Thoughts on happiness and relationships and mental health

I suppose it is not surprising that just after the turn of the new year on all of our calendars, everyone and everything is seemingly reflecting on measurements of their own happiness and satisfaction.

I just took a little Happiness Formula test and the result I got is unsurprising:

Slightly below average in life satisfaction

People who score in this range usually have small but significant problems in several areas of their lives, or have many areas that are doing fine but one area that represents a substantial problem for them. If you have moved temporarily into this level of life satisfaction from a higher level because of some recent event, things will usually improve over time and satisfaction will generally move back up. On the other hand, if you are continually slightly dissatisfied with many areas of life, some changes might be in order. Sometimes we are simply expecting too much, and sometimes life changes are needed. […] Some people can gain motivation from a small level of dissatisfaction, but often dissatisfaction across a number of life domains is a distraction, and unpleasant as well.

For obvious reasons there’s been a lot of work done about trying to understand happiness. Everyone seems to have their own way about it, too. Something in this citation from my test result gave me a flashback.

When I was about 14 years old, I was a regular attendee of the Mood Disorders Support Group of New York (MDSGNY, for short). It was filled with people nearly twice my age, battling similar issues in much the same way that I was, with mood disorders ranging from mild depression to severe bipolar disorder and even frighteningly notable dissociative disorders. A common thread of advice that was given to us was that “people like us simply can’t expect to achieve the same accomplishments that people without these difficulties can.”

I found it insulting, and I was consistently questioning why that assumption was held so tightly with such a prevalent view. No one would ask why, or even seemed at all distressed by the fact. It was simply a matter of fact to most of the other attendees, and they seemed content with their resignation to accept it.

For a long time I’ve been struggling with understanding how other people seem so simply “predisposed to happiness” whereas I feel as though I am cursed by being “predisposed to sadness.” A short time ago, I wrote this:

In the search for answers people can come up with so many different rationalizations. It’s endless. The other day, I went to another party that I didn’t have a great time at through no fault of the very awesome hosts. This is becoming a trend I don’t like.

So, naturally, I instinctually come up with (endless) rationalizations to explain why. Every single thing I come up with is pure crap, of course, because it doesn’t really matter why I had a bad time since (surprise) it doesn’t change the fact that I had a bad time. No reason even has the potential to make me feel any better at all except for reasons that hinge solely on my own failings, because those are the only ones in which the situation was anything that “I could have done differently.”

Naturally (I have to imagine), thinking of my own failings makes me feel even worse. The net result is a cycle of thoughts that makes me feel bad and not good and in no way able to be happy about anything. And then I start to get quiet and go inside and want everything to stop.

This is such a typical thing. Everyone does it but from my vantage point it looks as though people react differently to such internal thoughts. I can’t see how they do that.

Most recently, it’s my relationship and social satisfaction that has seemed doomed to failure. I saw an interesting article on the BBC news web site about just such a thing: that researchers believe accepting sadness and resigning oneself to deal with the difficult times instead of believing in a fantasy where such sadness is simply gone, may in fact be one element of successful relationships. Another interesting quote from the article was this:

“The field of mental health perpetuates this myth with the very concept of “mental health,” which implies a state without suffering,” they say.

In other words, the very idea that sadness and difficulty is a sign of “mental illness,” judged only with the one-dimensional simplicity of the binaries of “mentally healthy” versus “mentally not healthy,” is worse than simply incorrect, but rather actively harmful.

In relationships, I have an unflinching confidence in myself to be able to “stick with it” through the bad times, but a persistent fear that my partner will never do the same. No other partner has proven themselves capable of this; each of them has high-tailed it and ran, and none want anything to do with me anymore.

It feels so circular.

A friend of mine recommended the blog of Penelope Trunk to me the other day. It was a wonderful recommendation. In one of her articles that I read, she says of the job hunt:

When it comes to career schemes, we simply do not have accurate imaginations about what life will be like for us in different situations, said Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard University, when I interviewed him. Our most accurate information about what will make us happy comes from snooping in on other peoples’ lives to see if they are happy. And the best way to watch other people is to be in a variety of offices. Gilbert calls the informal process of judging other peoples’ happiness “surrogation,” and he says, “surrogation is the best way to predict if we’ll be happy. Observe how happy people are in different situations.”

This seems incredibly applicable to other arenas, such as personal fulfillment as well as social satisfaction. I’m heartened to see that my hard work and continuous efforts mimic this approach, even if I’m clearly not happy most of the time yet.

So, I don’t know. What makes you happy?

One reply on “Thoughts on happiness and relationships and mental health”

  1. I do agree that it’s best to not live in a fantasy. I was depressed following the end of a long-term relationship a few years ago, and realized that I expected perfection from him–which doesn’t exist. Once you realize that you won’t find this soulmate that’s portrayed in movies and media, you’ll see that you can still find love and the perfect fit.

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