Don’t Worry, Be Happy

There are days where I feel like I’m in the most depressing profession out there. Today, I met with Seth, a fifty year old gentleman that I’ve been seeing for some time. He has an extensive history of major depression, post traumatic stress disorder, and has attempted suicide on several occasions in the past. He smokes like a chimney and also has chronic lung disease and heart disease. He also suffers from chronic back pain and has had failed laminectomies. Every time he comes in, it’s never a “happy” visit. It’s more like a “yeah, I’m still alive,” visit. Today, it is no different.  He is complaining about a chronic leg pain with associated edema. The vascular surgeon has no idea about what is going on with his leg. Seth has been working with a psychologist for months and it seems to be finally working. To my surprise, Seth paused and said “at least I’m not dead.”

Today is the International Day of Happiness. It was conceptualized to try and promote the global human right to pursue happiness. Happiness is obviously a fleeting feeling and attaining it on a regular basis is a task in and of itself. And what’s more, even when you think you have done everything to finally have it, it can slip beyond your grasp.

To help in this effort, I humbly offer my top three tips to attaining happiness. 

  1. Stop comparing yourself to others. It’s in our nature to look to our left and right and see where we stand next to our peers. It starts in childhood when your parents tell you how little Johnny is behaving so well, why can’t you. It continues in adolescence when Tommy got a new car from his rich parents and you’re stuck driving your dad’s old beater, or worse, still riding your bike. It continues into adulthood when Stacy did the keto diet and managed to lose 30 pounds, and all I could pull was 3. Acceptance is crucial to well being. When we try too hard to be something that we aren’t, it’s a round about way of self rejection, unconsciously telling yourself that you aren’t good enough. Acceptance of self, all of it, the good, bad, and ugly, will improve self esteem and give a realistic worldview.
  2. Be mindful and forget your expectations. Be grateful for what you have, even if it isn’t much, because it can always be worse. That’s my mantra – it can always be worse. Just when you think you’ve touched bottom, there are always depths that you can sink to. Expectations are poisonous. Nothing kills joy faster than expectations. Far too often, I hear people believing that if they get to a certain point in their life, it will be the threshold for when they can finally be happy. It’s kind of like a video game mentality, where the gamer plays the game to try to get to the next stage, thinking it’ll be better then, but in reality, it’s just another stage, and before you know it, the game will be over with not much to show for it. My advice is to try and enjoy the ride.
  3. Fake it till you make it. Smile. Laugh. Even if it hurts. Laughing through the pain makes it easier to bear. A smile, fake or not, releases endorphins from the brain, which are neurotransmitters responsible for happiness. This will also lower stress levels and reduce cortisol. The facial feedback hypothesis is a notion that the muscles involved in smiling trigger a feedback loop in the brain that will naturally release the endorphins. Not to mention that when you smile, people will tend to gravitate towards you more, reducing the possibility of social isolation.

When I speak with my patients on matters relating to stress and sadness, I will often tell them that life is too short to be bogged down by the mundane. It’s completely different when I’m speaking to patients with a psychiatric history, like Seth. For Seth, life is too long. It’s too long to let the mundane things weigh you down. And by the end of the day, Seth may feel as if he’s aged five years. Whether the day is too long or too short, to quote Seth, at least you aren’t dead.

There is a finallity with death. It’s game over. The pursuit ends. Happy or sad, there is no coming back. And life, while it is never perfect, it is your only opportunity to find whatever it is that you are looking for – meaning or purpose or just a good time. 

Speaking about life in terms of opposing values, between happy and sad, black or white, good and bad is not enough. In truth, these opposing sides are part of the same coin. One cannot be happy unless they have been sad. One cannot experience true joy and fulfillment unless  they have never felt the sting of loss and the emptiness of it. On this International Day of Happiness, I ask you to smile, stop worrying and just be happy to be alive. As for myself, when I think about how depressing my career can be, I have to tell myself, at least I’m not a psychiatrist.

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