A person walking next to a bright yellow wall

Why Not Being Depressed Isn’t the Same as Being Happy

By Homaira Kabir
July 25, 2022

Some of us are born with a sunshiny nature. We're naturally inclined to look at the bright side of life and to let go of painful comments that don’t serve us well. But not everyone wins the genetic lottery. Many of us focus on the negative, hold hurtful comments close to our hearts, and look at the future with hopelessness.

These days, feeling sad and hopeless is not surprising. Rates of depression are rising globally at an alarming speed. From the state of our planet and our politics, to predictions of future prospects, the world offers us many reasons to despair and make even the most starry-eyed among us feel down.

So what can we do about it?

Research in the field of positive psychology has found that while traditional psychology has a lot of support to offer for clinical disorders, it doesn’t provide the pathways to a happy and fulfilled life. With treatment, we may feel less anxious or depressed, but that’s not the same as actually feeling happy, is it? Despite regaining the ability to function, we're nonetheless left with a deep longing to embrace the joy, wonder, and amazing possibilities that our lives embody.

Positive psychology, on the other hand, is the science of flourishing, and offers us research-backed ways to feel truly alive. I want to share these actions that help us flourish, because they address the two needs of our human paradox. We’re a happiness-seeking and meaning-making species; we want to experience joy and satisfy the hunger for success. But we also want to quench an inherent thirst for connection, so we belong to something larger than ourselves.

Find Your Sources of Joy

Joy is that positive emotion you feel when a baby smiles at you or a rainbow suddenly appears in the clear blue sky. What are your joy triggers? Maybe it’s when you receive an unexpected compliment, or positive feedback at work. Or maybe it’s the realization that, despite a tough day at work, you come home to a hot shower and a family that truly loves you. Although joy is fleeting, Dr. Barbara Fredrickson's research shows that positive emotions sustain us. They help us cope with the stresses of life and create internal buffers of resilience. The more despair we feel, the more we need to stay open, to look at the world with fresh eyes, to embrace its joys with curiosity and gratitude, instead of letting our natural negativity or our current distractions get the better of us.

Time for action: Discover your sources of joy and engage in them often, especially to replace your sources of negativity.

Create Meaning in Your Life

We find meaning when we move beyond ourselves—or as self-worth researcher Jennifer Crocker, Ph.D. says, when we shift from "ego to eco." Life is not always joyful, and sometimes hard things need to get done. You may want to spend your evenings watching reruns on Netflix, but your children will benefit more if you read them their favorite bedtime story instead. You may want to stay in your comfort zone at work, but making a greater impact around the ideas and needs you care about most is what will bring change. We make these hard things more fulfilling by aligning them with our values and vision for our best lived lives. It helps shift us from the momentary pleasures of the emotional brain to a longer life lens that addresses our soulful needs for connection and meaning.

Time for action: Gain clarity on the life you want to live, and take one small step toward it every day.

Hold Emotions Lightly

Here's the irony of happiness: The more we search for it, the less happy we feel. Perhaps that's because the more we judge how happy we are, the higher our expectations, especially in a world where we've come to worship the positive feeling. The reality is that we can't be happy all the time. It's draining, and it blinds us to the negative emotions that may be pointing us toward our values. Robert Biswas-Diener, co-author of The Upside of Your Dark Side, says that wholeness is a much better pursuit. We need to pay attention to our sadness, as well, because it may be reminding us of the loss of something we hold dear. What's important is to not let negativity calcify; that's when it turns into a mood. Sadness becomes depression and feelings of emptiness, just as anger becomes resentment and ultimately hatred.

When I was little, I used to fly kites with my cousins from the rooftops of our homes. I remember the pain of bruised palms when we had held onto the kite ropes too tightly. But when we learned to hold them lightly, the kites flew freely and our hearts sang in delight. Emotions are no different. When we engage in the pathways of flourishing without getting trapped in our emotional experience, we can be present with our positive feelings alongside our negative ones. We can engage with the fullness of life.

Homaira writes and coaches about thriving at work and in life despite challenge and chaos. Access her free resources to grow through the current crisis, or take the confidence quiz that's based on her research on women’s flourishing.

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