Friday, May 26, 2006

Happiness: What Does It Mean? How Do We Get It?

So I've been reading through a week's worth of FeedBlitz alerts, on my way to the Round Robin posting I haven't commented on yet. I figure that a few of the RR entries will be in the FeedBlitz as well.

Along the way, though, I've run across a couple of very different postings that touch on the subject of happiness, or lack thereof. One of my online friends was evidently pretty depressed when she posted her most recent entry a week ago. I only just found out about it, and left a long, Karenesque lecture in the comments. This entry is a more generalized, much longer rant about the same thing.

In contrast to my friend's sad entry, there's a quiz I found on Patrick's Place. My result is probably well above average, but it would not always have been so:

You Are 76% Happy

You are a very happy person. Generally, you feel content and that all is right with the world.
Occasionally, you have a down day - but you have the ability to pick yourself right back up.

But really, I think the test itself is more instructive than the result. Here are some highlights:

  • Check all that apply to you or that you agree with.
  • When you think about people in your life, you tend to think of those you care about and love.
  • You think life is getting better all the time.
  • When it comes to work or school, you enjoy a challenge.
  • You feel like your life is on the right track.
  • There is enough time in your life to take care of yourself.
  • You have a strong positive attitude that has gotten you through tough times
  • When you feel confused, you just step back and remember that things will work themselves out.
  • You are proud of who you are.
  • You believe that finding meaning and happiness in life is something you have to do for yourself.
  • You let negative feelings go quickly.
  • You rarely feel lonely.
  • You feel like you have control over your life.
  • Over your life, you've learned a lot - and grown emotionally.
  • You could lose people you love (or be out of work) and still feel secure.
  • Life is good. You truly appreciate what you have.
I think I answered fairly honestly. A few of them could have gone either way, but I tried not to fudge a positive result. Much.

Am I an extraordinarily happy person? No, probably not. Although things are going very well in some ways, I'm very aware of my failures. Am I a very strong person? Well, I'm a bit of a survivor, but it's not hard to upset me. (Please don't test this!) Am I self-confident? In some ways, perhaps, and certainly more so than when I was younger; but I'm as full of self-doubt as the next person, probably more so than many people.

What I do have, aside from a good job and a good husband and good friends (which admittedly count for a lot!) is years of experience watching people give in to depression. I had a mother who was a clinical psychologist, and who suffered from depression. I haven't exactly been depression-free all these years myself. Fortunately for me, I don't seem to have a physiological predisposition toward that condition. Nevertheless, I think I've learned something about why some people are reasonably happy at least part of the time, while others are unreasonably miserable most of the time.

There isn't one simple answer. There isn't a single cause or a quick fix. But: there are a number of factors you can look at, and things you can do to increase your odds of being at least somewhat happy instead of perennially miserable. What you need to do depends largely on what the actual problem is:

1. It's a chemistry thing. Some people are unhappy because their brains don't have the right balance of chemicals. I personally don't know much about seratonin or endorphins, much less the physical effects of long term stress. But I've seen someone who was depressed and cranky for years and years, who became considerably less so after adding certain supplements to his diet to promote the production of whatever-it-is that his brain needed more of. I'll try to get the details for you later, but for now, just remember that some of that depression you're fighting may be a case of bad chemistry. If it is, there are things that can be done to counteract it, not all of them involving prescription drugs. (And no, Paul, it's not about homeopathy, either.)

Addendum: Here's the info I didn't have handy before:

enlarge bottle

Trimethylglycine (Anhydrous Betaine) * 750 mg
TMG, also known as anhydrous betaine, is found in a variety of plant and animal sources and is utilized in the conversion of homocysteine to methionine. Maintaining normal homocysteine levels is important for the health of the cardiovascular system. TMG has been shown to help protect the liver and raise S-adenosylmethionine (SAM) levels in animal studies. SAM may help to promote a balanced emotional state.

****My explanation *****

SAMe is the supplement that is supposed to help the brain avoid depression, but it's extremely expensive to buy. TMG helps the cardiovascular system by regulating homocysteine levels, a process that produces SAM(e) as a byproduct. My friend gets a two-fer benefit. He points out, however, that it's not a magic bullet. Other factors - a better job, diet and exercise, for example - also play a role in his improved emotional state. He also warns that it doesn't work well unless you're also taking certain B vitamins. A good B-complex takes care of that issue.

2. Maybe your life does suck. Everyone has periods of crisis in their lives. Illness, joblessness, loneliness, divorce, financial insolvency, homelessness, addiction, family strife, lawsuits...well, the world is full of trouble, sorrow and pain, and we all have to deal with it. The last year of my mom's life was terribly stressful and depressing for me. There was no way to escape the situation. It simply had to be lived through.

Do you remember the Serenity Prayer? That's the one about accepting what you can't change, and fixing what you can. That's easier said than done. When you're trapped in a difficult situation you really can't change, that's bound to be stressful. So what do you do? Well, I suppose you go with what the prayer says. You change the things you can, ease the pressure a little bit, even if you can't really fix the main problem. For the rest, I guess you "accept" it. Does that mean you're cool with it, drifting lazily along through a sea of troubles? Of course not. But you can decide that you will survive this, and and come out the other side, if any. For many people, it helps to know that God cares, even if he's not going to wave a hand and make it all better. Other people disagree about this, and I'm certainly not going to argue the point tonight. The main idea is this: yes, sometimes your life does suck, but you can cope with it. No, really. You can. And that leads me to my third point, the excuse for writing this long blowhard post:

3. Ditch the script. In my postings about writing, which mostly appear in my LJ, I often refer to a concept that developed a colorful name on the AOL sf/fantasy writing boards five or six years ago: the Inner Weasel. This nasty critter is the part of a writer's brain that says the story sucks, the edit is going badly, the words are stupid, and what the heck makes you think you can write, anyway? Sound familiar? It should. I've read a number of posts from some of you that are at least partly dictated by your own Inner Weasels.

Well, guess what? Overcritical judgments about your writing are not the only pronouncements coming from this part of your brain. The Inner Weasel thinks you suck, personally, professionally, and in any other way in which you are less than perfect - which is to say, in all areas of life. Some people manage to keep their Inner Weasels on a very short leash, but others come to think they deserve all those nasty nips at their self-esteem. After all, the Inner Weasel is only confirming what your parents, your teachers, your abusive boss or spouse or whoever it was taught you long ago. You're fat. You're incompetent. You're ugly. You don't keep the house clean. Your grades are too low. Your hair is a mess. You didn't finish that project in time. Your kids are too wild. You don't call your mother often enough. Your paintings are too weird, and so is your lifestyle. You're useless and old and stupid. You're just going to get worse. Why do you even bother? You don't deserve any better than this.

Nonsense. These cheap shots may have an element of truth, but they aren't remotely fair or helpful. All they do is distort your self image, magnify your faults and ignore or minimize your strengths. They do all this with scripts. That old Inner Weasel, or even an external tormenter, knows exactly what to say to make you feel bad, to sap you of hope and motivation.

The good news is that you can rewrite the script. (I think this theory comes from cognitive therapy, by the way. That is the kind of therapy my mom found the most helpful,personally and professionally.)

Ever see that movie Agnes of God? Jane Fonda's character, psychiatrist Martha Livingston, tries to teach Meg Tilly's nun character to change her scripts. Sister Agnes's mother used to tell Agnes she was ugly and stupid. Doctor Livingston tries to teach Agnes to fight back.

Livingston (as Sister Agnes's mother): Agnes, you're a mistake.
Sister Agnes: I'm not a mistake! God doesn't make mistakes!

Okay, so I don't remember the dialogue in any detail, but the concept has stayed with me. I've heard friends go on for years like a broken record, endlessly repeating their destructive scripts. "I'm so lonely. Nobody loves me. I'm useless. My son won't see me. " Suggest something that might help, and they trot out a script that tells why they can't do anything to improve the situation.

But try this instead, the next time the Inner Weasel wants you to recite a litany of all the ways your life sucks:

IW: You're old.
You: Yeah, I'm getting older. So what? I'm not done yet.
IW: You're ugly.
You: By whose standard?
IW: Your kids misbehave all the time. You're not raising them right.
You: Misbehavior is part of the learning process. My kids are also smart and loving. And they don't always misbehave.
IW: Your job is boring and demeaning, and it doesn't pay well.
You: I like that one part of it. That's kind of fun. And I like my co-workers, and most of the bills are getting paid. It will do until I find something better.
IW: You'll never find something better. You haven't gotten one interview.
You: I will if I keep trying.
IW: You'll always be alone.
You: There's no way to know that. And even if I don't find the right person, I can be happy anyway.
IW: You're fat.
You: Okay, so I'll lose weight. Eventually. Maybe I'll go to the gym today.
IW: Your painting sucks.
You: That's not what the teacher said, or my friends online, or the person who bought the last one.

You see? You don't have to buy into this self-bashing stuff, or hopeless predictions about the future. You can change the script, and talk back to your Inner Weasel. And eventually, you'll realize that the IW was wrong after all. Your life isn't perfect, but parts of it are pretty good. You're not perfect, but parts of you are pretty good. And there are things you can do to improve on both.

Now let's go back to some of the statements in that Happiness quiz.

  • When you think about people in your life, you tend to think of those you care about and love.
This goes to several attitudes that run counter to the IW: being less selfish and petty and more loving, appreciating what you have, and focusing on the positive.
  • You think life is getting better all the time.
  • You feel like your life is on the right track.
Maybe it is. Maybe it isn't. Is there something you can do to head off in the right direction?
  • You have a strong positive attitude that has gotten you through tough times
This isn't blind optimism, but more of a can-do attitude. You can do this. Whatever it is. You may not be able to fix the problem, but you can survive it, emotionally if not physically.
  • You are proud of who you are.
  • You believe that finding meaning and happiness in life is something you have to do for yourself.
Who else would you want to be, really, and who else has the magic answer for your life? Your task is to be the best you that you can, and find out what makes you happy.

  • Over your life, you've learned a lot - and grown emotionally.
This is one that I checked off with no reservations. Your job as a human being is to learn and grow, to do things that improve your life and the lives of others, to accomplish things that nobody else can do, at least not in the same way. If you can do that, and keep on doing it, every year added to your age is another gold star.

See, that quiz is all about attitude. Sure, there are some items that are affected by whether your life really does does, but basically it's about whether or not you believe your Inner Weasel. 1960s stand-up psychologist Dr. Murray Banks said,

"The psychologist does not like the word 'happy.' It's the most deceptive word in the English language. When I say 'happy,' I don't mean someone who gets up in the morning and says, 'Ooh-hoo-hoo, am I happy!' I don't think you're happy if you act like that. I think you're crazy."

My friends and I used to play that "crazy" statement of happiness on the Just In Case You Think You're Normal LP until we destroyed the groove and it wouldn't play any more. And here's another relevant bit, which I don't quite remember word for word. Banks said that nobody's problems are inherently more crushing, more life-destroying, than everyone else's problems. "It's your adjustment to the problems," he said, "that makes life worth living." I'm not sure it's true that nobody has worse problems, just on the face of the facts, than other people have. Nor do I agree with pop psych books that seem to claim you can decide to be happy, and voila! you're there. But I do agree that you can adjust to the problems. You can optimize the brain chemistry (with sleep, among other things), improve the sucky life (lose the weight, find the job, finish the book), talk back to your Inner Weasel, and rewrite your scripts. The new scripts don't have to be sappy, motivational poster, morning affirmation crap (unless you like that sort of thing), but they should be about the stuff that is going well, and ways in which you'll make it better. You probably don't tell yourself you're going to get the perfect job, land a movie deal, lose 100 pounds or marry George Clooney. You may not even tell yourself that you'll get that slightly better than okay job, rent a movie, lose 10 pounds or watch George Clooney on tv. But you can at least shut down (or shout down) the Inner Weasel, most of the time.

Even that may be enough to drag you kicking and screaming out of that depression. One of these days, you may realize that you've been fairly happy for a while now, and didn't even notice.


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Bea said...

Written like one who knows from experience... Karen this is a helpful and promising entry. More like an article. The Inner Weasel... interesting metaphor. It works. All you say is true. I've been there. The chemical imbalance thing happened to me one year...very depressed. I was able to change the script, as you call it, by writing in my journal and having inner dialogues with the part of me who was depressed. The prescription helped lift me out of it, and the changed script help me stay out of the pit that I seemed to have fallen in. I find this entry very practical and encouraging.

Chris said...

Great post, especially the part about the inner weasel.

The part about deciding to be happy, I have written about Andy Andrew's thoughts on that. I believe the decision to be happy is a START, not an immediate change.

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Becky said...

Yeah...I love it when your brain syncs up with mine. I've been thinking along these lines recently also. I have bad days, sure, but I've decided to be happy overall and fix those things that make me feel badly about myself. It's a slow process. But only because I make it so. I also accept the fact that there are things that make me unhappy but I'm unwilling to put forth the effort to change them. I'm still working to figure that one out.