Reportedly, a depression epidemic is sweeping the developed world, and especially its young people.
One, that’s at least partly an effect of better diagnostic capture, not there being more of it – as described earlier.
Two, to the degree it is real, I have a theory and a solution.
Simply put, happiness, as a sense of fulfilment, often gets confused with “happiness” as “experiencing pleasant emotions now”.
As a result, when people aren’t feeling buzzed all the time, they believe that means they’re unhappy. Then they make themselves unhappy with that belief.
If you equate “life going well” with “feeling pleasant emotions”, the most likely outcome is ending up with neither.
Happiness as a sense of fulfillment is not the sum of, or even related to, a string of emotionally pleasant moments. It’s a whole different thing.
Not only are those things not identical, they are often at odds – a life of hedonism cannot be a life of meaning. A life of meaning often means sacrifice of immediate pleasure, and of emotional comfort.
Cart and horse, people – you feel a different, higher sort of emotional satisfaction when your life has meaning – the aforementioned sense of fulfilment, which is what we should appropriately call “happiness” and aim for – even if there’s also hardship or even suffering. But making “feeling good” the goal and metric is not how you give life meaning, nor how you achieve fulfillment.
Under a simple hedonistic concept of happiness, all hardship and suffering – instead of being understood as part of life – are unhappiness, and considered unacceptable, a sign of failure, that life is not going as it should. A normal part of life, inevitable and normal, even healthy, is taken as a sign that life has gone wrong.
The people thus afflicted take the fact that their brains are not swimming in endorphins 24/7 as a sign that they’ve gone wrong, failed generally, and become truly depressed as a result.
With that mental map, the only two possible outcomes are depression or delusion. That’s how dangerous it is to have bad conceptual maps. That’s why fixing them is a Wisdomination top priority ;-).
We’ll cover the utter topsy-turvy insanity of the belief that doing well in life means feeling good and vice versa in a separate article – for now, let’s just say that whole educational and parenting paradigms were based on the naive assumption that positive affect correlates with good life outcomes, and note that a disproportionate share of extremely successful people come from difficult backgrounds and are generally not very “happy” in an emotional sense. Yet, they often feel fulfilled – Elon Musk comes to mind. On a larger scale, it was not accidental that the gloomiest nation on Earth conquered a quarter of it, and created ninety percent of modern civilization (cheerio, guv’nors). A sort of inconsolable dissatisfaction is the engine of progress, and making people feel really gooooood is also a really effective way to make them complacent and unmotivated, and, in the last analysis, unfulfilled, underperforming, and ultimately ironically unhappy at a much deeper and more important level.
Socrates was probably not furiously happy when he spent his life surrounded by idiots, who then executed him, yet his life was infinitely more meaningful and worthwhile, and subjectively more rewarding, than that of some instagram #happy #blessed #grateful (except neither) yogina posing on a beach at sunset, not least because continuing her endorphine rush depends on being increasingly delusional and parasitic.
If life doesn’t hurt, you’re delusional and/or making someone else shoulder the burden for you.
Dodging the suffering inherent in existence is the root of many psychoses and political evils.
But people think it’s possible to feel good all the time, that happiness of the hedonic variety is possible, normal, and even the default scenario unless something goes wrong.
Such a sense of emotional entitlement to a bump-free ride (yes), and the assumption it is even possible, would be unthinkable to our grandparents, who had to live with double digit infant mortality rates, wars, and living standards that today’s young people can’t even imagine and couldn’t tolerate for a day. Yet, they were probably better emotionally adjusted.
Why is it disproportionately young people? First, ’twas ever thus. Growing up is hard. Second, young people are told unrealistically sunny things for the first decade and a half of their lives, and then they hit the wall of adulthood, and resent it – their options being to regress, to inflame themselves with some romantic political radicalism that promises to reclaim emotional childhood by force, or to have an existential crisis. “You can do anything honey, just be happy” is a mental poison of unmatched virulence.
Of course, only the best intentions go into sheltering young people from hardship and giving them unrealistic expectations. But what other outcome could there possibly be than disappointment, than mourning for a world they were promised and can never get? Ever heard about the road to hell, and what it’s paved with?
This leads us to a curious conclusion:
The pursuit of happiness is a leading cause of depression.
More specifically, the pursuit of a flawed notion of happiness.
The solution is to realize that life satisfaction and fulfilment, the big picture phenomenon of your life making sense, is altogether separate from some hedonistic “feeling good”.
Pursue the former. The latter may incidentally happen, and indeed probably will more often than it would if you chased it.
With my homie Francis Bacon: “Seek ye first the good things of the mind, and the rest will either be supplied or its loss will not be felt”.
True happiness is found in a state of flow, when you’re so engrossed in living and doing that you have no time to notice how you’re feeling. Like a butterfly, it lands on you when you least expect it. Chase it, and it’ll flutter the fuck away.
Emotional wellbeing is very much the watched kettle that never boils. Navel gazing, overthinking and rumination are self-fulfillingly bad. Stop trying to give yourself an erection by focusing on it, and just do your thing. If you try to force it, it won’t happen. To achieve happiness, even of the hormonal variety, stop chasing it. Let it be what it is – a secondary effect of getting things right.
The pursuit of happiness is prone to cargocultish behaviour, mistakenly working from effects towards causes, like Pacific islanders building straw airplanes to attract the white gods. Like Keynesian economists massaging indicators to cause the things those indicators are supposed to measure. Like trying to heat a room by breathing on a thermometer.
Instead of trying to make yourself feel happy, make a life that is worth being happy about.
In a theme consistently explored on Wisdomination, you get to feel chirpy as a consequences of getting the big stuff right. Feeling chirpy is not the big stuff, nor is it a precondition of, nor a way towards, the big stuff.
Grow up, and stop expecting pure sweetness and unicorns shitting rainbows – that’s how people depress themselves. Life isn’t like gummy bears, life is more like olives, coffee or whisky – the taste is at any rate rather acquired, and children generally don’t like it.
Life can hurt, and be sublimely beautiful and deeply meaningful at the same time.
Learn to tolerate this ambiguity, and measure your happiness by a sense of fulfilment and meaning, not by how psyched you’re feeling right now.
P.S. It is scientifically proven that contributing to meaningful projects is a lasting source of happiness.