Today was the last day of the fall semester as I work towards my Master’s Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy at USC. It just may have been the busiest few months of my life…but a time of tremendous learning and growth (or so I hope).
I recently received an email in my inbox that made me stop and think. Someone wrote to me, months after hearing me speak and asked a poignant question. She asked how one finds happiness even while depressed or anxious. She said that during my keynote happiness sounded like a switch to simply be turned on or off. No wonder she maybe felt frustrated or confused!
I wanted to share my answer to this audience member as she asked what I felt to be a very compelling question.
Here is my reply:
Thanks so much for reaching out. I can tell that you put a lot of thought into your questions and I love that you took the time to ask.
I am a training therapist and I work with depressed and anxious clients on a daily basis. I understand fully how hard it can be to find happiness when experiencing either and having someone tell you to “just be happy” is not only insensitive, but aggravating.
Happiness is certainly not an “on and off switch” but I do believe that good things happen in all of our lives. The difference sometimes between people who experience more happiness than others is that they can savor and appreciate those moments of joy a little more. When we are sad, and certainly depressed or anxious, we focus more on the negativity in our lives. It becomes consuming even when we don’t want it to. Unfortunately our brains can be wired to gravitate more toward these negative thoughts and sometimes we have to work hard to rewire our thought process so that we focus more on the positive. The good news is that over time, happiness can become more habitual as our brains adapt to a more positive mindset. Of course, this takes time and mindful effort, and sometimes the use of antidepressants depending on the person (something that a person should talk to a psychiatrist about first) but I believe that it can be done.
Research shows that gratitude is one of the best way to do this. Just focusing and noticing the good things can make a big difference. Another way to find happiness when depressed or anxious is simply talking with others and owning how one feels. We often keep depression or anxiety a secret because it feels shameful to us and thus those hard feelings intensify and worsen. For all of us, happiness begins when others can know and love us no matter how we are feeling–happy, sad, mad–you name it. Finding those people who you can trust and who can love you for who you are and how you feel will make a big difference.
I think we also need to give that acceptance to ourselves and be patient with how we are feeling. Owning our sadness, our fears–naming them for what they are–not only gives respect to ourselves, it also often takes away some of their power. Naming our truth of what we feel can be a liberating feeling.
It’s important to be realistic about our human emotions. No one is happy all the time, but we can choose to face challenging situations with a more optimistic mindset. With this perspective, we can learn to savor those happy moments that we do have and those moments will give us that much more resilience for when we do feel depressed or anxious.
When happiness is a light switch—life is black or white. We either have the light or we are in utter darkness. If anything, life is all shades of dark and light. We need both to appreciate the other.
As I write in a dark living room right now, I’m savoring the bright lights of the Christmas tree in front of me. I am remembering tonight that there is still joy to be had even when pain and sadness still exists. We can hold both in our hearts.