At the end of 2015 and beginning of 2016, my life felt like everything was falling apart. My job was disintegrating, literally disappearing before my eyes while I still remained employed and I knew that any day I could (and probably would) be handed a pink slip. I was in the worst parts of my grief from the loss of my father, having pushed through all the ‘dealing with’ stuff of that Summer and Fall until the holidays hit and I wanted nothing more than to hide from the world. I was in financial crisis and, amidst it all, had a water pipe break at the cabin which made selling my house an impossible quick-fix for the financial issues.
In January of 2016, I found myself deeply sunk into Depression. Capital D depression.
For me there are two types of experiences of depression – the first is the “crisis moment” type depression like this one was. The huge, big, can’t-get-out-of-bed, hide-from-the-world, kind of depression. These types of depression are, for me, relatively rare and usually an accompaniment to an unstable environmental situations. Moves, crisis, life changes, hormonal changes, that kind of thing.
The other type of depression (little d) is the more insidious form, and the real problem that needed addressed. This is the low-level type of depression that is better described as “ennui”. It’s that ongoing level of dissatisfaction with life. That ongoing level of “not happy” that is also not “unhappy.” This is the depression that most people don’t see, the one that lurks behind the smiles and the upbeat language and the bubbly personality. This is also the part of my depression that, when a crisis happens, triggers into the downward spiral that becomes a DEPRESSION episode.
As I began to claw my way out of that hole, I decided that, I wanted to do whatever I could to never have another major Depressive episode. I was determined it would be different, that I would learn to cultivate sustainable happiness. It started with getting out of the current sink hole, and by Spring, I was beginning to feel more like myself. Instead of going back to business as usual until the next crisis, I began a grand experiment in cultivating mental health. What if my mental health wasn’t something I was stuck with, as I had always believed. What if, instead, it were something I could improve? How could I change my approach to dealing with life from “treating the symptoms” to “finding a cure” that works for me?
Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
1. Cultivating Happiness is like growing a garden.
You’re not happy one day and then it’s done. Those people who say “Happiness is a Choice” aren’t using language effectively – they’re looking for a soundbite to describe a long-term process. It’s not just a choice you make. You don’t wake up and say “hey, today I’m going to be happy” and then you are. For me, cultivating happiness looks a lot like addiction recovery, because in many ways it IS addiction recovery. Our brains produce chemicals when we are depressed. Over time, we become used to those chemicals being present and so producing them becomes the NORMAL way of doing things inside our skull. Once they become normal, our brains begin to need them to function. I realized that feeling bad was my normal state, it was how I got attention, how I avoided dealing with things, how I survived. The idea of walking away from feeling bad was both a physical and a mental undertaking – physically I had to teach my body to start producing the correct chemical balance and mentally I am having to learn not to ‘hide’ in my depression.
Sure, part of cultivating happiness is a choice, but the choice is to do things every day that encourage your body to produce a better balance of chemicals. What works for me may or may not work for you. The choice is to find what DOES work, and to do a bit every day to cultivate that change.
I had an inkling that this was the case, but my problem before my Happiness Year was that I had never successfully cultivated a garden (or anything). So I planted one. The Sailor is a long-term gardener, and living with him came with a neglected garden plot that was just waiting for me to stick some plants in. It produced about 50 pounds of food. Real food, that we ate. It required me to pay attention to it, at least a little bit, every day. It required me to get outside, to deal with ups and downs, to do something nearly every day towards a long term goal.
Cultivating happiness is like this. When you start out, you spend a lot of time pulling weeds and not getting any results. Eventually things start to grow. Some stuff works out, some stuff doesn’t no matter what you try. There are always people who are better at it than you, who can fix the things that you can’t figure out for the life of you, who get more produce, etc. You do what you can, every day.
2. Happiness is Neither a Marathon nor a Sprint
People keep saying this thing about how “it’s a marathon, not a sprint.” Look, I don’t care if you’re running an Ultramarathon or a 100 meter dash – BOTH are races. Races require you to put on your A-game, push yourself beyond the point of comfort and into the point of pain and injury, and all races have a finish line. Races are pinnacle experiences, and amazing, and you should totally do them.
Just as running a race doesn’t make you an athlete, having an amazing day at Disneyland does not make you happy. It can make you joyful. It can make you euphoric. It can make you hot and sweaty and tired. Here’s the thing: happiness is NOT a pinnacle experience.
I think this is a big part of the problem we have as a culture – we have been taught by commercials that use “happiness” as a selling point that happiness is an amazing experience which is closer to joy or euphoria, some ‘high’ point. And, according to a commercial, it comes from an external event or product. In the research that I did in learning about happiness involved looking at people who had found ways to truly be happy the majority of the time. Every single person described lasting happiness as being closer to contentment, to peace, to satiety.
For me this was a huge shift in how I thought about what I was working on cultivating. I wasn’t trying to cultivate that same sort of pinnacle experience, I was learning how to create a stable level of “good.”
Cultivating happiness is TRAINING. It’s the day-in-day-out slog of learning skills and developing habits and getting stronger so that WHEN the crisis occur, you can deal with them in healthy ways.
3. Defining Happiness for Myself
For me, happiness is when I am emotionally stable. It’s the steady glow, not the fireworks. The light, not the darkness. Everyone defines it differently, don’t let someone else’s definition constrain you.
4. I Am a Petri Dish
All emotions are chemical reactions. This doesn’t mean your feelings aren’t real. It doesn’t mean they don’t need to be addressed. They are and they do. You should definitely start with recognizing, listening to and confronting your emotions. Good counseling, solid faith, deep friendships – these things help deal with the truth behind the feelings.
However, for me, that is only half the battle. The other half is the recognizing that I am basically a sack of chemicals, an over-sized petri dish. Left alone, my chemicals work just fine, but I haven’t “left them alone” much if at all in my life. That sounds so very simple, but it’s not. Finding the things that throw my chemicals out of whack and then learning to eliminate them, ugh. That’s hard stuff, and a big part of what I’m still working on learning to do.
There so many things. The medications I take. The level of stress I am under, and for how long. The amount of sugar, particularly high-fructose corn syrup, that I consume. The amount of caffeine I consume. The amount of carbs I consume.
As I become aware of what all I was putting into my body, I can see reactions I have to certain things. I ceased the hormonal birth control I was taking and about 50% of my mood swings went away. I intermittently quit caffeine, and every time it makes me feel more alert to not consume it, though not enough to fully quit coffee (yet?). The big one was when I quit high-fructose corn syrup as part of a month-long purge of sugar from my diet. When I slipped up and had a Coke, I immediately had a HUGE mood swing about 3 hours later. I repeated the experiment a few days later, and the same thing happened. Having a coke is just no longer worth it.
The things that go into and out of my body matter deeply to my mental health, it turns out.
5. Don’t Focus on Eliminating, Focus on Adding
As important as it was for me to stop consuming some things, eliminating anything is hard for me to do when I’m feeling down. It feels like I’m punishing myself. I feel bad and all I want is to feel better, and my brain tells me that having that Coke will make me feel better. And I feel like a horrible failure because I *can’t* have the coke because I have this broken body that reacts unpredictably to having a Coke. And then I feel worse and want the coke more. (My body is not broken, nor am I a failure or a horrible person, but that’s how the bad brain works.)
It’s a bad spiral, and very easy for me to fall into when I’m not doing well.
Adding things is easier. I’m not talking exercise, because of course that will help with producing great mental chemicals, but starting an exercise regimen requires a pre-existing mental strength for me. I’m not talking “eat your veggies” because, um… I mean I have a love affair with broccoli but again, it’s not as exciting mentally as having a cookie. I’m also not talking “do your work, check things off your list, make strides towards your goals.” Yeah, that’s great but there’s just so much room for failure.
I kept trying to do all those things – exercise, eat right, do what needed to get done – and I kept failing and then I would feel worse about it. It’s the cycle that was a hallmark of my life.
I need ritual, regularity and something that I knew I would do. For me, that required things that I would do FOR other people.
The biggest thing I added was a concerted effort on building and maintaining interpersonal relationships with people in my life. I made a list of all my friends and family and began sporadically reaching out to say “hi.” When I started to feel bad about myself, I would pull out the list, track who I’d talked to recently and reach out to those I hadn’t. Simultaneously, I uninstalled Facebook from my phone because it gave me the illusion that I was interacting with people when, in fact, I wasn’t. The hollow interactions weren’t helpful in building mental health.
I also added the gardening. Again, not because I wanted to be a “gardener” but because I wanted to learn how to be consistent in cultivating something.
I am shocked and pleasantly surprised to realize that I am, the majority of the time, happy these days. Sure, I still have triggers, and stress, and sad times. Lord knows, I still get PMS. I’ve not yet found homeostasis in this petri dish of a body that I live in, but I’m working on it.