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Second look: On the pursuit of happiness

Posted Mar 09 2010 7:24pm

Every person I know who has dealt with bipolar disorder in their life has had or continues to have many periods in their life of unhappiness. Too often, for too many, their most consistent experience in life is one of chronic unhappiness and dissappointment with what life has offered them. In an earlier post I asked the question can someone with a serious mental illness ever be truly happy. I got a variety of responses both on the positive and negative side. I believe the answer is yes, but it is essential for that to ever be a possibility you must understand clearly some of those things that might derail that journey.

One question, and maybe one of the most important questions, is rather or not happiness is something you find in your daily life or is it something you bring to your daily life. Is there a difference between people who feel happy and happy people? Is happiness a feeling you get or an attitude you bring? Your answer to this is so crucial. If you believe happiness is simply a feeling then by definition people with serious mental diseases can not be happy, because they feel bad so often. By this definition our happiness is dependent on the circumstances that we find ourselves in. It is ever-changing and lacking in substance. As soon as we have it we lose it with the first change in circumstances.

It is an amazing and profoundly changing truth to realize that you might be able to feel bad and still be happy. All of us can quote examples or stories of people who despite having so much to be unhappy about seem to be so chronically happy.

On the other hand so much of the turmoil of our lives and troubles we cause ourselves and those we live with are wound up in our efforts to make ourselves feel better so we can be happy. Almost every day there is a new figure on the news that tried to do something to “feel good” and in the process destroyed his life. Few things bring more pain to our lives than our efforts to make sure we feel better.

The overall message of our culture is that if you feel better you will be happier. It tells us if you get what you want and keep what you have then happy days are at your finger tips. One of the major experiences associated with bipolar disorder is loss: loss of relationships, loss of hopes, loss of goals, loss of personal control, loss of self esteem, and loss of social status. People with bipolar learn that if happiness is tied up with getting and having that they can never look forward to anything close to the happiness in life they hope for.

Obviously feeling good has something to do with being happy. What I am saying though is that although it is important, it is not a sufficient condition for happiness. All of us can also quote examples of people who seem to have every reason to feel happy whose primary experience of life is chronic unhappiness and dissappointment.

How do you close the loop? What does it mean to be a happy person and not simply a person looking to feel better? What does it mean to say that happiness is as much something we bring to life, as it is something we get from it? The attitude of happiness is bound up I think with three other attitudes. I think most often we find them all together and the absence of one makes the existence of the others less likely.

  • Trust and hope- Happy people have a trust in what is going on and an optimism or hope in the ultimate direction of life. I can’t think of any happy person I have ever known that this is not true of. For people with bipolar disorder this is the cornerstone for developing any sense of happiness in life at all. I have known many people who treatment has resulted in a qualitative improvement in life. They have found the right medication. They have made lifestyle adjustments that make sense and work. Their day to day life is not chaos and unpredictability. They have begun to buy into trust and hope. They have begun to believe in possibility. By the same token I have known people that recovery does not bring an easy or clear victory. The process of finding the right medication for many is, in itself, a torture with no clear ending. Life remains always hard and the next battle is only the next moment away. Trust and hope is the belief in a greater reality than the trials of the moment.
  • Amazement and appreciation- Happy people appreciate life. Even when life is hard and ugly and nasty they seem to have the ability to find something worth treasuring. They never take things for granted. For people with bipolar the good things are sometimes drowned by the flood of negative experiences they must deal with. Bad seems everywhere and good just doesn’t seem to be good enough to merit much more than a “so what.” When you get used to looking for bad news, not only do you not appreciate good news, you often don’t even know it is there. People have to practice looking for good news before they get to the point where they can see the news in front of their eyes.
  • Gratitude- Happy people say thank you a lot. They see life as having many blessings and are grateful for them. Resentment and feeling cheated and victimized by life chokes off gratitude. When you feel cheated by the hand dealt you by life you find little to feel thankful for . People who are not thankful for the good things in their life tend not to appreciate exactly how good they are.

Life with bipolar disorder can be good. People can be happy. This I am sure of. I don’t know though that life with bipolar can ever be easy. Sometimes trust, amazement and gratitude are the last things you feel like cultivating. Sometimes it seems so much truer just to feel unhappy and mad.

Misery is not inevitable. There are a countless number of people whose lives are testimony to that. Even at its worse there is reason to believe that something better is coming. There is life after bipolar. The only thing in the end that guarentees unhappiness is a commitment to believing that is impossible.


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