The Road to Unhappiness Part One

>> Thursday, April 15, 2010

I am not a psychologist, but I do think about the way people think because I'm a writer, particularly a character writer. In addition, I spent nearly three years dealing with a fairly severe depression that still rears up and bites me once in a while.

So what?

So, I've discovered, thanks to my daughter and her friends, that teenagers seem to live perpetually in a world of melodramatic extremes, whether real or imagined. Every setback is devastating and their reactions are just as severe as my toddler's even if they aren't throwing themselves on the floor in despair. I suspect there's a certain air of misery being "in," but I'm skeptical that that's all of it. So, why?

So, I thought back to my own depression - what were the key elements that made it so hard to break free? And how might they apply to my daughter and her friends?

In the end, two elements seemed applicable and, given the power of these elements and the unhappiness that can result, I thought I'd mention it. I'm not trying to dismiss depression - I know from experience that it can be very hard to break free from its grip - nor am I implying that these are the only elements . . . but I think these are very destructive. I'm of the opinion that understanding a problem is key to battling it.

So, today's element is: focusing on what you don't have rather than what you have.

It seems silly, probably, and obvious. But I think it's far more subtle. I think, in fact, that this element is a key divider between parents and children as children (particularly teenagers) note everything their friends have from gadgets and permissive rules and money and whatever that they themselves lack whereas parents shake their heads noting all the wealth of things their children have that they never dreamed of having at the same age. A teenager complaining about not having something to do or oppressive isolation despite game consoles and computers and cell phones, etc. is unlikely to find much sympathy from a parent who had three TV channels (on the family TV) at the same age.

Everyone, of course, has moments when they think about what they don't have - money, experience, youth, whatever. Striving for more is a key ingredient to ambition, so it's not all bad. However, focusing solely on that, obsessing on that, is very very unhealthy. Because there's never an end to it.

Everyone - everyone - has something they don't have. Being rich doesn't exempt you from loneliness or boredom or misery. You can be rich and never find true love or a family or self-respect. Being deeply in love doesn't preclude you from arguments or differences or misunderstandings. Having children doesn't save a marriage (in and of itself, seriously). Unfortunately, those obsessed with what they lack always think they can "finally" get happiness if they could just get "X".

'Cept that doesn't work. Once they get "X" they discover they're not as happy as they thought and decide they only need "Y" to make it all better. It's a cycle with no end because there's always another something else they don't have.

Ironically, they never enjoy X or Y or whatever because they're immediately consumed with what they don't yet have. People who are content with themselves understand that it's not one thing that makes one happy but learning to appreciate what one has. It doesn't mean they never want anything else, but they enjoy their children while they're home (instead of obsessing over what those children will become) and appreciate the characteristics in their spouses they admire instead of obsessing over the flaws. They are happier working for a living and making do than many are with an obscene amount of money.

Let's face it, there's an infinite supply of what we don't have, but we really don't need it all to be happy. And appreciating what one has is a good way to help keep from slipping into the endless and self-feeding maw of unhappiness.


  • Roy

    That's a tough one to fight against, though, because we live in a consumerist culture that's shouting "BUY! BUY! BUY!" at us 365/24/7. And of course the preferred tactic to get people to "BUY! BUY! BUY!" is to point out who else has one: "He/She has one; why don't you?" It's almost as if our society enables depression!

  • The Mother

    Teenagers have wild mood swings for two reasons:

    They have hormones running wild that their bodies don't quite know what to do with. Same thing applies to postpartum depression.

    They haven't yet myelinated those important pathways that help them control their emotions. Same reason they are so impulsive. The higher control centers aren't quite cooked yet (evidence is mounting that the magic age of brain maturity may be closer to 30 than 18).

    But don't try to explain that to a teenager.

    Sure, our material, gimme culture affects teens. But the peer pressure is a whole lot more of a problem. They don't know who they are, so they float in the wind of all the potentials, pulled this way and that by a tide of "others."

    If that isn't depressing, I don't know what is.

    I will remind everyone, although I don't think it's strictly necessary with this audience, that depression is a biochemical phenomenon, not different from diabetes or high blood pressure. Sure, you can get "reactive" depression, but the mere fact that it responds to the same drugs as "organic" depression puts it solidly in the same, biochemical category.

    And teens get depressed. Better living through biochemistry.

  • Shakespeare

    I'm not sure this wanting is really depression. It's a character flaw, certainly, and Roy points out well that our consumeristic society encourages such thinking (a very unhealthy situation).

    Teens do seem more sensitized to this way of thinking, yes, but I've been struck lately by how many adults have never shifted away from this. It's the whole reason we still use expressions like "Keeping up with the Joneses" and "the glass half empty."

    It's called envy, and it's one of the seven deadly sins for a reason. It may also be the sin that causes the "sinner" the most misery.

    When you were depressed, Stephanie, it wasn't because your own mind refused to see the happiness around you, but because there wasn't really any happiness there. You now have a husband who loves you, you aren't in and out of lawyer meetings and divorce proceedings, and the black cloud isn't hanging over you.

    I think The Mother has it right, too. Depression is so chemical. The only time it's affected me is post-partum, when my hormones got the best of me. But I have friends and relatives who suffer from it almost constantly, and envy is only one of the signs they show. Those with depression see their world as dark and hopeless even when they have everything, even when those around them love them and all is truly going very well. It's not depression (in my opinion) when one is responding to awful life circumstances. It's rather like an anorexic, who believes she is too fat when she is really ten pounds underweight, eating 100 calories a day to prevent herself from getting "fatter." It's not the reality, but the perception.

    That makes your discussion to the point. If we have so much, but can only seem to focus on what we DON'T have, we cannot be happy--we will remain depressed until we can see the world around us for what it is, happy.

    Highly thought-provoking post, as always. You've really got me thinking.

  • Jeff King

    Looks and sounds like this has been covered inside and out. Thx to everyone that has left a comment, I like them a great deal... also love the post steph, thx

  • Anonymous

    My contribution to Occam's Razor...
    Feed a fear, starve a smile.
    Starve a fear, feed a smile.

    Seek out the fears that beget insatiable hunger. Then you may fight well the darkness that would bind our souls.

    Mike H

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