Pursuing Happiness

I posted this on Facebook today but felt it would be worth posting here, too, as part of my effort to chronicle my ongoing journey from mental illness to mental health.

Last year near the end of July I sprained my ankle and had to spend months mostly stuck in bed, playing No Man’s Sky to pass the time.

This yielded an unexpected result – by September my brain started healing from a 2 year bout of major depression and I was finally able to seek help for my mental health, beginning therapy sometime in November, iirc.

It’s now been a year without a relapse into major depression (depression lasting continuously for months or years at a time). This is double the amount of time I had depression-free in 2016.

The majority of the last 15-16 years have involved dealing with near-constant depression (and anxiety as well), so this is a huge milestone for me.

I grew up in a culture that taught pursuing personal happiness was selfish. Turns out, pursuing happiness is a literal necessity. Our brains NEED happy chemicals in order to function in a healthy way. If we’re not actively pursuing happiness in healthy ways, we can lose the capacity to feel hope, happiness and joy in existence – which can make existence feel like it’s not worth continuing.

I suppose in a way this post is meant to bring awareness to mental health issues that aren’t caused by something going wrong with a person’s biological systems, or by environment, or by a specific trauma, but that are instead brought on through a lifestyle and attitude shaped by unhealthy and toxic ideologies.

I am not overstating or exaggerating when I say that religious & cultural theological beliefs caused my mental illness. Please note, I’m not saying being religious is a mental illness, or that religion inevitably causes mental illness, I’m saying that the specific religious beliefs I grew up with were internalized in a way that was utterly toxic to me.

Please be aware that it’s not just Christian religious beliefs that contribute to a toxic mindset that says happiness is not necessary, or that it’s selfish. There are other cultural and religious beliefs that head in this direction, too.

Perhaps we sometimes look around and feel that some people we know are too frivolous, too irresponsible, and that they need to focus on the serious aspects of life and being an adult – in response, we condemn the frivolity itself rather than the imbalance we see. We then teach that responsibility is better and more necessary than ‘frivolous’ pursuits that don’t seem to serve any other purpose than to provide happiness.

But happiness IS a necessary end goal in and of itself. Literally a basic need for survival and health – a need built into our very biology.

Stoic acceptance of suffering as necessary to enlightenment / salvation / moral improvement, suffering as superior to and more valuable in the long term than happiness, has real world consequences. Those beliefs, when internalized, can actually destroy the mental and physical health of people that believe that is how they must live their life in order to be a better or whole human.

When externalized, these beliefs lead to a callous indifference to the suffering of others, as we don’t believe they need or deserve happiness – we may, in fact, believe that suffering is good for them.

Suffering is not superior to happiness. Suffering is a thing that happens, happiness is a literal need. It’s not balanced to promote acceptance of suffering over happiness as the route to self-improvement.

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