Hi! Happy Monday to you. I took a bit of a break last week, so I apologize if you were waiting for a weekly assortment of interesting things you may have missed. Obviously, that never happened. Sad face emoji.
Breaks and balance and rest are vital. I took my opportunity when I had it. I thrive on staying informed and browsing through all sorts of commentary about what’s going on in the world. But over the last couple weeks, I found myself mostly just getting frustrated at everything little dumb thing. I had to give my brain and emotions some time to recuperate. Have you ever been there? What do you like to do to feel like yourself again?
A recent study suggested that if you’re not getting good sleep you should go camping. Need to get back out in the woods soon.
A number of teenage girls are experiencing major depression, with some saying they “get their ‘entire identity’ from their phone…constantly checking the number of ‘tags, likes, Instagram photos and Snapchat stories.'” Yikes.
It’s not just teenage girls. A majority of people will have at least one mental health struggle in their lifetime. What are we doing to support mental well-being?
Thank you, Kids Try…, for making me laugh out loud even in dark times.
Have you heard of the drug Wellbutrin? It’s prescribed primarily for people diagnosed with “major depressive disorder” or “seasonal affective disorder.”
Sometimes the people prescribed Wellbutrin have recently suffered the death of a loved one. The American Psychiatric Association’s handbook used to strongly caution against doing so. The “bereavement exclusion,” as it was known, pointed to grief as a natural process in the face of traumatic loss. Even as we had developed mood-boosting pills for just about everything else, grief was such a powerful and known agony it remained a special case to be wary about handling with antidepressants.
But in the most recent APA handbook, the bereavement exclusion was controversially removed. The line between grief and major depression has been blurred. Mourning the loss of a loved one for more than two weeks is now considered a potential mental health risk. Considered abnormal.
We live in a happy-obsessed culture. There are an increasing number of official disorders and ready-made fixes for those disorders. There’s little room left for normal moments of unhappiness–even grief. Take a pill and cheer up already. Happiness maintenance has become a whole industry. And a lot of businesses are making great profits from the millions of Americans who aren’t feeling happy.
If we stop and think for a minute, though, do we even know what it means to be happy? If I asked you to describe happiness, what does it entail?
When does it happen? Why does it happen? Can we make ourselves happy? If so, how? Is a pill a good way to support happiness?
Can we make ourselves happy all the time? Should we?
Is happiness a bodily sensation? Is it a state of being?
Is happiness maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain? Is it the feeling that happens when you eat delicious food, hear awesome music, watch hilarious comedy, have heavenly sex, consume perception-altering substances, and see Instagrammable sights? Is it having a lot of money, popularity, or power?
So many questions and so little clarity. We say happy or happiness like we’re all talking about the same thing. But are we?
Pharmaceutical companies operate with a definite sense of what they think happiness is: pleasurable brain chemistry. For them, sadness and other painful detours from happiness are simply a “neurochemical problem.” You have to get the brain chemistry right again–perhaps with a pill that they conveniently make.
Let’s be clear: there’s nothing wrong with pleasurable bodily sensation. There are some pretty great feelings from the food, the music, the comedy, the sex, the alcohol or caffeine, the views. But they always fade. You take the last bite. The final joke is told. The buzz wears off. The vacation ends. The body cools off after sex.
We even adjust to and can become bored by certain pleasures in a process called hedonic adaptation. Sometimes when you’ve had a hit of this and level out, you either need a bigger hit or a different kind of hit to achieve the same level the original pleasure gave you. This is what’s behind the vicious cycle of addiction.
Even if we could constantly find new ways to experience nearly seamless pleasure, the reality is that sometimes things just aren’t OK. No amount of retail therapy, alcohol, ice cream, sex, or whatever else we ingest or participate in can cover the hurt, confusion, and loss of self.
We experience and are meant to experience hundreds of different emotions. They’re our push-notification system for life. Not all of our experiences are positive and awesome and exhilarating. Pixar’s Inside Out nailed this truth. Sometimes joy is laced with sadness. Sometimes fear and anger need their moment. It’s not healthy to aspire to be feeling good feels all the time.
If we do aspire to that, we’re quite likely to overeat, have one-dimensional relationships, have a difficult time overcoming loss and struggle, aspire for more money without ever feeling like we have enough, equate worth with stuff rather than relationships, and worse.
That’s not what being human is about.
I believe that happiness is about wholeness. And I’m in good company. Aristotle and other Greek philosophers used the word eudaimonia, which is often translated as “happiness.” But he wasn’t talking about pleasant brain chemistry. He was talking about flourishing. About being an integrated, growing, maturing, thoughtful person. A state of being rather than a state of mind.
It’s about exercising and challenging your human capacities. About being fully human–as far as it is possible for you. It’s about finding a lasting groove rather than momentary self-gratification. Being engaged in the process of living like you’re headed somewhere. Pushing the limits of your intelligence, emotional depth, creativity, physical strength, kindness, love, and everything else that makes you you. “…To do all the characteristically human things well and from the right motives,” as Anthony Gottlieb describes it in The Dream of Reason. You see the world and yourself in the world, and there’s a powerful synergy and intelligibility.
Some days are awesome. Some days are shitty. But no matter what today feels like, we have to figure out how we’re going to be fully human in it. To flourish in it.
There is no flourishing pill. There are times when we need to grieve. To work through the hurt and brokenness. Or to work through confusion. Or to remind ourselves that we still can. These, and a million other life experiences, are “characteristically human things” to do as well as we can.
True happiness is far more than pleasurable sensation. It’s about lifelong flourishing. True happiness is a life well lived.
There is perhaps nothing more quintessentially modern American than obsession with health. At a time when a majority of Americans are at least slightly overweight, it’s not a surprise that there’s a whole industry of supposed quick fixes–everything from foods processed to remove the “bad stuff” to the latest celebrity personal trainer trying to persuade you her workout program will get you her abs in a few weeks. Taking advantage of the desire for instantaneous self-improvement is a tremendous way to make money.
Do quick fixes work? Rarely. If it were that easy we probably wouldn’t have a national weight crisis. But new fixes are constantly being wheeled out and showered with confetti as the remedy for health happiness because we just can’t seem to achieve it with willpower.
And it’s not just with health that we struggle for improvement. Have you ever been awake in bed at night, or somewhere else contemplative, and wondered if you were meant to do something more with your life than you are? Have you ever had an idea for a work of art, a business, a charity, or a political reform? Did you embrace it with excitement and start working on it? Or did you dismiss it as something that you could never do?
What’s going on there? Like gravity, there is a force in the world that tries to yank you back down to earth when you’re passionate about making something take off. Steven Pressfield, in his excellent book The War of Art, calls this force Resistance.
Resistance can be subtle. It can gently nudge you into thinking, “Yeah, I will start that! But I’ll start it tomorrow.” And then it’s pushed to the next day, and the next day, and the next day. You feel pretty good because you think you’ve committed to something life-changing, but nothing ever actually changes.
Or Resistance can be blunt and painful. You may indeed start to improve your health, or make music, or begin a business, only to feel a wave of judgment and rejection from those who are close to you. Whether it’s because of jealousy, closed-mindedness, or something else, they can’t handle that you’re becoming different. What are you supposed to do when Resistance forces you into a choice between relationships and passion?
Resistance can take the form of the apparent quick fix or distracting escapism. Fad diets, get-rich-quick schemes, hooking up, substance addiction, binge-watching. They give you a bit of a result or a good feeling for a little while, but eventually, the effect fizzles out and you’re back to the beginning–probably more discouraged than when you started. It’s no wonder many of those things can be linked to depression.
If Resistance is so powerful, how can we possibly overcome it? As Pressfield sees it, we must become a professional at whatever our great passion is. The hardest part of any pursuit is not that we aren’t the world’s greatest artist, an expert on exercise and nutrition, or a graduate of the most reputable school (though doubting your qualifications is its own form of Resistance). No, the hardest part of becoming the person you’re meant to be is simply showing up over and over again and giving the work your best. Resistance does everything it can to prevent you from finding rhythm, traction, and growth.
The professional is the person who has committed to sticking to a regular schedule and showing up to throw themselves into it no matter what. It’s both incredibly straightforward and incredibly hard. Most people haven’t decided to become professionals in this way, and Resistance wins sooner or later. You decide to eat well and then your family gives you crap about how you think you’re better than them. You commit to working on writing music at 7pm, and Resistance whispers in your ear that a new series just dropped on Netflix that you can start watching instead.
Resistance got me with this post! It should have been out earlier in the day, but I got persuaded that it’s been a stressful and exhausting week and that I needed to sleep in this morning instead of writing at my usual time. Resistance is really good at rationalization.
Over time, though, as you begin to win a battle here and a battle there against Resistance, you become stronger and more adept at sticking to being pro. Every time you’re ready to do the work at 7am and pour your best into it, Resistance is forced to try a different tactic next time because you overcame it–even if you only wrote one sentence or one chord, or could only manage half the reps.
I strongly believe that we are all capable of the unique, the important, and the transformative. Learning to overcome Resistance in all the ways it will try to undermine and stop you is the path to becoming the person you’re meant to be.
Remember Inception? Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film explores the labyrinthine, perception-altering nature of dreams. In Inception, dreams can be architectured to your own design without the restrictions of the real world, yet feel real as you experience them. You can even share dream worlds with other people. Over the course of the film, both the characters and the audience become disoriented. Such seemingly real dreaming inhibits the ability to properly function in the real world. In the universe of Inception, some people even prefer to dream all day. For them, dreaming is more enjoyable than reality.
At first blush, Inception is merely a far-fetched, entertaining story. But the film, it turns out, is a rather good allegory for our increasingly digital, nonfiction world. Replace dreams with cyberspace, and the whole mix of imagination, hopes, relationships, perceptions, and preferences readily applies to us. Cyberspace is not a full-blown reality shift like a lifelike dream or all-encompassing virtual reality. But the digital universe of cyberspace in which many of us interact, and the so-called Internet of Things, are significantly more immersive than anything we’ve experience as human beings before. The digital immaterial bleeds into the tangible material, and in many ways is beginning to supplant it.
It doesn’t take a lot of investigation to start to understand why. There’s a dopamine seeking-satisfaction loop that shifts into overdrive when sending and receiving Snaps, Tweets, photos, texts, and the like. The digital commons, like dreams, is not subject to the rules of space and time in the way our bodies are. We can connect and engage with a seemingly infinite number of things in the expanse of cyberspace. There’s a huge rush in the feeling of transcending physical and geographical limitations.
What’s more, the digital commons seems to give us all the pleasurable and positive elements of interaction without any of the awkward and negative ones. You can keep up with the latest happenings of family, friends, old classmates, and former romantic flings without ever needing to talk to them or see them in person. You can distance yourself from painful or uncomfortable conversations by simply texting or emailing. Send it and walk away. Or if you are the recipient and you don’t want to respond just tap to exit and ignore. No fabricated schedule conflicts, small talk, or conversational exit strategies required.
A recent Pacific Standard article noted that online support groups seem to be more honest, reduce loneliness, transcend stigmas, and increase solidarity and validation compared to their in-person counterparts. For people who suffer from things like depression and bi-polar disorder, “Being able to just articulate something society tells you not to is very powerful…they’re looking for a social space where they can be heard.”
If such things occur they should be celebrated. If you live in Rural, Anywhere, or feel isolated in a metropolis, your only catharsis may be a couple of friends chatting with you online from thousands of miles away. Thank God that’s possible.
But we need to be conscious and cautious about giving preference to the digital commons over the real world. The digital is, in fact, incomplete. The reason you can text or email and back away is precisely because you are interacting in an ethereal space rather than the concreteness of being face-to-face. Like a dream, others are merely shallow imaginings or facades. When confronted by a dream-state projection of his wife, Inception’s main character Dom Cobb remarks, “I can’t imagine you with all of your complexity and all your perfection and imperfection…you’re just a shade of my real wife.”
It’s a thin, sensory- and intricacy-deficient version of the real world. Actual eye contact and touch are impossible (Skype and Apple Watch vibrations hardly come close to the real thing). In cyberspace, you can click to disconnect at any time and you’re instantly uncoupled and unburdened from any engagement. The people on the other side could be entirely different than how they present online, or even be some sort of bot. There’s no density or tangibility to the relationship.
In the same piece on online support groups, author Alana Massey recalls a time when she worried someone on the other end of an email correspondence had died since she had not responded for a few days.
My friend Maryam is someone whose voice I have never heard and whose smile I have never seen. She exists as a pretty but serious avatar in my email inbox and on social media accounts. On the day before Thanksgiving last year, I received an email from her regarding an essay I wrote about depression and language…It was a message of gratitude and familiarity that arrived at a time when I felt particularly isolated. Connecting to someone whose experiences reflected my own was especially welcome at that particular moment. We began an email correspondence that consists mostly of long updates that are characterized by the kind of humor and honesty it might take years to develop with an offline friend.
During a commute home in April, I realized that it had been a while since we had written and my talent for assuming a worst-case scenario made me suddenly panic that she was dead. It was not too far-fetched a thought about a young woman who has frequent suicidal thoughts. We share no mutual friends, we live in different cities, and we don’t even have each other’s phone numbers, so I’d have no way of knowing…I breathed a sigh of relief after arriving home and finding her Tumblr recently updated.
Online support seems great, until someone might need all-out support. It takes an actual shoulder to lean on to hold someone up. You can see the struggle in someone’s gaze. And it’s blatantly obvious when they’re not present—they’re physically not there. Maybe you need to go knock on their door, take them out to lunch, or chaperone them to a counselor or the ER. In the digital commons, these things are hidden behind the superficiality of the medium. Someone can forget or choose not reply and others are left lost and poring over terrible hypotheticals. We shouldn’t find out that they’re OK only through a random social media post.
If we’re not careful, we begin to turn into versions of ourselves as incomplete as the digital space we’re participating in. By preferring actions like:
Texting over conversing face-to-face
Streaming entertainment inside over going outside
Online groups over groups showing up to meet together
Photo-toggling dating apps over the possibility of chance romantic sparks at unexpected times and places…
We are forgoing needed relational depth for comfortable superficiality.
In a scene in Inception that’s easy to overlook, Cobb is talking to his kids over the phone an ocean apart. He hasn’t been home with them for years, and he can’t tell which child is which as they speak. He can’t even picture their faces in his mind. The scene suggests that subsisting entirely on phone-to-phone conversations is as ethereal and incomplete as dreams are to reality. The ultimate resolution for Cobb is to be home. Not memories and daydreams in the mind or fanciful dream worlds—actually home, wrapping his arms around his children. When they finally do meet eye-to-eye and smile-to-smile, you feel Cobb’s rich pleasure of real contact in contrast to all the preceding exciting, but ultimately tenuous, world of dreams.
Snapchatting, Tweeting, texting, emailing, and the rest, all work well when in their right place. They’re not inherently evil, and I’m not a technophobe. I use them daily too, and I’ve burned plenty of hours drifting through cyberspace. But they are inherently incomplete. If the medium is the message, the message is that we don’t need the engagement and complexity of the real world to have meaningful relationships. Short snippets of text or video, sometimes in tandem with emojis, GIFs, or other simple visual and audio cues, are sufficient for social bonds.
But there’s no long-term substitute for real faces and voices. No substitute for the complexity of other people: their posture and demeanor, their touch, all the things they’re saying without speaking. Not to mention all the subtleties of the surrounding environment. A seemingly mundane hug in a backyard is exceedingly more complex and satisfying than even the most innovative digital, dreamlike engagement.
In a burgeoning era of digital immersion, we have to choose to give primacy to the real world. It’s where we’ll actually find healthy cycles of seeking and satisfaction. Complex, concrete reality has the potential for more serendipity than the digital dream ever will. Yes, some experiences can be awkward or undesirable. But in persevering through it you might break relational ground or do new things you never had before—deepening your personal enjoyment and satisfaction. It’s a fulfilling, stable dopamine loop.
No matter how pleasurable and exciting it may be to transcend the limits of space and time in dreams or the digital universe, you can’t function without a sense of place—of home. A dense self-identity, feet firmly planted somewhere, relating well to the people and things around you. Too much of the incompleteness of the ethereal leaves us longing for a completeness we can only find at home in the real world. Hopefully, like Inception, we can find our way back.