who can be assailed by things like depression.

If the author writes a character experiencing depression, it’s not as though he first writes the character and then assails them with depression. No, the author writes the character-with-depression as one thing. Then later he writes the character-after-depression as another thing. There’s no actual, continuous character who exists from beginning to end and is assailed by depression, then recovers from it.

Moment by moment, our thoughts and impressions are coming from the same place. They don’t linger. Like the frames in a movie. Some objects in a movie scene might appear to stay still while others, like the actors, move around. But in reality we are seeing continuous individual frames. The sequence is composed of individual frames, and for an object just to remain static in place it must still be reproduced one frame at a time in every frame.

On the relative level we all have individual reasons for the negative mental states we experience. But on the absolute level, our negative mental states are all due to one thing: we mistake the “self” of our thoughts and impressions for an actual entity.

But who commits that mistake? Isn’t it too a product of the same author?

This is why there is such ambivalence about the nature of delusion in Buddhism, and the nature of evil in Christianity. If God is all powerful, is he also responsible for the existence of evil?

One thing is clear: despite the ambivalence over causation, delusion will be overcome and evil will be vanquished. There is no ambivalence about the end. Delusion and enlightenment, evil and good, they are not viewed as equal and opposite pairs.

Depression is a horrible experience, but when we recognise that both the experience and the apparent subject of that experience are products of thoughts and impressions that arise from the same place, then both the suffering and the one who suffers are transcended. The son of man has nowhere to lay his head.

At the same time, there comes the realisation that even this realisation itself has come from the same place as all the other thoughts and impressions. The quality has changed, but not the source.

And at that moment there comes the realisation that this realisation too is coming from the same place – that the author is now writing himself into the story as the author. And everything it took to arrive at this point – all the suffering and confusion and striving and grasping and gradual realisation – that too was the author, writing everything.

And when it stops, when realisation is replaced with forgetfulness and the door closes once more and it feels like “you” have returned to normal…who do you think is doing that?

Low mood

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I’ve never been a fan of straightforward biological explanations for depression, but is anyone? I guess the idea that depression is “only” a result of neurotransmitter imbalances in the brain offers an immediate causal story for a bout of extremely low mood. Reading between the lines, maybe there has always been a certain clinical restraint in not saying to people “there’s probably an obvious or an overly convoluted cause, but it’s good enough for now if you treat it as purely bio-chemical.”

In the past I would have had no patience for such an approach. I would have wanted to identify the real-life causes as quickly and efficiently as possible. I don’t know if it is therefore a sign of maturity or simply a change in circumstances, but I now appreciate the merits of being able to identify this low mood as a discrete phenomenon worthy of some form of respect.

In other words, while I may indeed be able to trace the causative factors and do something to remedy them, I can also now recognise that the low mood itself is significant in its own right and deserves its own response. Knowing the causes – or that there are causes – does not negate the real symptoms of the low mood.

In Aquinas’ work, we can interpret depression as an extreme form of sorrow.  Sorrow is understood to be our natural response to a perceived evil. Evil in this case does not mean necessarily a moral or spiritual evil; it refers to anything the intellect interprets as bad, harmful, unwanted, and so on.

Aquinas’ discussion of the effects of sorrow show that “depression” is metaphorically apt as a kind of “pressing down” on the individual’s soul:

For a man is said to be depressed, through being hindered in his own movement by some weight. Now it is evident from what has been said above that sorrow is caused by a present evil: and this evil, from the very fact that it is repugnant to the movement of the will, depresses the soul, inasmuch as it hinders it from enjoying that which it wishes to enjoy. And if the evil which is the cause of sorrow be not so strong as to deprive one of the hope of avoiding it, although the soul be depressed in so far as, for the present, it fails to grasp that which it craves for; yet it retains the movement whereby to repulse that evil. If, on the other hand, the strength of the evil be such as to exclude the hope of evasion, then even the interior movement of the afflicted soul is absolutely hindered, so that it cannot turn aside either this way or that. Sometimes even the external movement of the body is paralyzed, so that a man becomes completely stupefied.

Aquinas held what we might now call a “holistic” view of mind and body, hence among his recommendations for the alleviation of sorrow we find both spiritual and physical remedies – contemplation of truth, warm baths, and wine.

But we also find in Aquinas the basic logic of modern psychological remedies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. CBT teaches us to recognise negative thoughts that contribute to anxiety and depression, and to challenge those negative thoughts.

The experience of sorrow is dependent on the presence of some evil, and our perception of it.  CBT puts a greater emphasis on perception, armed with the knowledge that our perceptions of evil are often distorted, exaggerated, or overly pessimistic.  Aquinas was perhaps more focused on sorrow as a natural response to actual evils.

Either way, in my experience the causes of a low or depressed mood can be a mystery to the sufferer absent further self-examination. It might feel as though the low mood has come out of nowhere, but if one takes the opportunity to reflect on and summarise one’s circumstances, paying particular attention to one’s hopes and the sense of future options, the experience of debilitating sorrow might turn out to be quite natural and reasonable.

Nonetheless, I would not wish to imply that there are easy answers available. As Aquinas notes, this form of sorrow is particularly injurious and should not be taken lightly:

Of all the soul’s passions, sorrow is most harmful to the body. The reason of this is because sorrow is repugnant to man’s life in respect of the species of its movement, and not merely in respect of its measure or quantity, as is the case with the other passions of the soul. For man’s life consists in a certain movement, which flows from the heart to the other parts of the body: and this movement is befitting to human nature according to a certain fixed measure. Consequently if this movement goes beyond the right measure, it will be repugnant to man’s life in respect of the measure of quantity; but not in respect of its specific character: whereas if this movement be hindered in its progress, it will be repugnant to life in respect of its species.

What this means is that sorrow directly stifles our natural vigour. Where other afflictions might subvert or disturb us, sorrow crushes us to the very core.

In terms of remedies, then, Aquinas begins by quoting Aristotle:

“sorrow is driven forth by pleasure, both by a contrary pleasure and by any other, provided it be intense.”

I suspect this provides a rationale for various addictions: we seek a remedy in intense pleasures or distractions, even if they create other problems and renewed sorrows for us.

Aquinas goes on to examine weeping and tears as sources of relief:

Tears and groans naturally assuage sorrow: and this for two reasons. First, because a hurtful thing hurts yet more if we keep it shut up, because the soul is more intent on it: whereas if it be allowed to escape, the soul’s intention is dispersed as it were on outward things, so that the inward sorrow is lessened. This is why men, burdened with sorrow, make outward show of their sorrow, by tears or groans or even by words, their sorrow is assuaged. Secondly, because an action, that befits a man according to his actual disposition, is always pleasant to him. Now tears and groans are actions befitting a man who is in sorrow or pain; and consequently they become pleasant to him. Since then, as stated above, every pleasure assuages sorrow or pain somewhat, it follows that sorrow is assuaged by weeping and groans.

“Secondly, because an action, that befits a man according to his actual disposition, is always pleasant to him.” I’m not really one for weeping and groans – heavy sighs perhaps? – but I have discovered that as a general rule if I am too depressed to write, I can always write about being depressed.

For his third remedy, Aquinas recommends the company of sympathetic friends:

When one is in pain, it is natural that the sympathy of a friend should afford consolation: whereof the Philosopher indicates a twofold reason (Ethic. ix, 11). The first is because, since sorrow has a depressing effect, it is like a weight whereof we strive to unburden ourselves: so that when a man sees others saddened by his own sorrow, it seems as though others were bearing the burden with him, striving, as it were, to lessen its weight; wherefore the load of sorrow becomes lighter for him: something like what occurs in the carrying of bodily burdens. The second and better reason is because when a man’s friends condole with him, he sees that he is loved by them, and this affords him pleasure, as stated above. Consequently, since every pleasure assuages sorrow, as stated above, it follows that sorrow is mitigated by a sympathizing friend.

Not every depressed person has sympathetic friends available to them, which is in itself quite a depressing thought. However, there exist a plethora of online and real-life support groups and, in this country at least, government-subsidised counselling available to some extent. There are options if sympathetic friends are hard to come by.

For his fourth remedy, Aquinas recommends the contemplation of truth, quoting Augustine:

“It seemed to me that if the light of that truth were to dawn on our minds, either I should not feel that pain, or at least that pain would seem nothing to me.”

Contemplation of truth is a tricky one. As Aquinas notes, it is a pleasure with no corresponding sorrow. In fact it is considered the greatest pleasure for the connoisseur who develops a taste for it. At the same time, it is somewhat elusive and not easy for a beginner to find comfort in, especially while struggling with the other facets of depression.

And yet contemplation of truth is implicated in the kind of self-analysis that uncovers the causes of a person’s sorrow. Examining one’s life does lead to the consideration of the greater meaning and purpose to our existence, indeed to the very nature of our existence and hence to the kind of transcendent truths that Aquinas had in mind.

Ending on a softer note, Aquinas recommends sleep and baths – and by extension any physical restorative that can combat the depleting effects of sorrow.

It might seem a bit strange to put contemplation of truth neither first nor last in the list when it is clearly regarded as the supreme pleasure and greatest response to sorrow. This could be because contemplation is still an indirect response to sorrow, but I think it might also be because contemplation is such a difficult work in its own right, and Aquinas – perhaps being sensitive to the needs of the depressed individual – did not wish to utterly demoralise an already suffering and weakened person with a pious exhortation to a universal yet abstract remedy.

So he slips it in as the third of four remedies:

O sorrowful soul, have a bit of a cry, chat to a good friend, maybe consider the profound reality of existence, the transcendent metaphysical order, the incomprehensible mystery of divine love, or just skip ahead to a hot bath and a lie-down.

 

Creative dismay

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I would also have accepted ‘depression’ and ‘despair’, but dismay with its roots in the Latin exmagare “divest of power or ability” seems so much more fitting.

It’s a melancholic thing, I’m sure; and it goes in cycles: first the inspiration, striving to obtain the ideal. This effort is rewarded with success, and success is very pleasing but the ideal is still not obtained. Time passes and we feel the need to achieve success again in some small measure, but this time the effort is not inspired. All we can do is attempt to repeat the previous work as though following a formula, thinking “I’ve done it before, I can do it again”.

But it doesn’t work. You can’t repeat your success because you weren’t aiming for success in the first place, you were aiming for the ideal. Success for its own sake is no ideal. So there you are: both past success and inspiration fading away, increasingly desperate to resurrect some measure of that lost energy, and all you can do is create half-a-dozen scribbled ideas, attempts at writing that might seem plausible in theory but in practice only fill you with a sense of dismay – divested of power, inspiration, success, and the ideal.

The problem lies in trying to seize for ourselves the source of our creativity when in reality it cannot be controlled or held. Our work might be ‘creative’, but our role in the creative process is ultimately a receptive one. As the Yi Jing states:

There is a clearly defined hierarchic relationship between the two principles [Creative and Receptive]. In itself of course the Receptive is just as important as the Creative, but the attribute of devotion defines the place occupied by this primal power in relation to the Creative. For the Receptive must be activated and led by the Creative; then it is productive of good. Only when it abandons this position and tries to stand as an equal side by side with the Creative, does it become evil. The result then is opposition to and struggle against the Creative, which is productive of evil to both.

You can receive inspiration and follow ideals; you cannot create inspiration or lead an ideal. This creative dismay is a symptom of trying to lead the creative, to push and manipulate inspiration, typically in aid of some transient external goal. These transient external goals such as the desire to succeed, the fear of losing momentum in one’s work, the enjoyment of having one’s work published and read by an audience – they are ultimately vain and empty if there is nothing deeper to sustain them. To pursue success without ‘inner truth’ is a hopeless cause, as Confucius in his commentary on the Yi Jing notes:

The superior man abides in his room. If his words are well spoken, he meets with assent at a distance of more than a thousand miles. How much more then from near by! If the superior man abides in his room and his words are not well spoken, he meets with contradiction at a distance of more than a thousand miles. How much more then from near by! Words go forth from one’s own person and exert their influence on men. Deeds are born close at hand and become visible far away. Words and deeds are the hinge and bowspring of the superior man. As hinge and bowspring move, they bring honor or disgrace. Through words and deeds the superior man moves heaven and earth. Must one not, then, be cautious?

Dismay may signal the loss of creativity, but it also shows the path of return. By accepting the experience of dismay as a source of inspiration, we return to the role of the receptive principle, devoting ourselves once again to the role of the follower, devoted to the movements of creativity however it may lead.

Yet it is worth remembering how this whole lesson came about: through the superficial and ultimately vain desire to once again succeed at writing, coupled with the fear of losing momentum, becoming unproductive, and falling behind. These fears and desires have never before instigated success in my writing. Desperation has had little bearing on inspiration. It is important therefore to remain objective about writing: both the process and the prospects. To go two or three weeks without an article will not be the end of the world; at the same time a hurried and desperate composition might even detract from my existing body of work. At the same time, I should not ignore the deeper suspicion that the writing I am currently doing may not be the final direction of my work.

On this the opinion of the Yi could not be clearer:

The cock is dependable. It crows at dawn. But it cannot itself fly to heaven. It just crows. A man may count on mere words to awaken faith. This may succeed now and then, but if persisted in, it will have bad consequences.

What makes you happy?

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For melancholics happiness requires a reason.  We’re so used to circumstances not being right, not being favourable. We live in a habitual state of wary discontent as though things are not great, but they could get worse at any moment and we want to be prepared for when they do.

This habitual state of discontented wariness is so consistent that although it seems like a prudent response to one’s circumstances at any given moment, in reality it is just a default setting; a mood in search of a justification.If your mood remains unchanged despite the passage of years and unending variations in your circumstances, at some point you have to accept that the only constant is you; something in you or about you is determined to inhabit this mood and remain in it for your own, perhaps subconscious, reasons, or through the sheer inertia of past experience.

Either way, if you find over the course of years that you inhabit a negative mood regardless of circumstances, there is no real reason why you couldn’t instead train yourself to inhabit a more positive mood instead.  If you’re always feeling worried, independent of whatever is going on around you, then you might as well teach yourself to always feel relieved, since it clearly has no bearing on your actual circumstances or outcomes either way.

I know for a fact that when all my problems are solved, I’ll create new problems to worry about.  If I’m always looking for faults I’ll be sure to find them. But this experience of constant fault-finding is wearisome and unpleasant, and countless times in my life I’ve sworn I’ve had enough of it.

So in theory I’ve now had more than enough of it, yet it persists because I have never had the right combination of circumstances, motivation, and clarity to do something about it.  It is not sufficient to simply realise that there is something wrong with your attitude on such a deep level; the accretion of this attitude took many years and the retraining of it will likewise take consistent effort.

After all, your mood is more than just a state of mind, it is also deeply ingrained in your whole body.  Habitual muscular tension, poor posture, and a variety of biochemical processes interact with mood both passively and actively.  Depression might make you slouch, but slouching can also make you feel depressed.

Posture can be retrained, habitual tension can become habitual relaxation, so why can’t an habitually negative mood become an habitually positive one.  Ultimately if there is no real reason to feel bad, what more reason do you need to start learning to feel good – to feel happy for merely being alive, and to genuinely appreciate all the wonderful things in your life?

Vale, Robin Williams, Hollywood’s melancholy funnyman

MercatorNet.com has just published my article on Robin Williams’ comedic genius:

Robin Williams’ death moved me more than I had expected.

Which is a silly thing to say because I hadn’t expected him to die; I hadn’t even thought about it. It was nowhere on my mind, and hence a shock to wake up that morning and find that he had gone.

It’s very strange to find out this way that my life was in some small but significant measure dependent on the existence of a man I never met but whose movies and interviews – his persona – shaped me in a way I’d never credited. I feel like I knew him.

Some people think my father looks a lot like Robin Williams, perhaps that’s part of it; that, and hours spent as a family watching and re-watching his films, with the unanimous sense that this was a good guy, the real deal, a truly funny man.

But more than that, he was clearly inspired, electrified, with an exuberance that didn’t always translate into great comedy but often enough it did, and showed a man with an unusual gift that, on-camera at least, seemed to transform his own personality and overshadow everyone around him.

Read the full article here.