I was thinking this weekend about happiness. I've read a few books on achieving it. I've also read books on achieving it vis-a-vis a host of other redeemable activities: yoga, meditation, mindfulness, decluttering, giving all your shit away (or at least packing it up in boxes and only using what you've taken out six months later).
As a society, we've got more ways to pursue happiness (fulfillment, purpose, contentment, peace) than ever before, yet we seem to be in some serious mental-health trouble.
Rates of suicide, for example, continue to climb.
According to a New York Times article, rates of suicide in the US have risen 24% in the last 30 years. Rates among women have risen at an even higher rate. According to the article, "The suicide rate for middle-aged women, ages 45 - 64, jumped by 63 percent, while it rose by 43% for men in that age range, the sharpest increase for males of any age."
Prescriptions for anti-depressants are also piling up.
The American Psychological Association reports a 64% increase in people using anti-depressant drugs from 1999 to 2014. Women are twice as likely to take medication for mood disorders, and non-Hispanic white Americans take significantly more medication than any other race. Finally, anti-depressant use increases with age, with 19.1% of older adults (over the age of 60) having taken medication in the last month.
Drug addiction and overdose numbers aren't any better. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, numbers of drug overdose deaths in the US have quadrupled between 199 and 2015. Each day, 91 Americans die of a drug overdose, the majority of those involving opioids. According to a report by NPR, alcohol consumption is on the rise (especially among women, minorities and the elderly) and high-risk and problem drinking has risen dramatically, to the point of researchers calling it a 'public health risk.' High-risk drinking (more than 4 drinks a day for women and 5 drinks a day for men) rose by 29.9 percent.
In light of all these numbers and my own inability to achieve a steady state of bliss, I found this article interesting. Entitled "American is Obsessed with Happiness - and It's Making Us Miserable," British expat Ruth Whippman describes what it's like to live in America, with all of our constant chatter about and pursuit of happiness.
She writes, "It seems as though happiness in America has become the overachiever's ultimate trophy."
She continues, in regard to the types of conversations she finds herself having with Americans regarding our favorite topic of happiness:
As a Brit raised on a diet of armchair cynicism, the evangelical-style conversations are newer territory. In these, people claim to have found the answers. They enthuse about their chosen paths to bliss, convinced at least temporarily, that they have found the definitive thing that will pin down the 'happy ever after.'
I wonder sometimes if our desire to be happy and our expectation that we should feel good so much of the time isn't the push factor behind some of this depression, anxiety, addiction and suicide we see rising by the year. Have we set the bar so high (not just in terms of happiness itself but the necessary accoutrement to happiness including wealth, health, deep friendships, education, etc.) that our failure to achieve this state of nirvana leaves us all...well...miserable?
In the end, I can't help but agree with Whippman when she writes, "My instinct is that....happiness should be serendipitous, the byproduct of a life well lived, and chasing it in a vacuum just doesn’t really work."
Where, then, does that leave one - particularly if one loves to read self-development (help) books and ponder all matter of happiness, contentment, meaning and purpose in one's life?
I think, from my own experience, that the point isn't pursuing happiness, per se. I think it's creating a life that feels well-spent, one in which there is a natural flow as often as possible, one that feels organic and authentic. That sounds as if I'm slipping into happiness-guru territory, but hear me out.
I think we all have a little recipe for how to achieve a well-spent day. I think it's fairly personal in how we go about this, but I also believe there are some fundamentals we can all benefit from. From what I've seen, there are three common denominators I've seen in people who seem really happy.
1. Sleep - I don't know anyone who isn't happier, healthier and more stable with a solid sleep habit.
2. People - Have your people, take care of them, let them take care of you and be with them. Nothing is more soothing to me than this. Well, sometimes coffee is also equally soothing. But mostly it's the people. I've never actually met anyone who isn't happier, more stable and healthier without other people. In America we have a sort of rogue attitude that we can, perhaps, be islands, but I've never seen this play out well. We all need each other.
3. Interest - I personally think boredom may be the root of much of the ennui we experience in our daily lives. I've noticed people who seem to thrive are interested in something - and it doesn't even have to be some kind of epic, life-altering, paradigm-shifting field of study or purpose-filled life quest. I know women who thrive as PTO heads, Jazzercise instructors and private pilots. I've seen men truly find utter joy in Star Wars or puttering around a wood-working shop or running marathons. Whatever it is, having some kind of interest in something outside of the daily grind is one of the three pillars of...well...happiness.
I am tempted to add to this list. For me, eating healthy and drinking enough water really add to my energy level and overall mood; however, one friend I have is full of zest and making shit happen on (literally) bags of mint milano cookies, coffee and McDonalds. That's no joke. She's hopping, too. Head of the PTO. Decorating her house like a pro. Curling her hair in beachy waves like a YouTube star. She rarely (rarely) complains or seems discounted, and I know her pretty darn well.
I've personally love exercise. Without a good pilates class or Jazzercise routine, I feel lethargic and cross. But I've seen plenty of other people have absolutely no exercise routine or habit at all and seem just fine. On the other hand, I know a heap of people who spend hours at the gym, count calories, eat kale by the bushel and are miserable, negative messes.
But I've never met a person who seemed happily engaged in life, resilient to life's inevitable downturns and stable through all of the ups and downs without regular sleep, compelling interests and at least a few key people in their lives.
I think if our pursuit of happiness is failing us in any aspect it's that we seem to want to define it for everyone. We want to stop the people we know, shake them and scream: you'll be happy if you just eat Paleo, read Tony Robbins and sleep on organic sheets!
We tend to be that way, we Americans. We're sharers. It's genuine, good-hearted sharing, but I think we need to remember, perhaps, that everyone has his own recipe, his own path, his own journey (ha...I could barely type that...but I did).
And maybe most of all, we need to remember that happiness is brief and fleeting, tiny moments interspersed amidst all of the hustle and grind and monotony and regular ol' moments that don't shine quite so much. When this gets lost, when we forget that life isn't always going to be sparkling and shimmery, we start down the road of compare/contrast, dissatisfaction and wondering why we can't be high all the time, no matter our drug of choice.
For me, I'm not going to stop reading my beloved self-improvement books. But I might just stop suggesting everyone else follow along. :)
Happy Monday! Christmas is a week away and the tree is finally decorated. I'm killing it, basically.