Mental & Emotional Health
Mind & Body Wellness

What Happy Looks Like in 2018

January is the saddest month of the year, and that’s not just an old wives’ tale.

Despite the promise of a new year, records show that symptoms of depression and related mental illnesses like seasonal affective disorder spike during the month much in thanks to short days, cold temps, and holiday hangovers. But January isn’t the only hard time for Americans—the U.S. ranks third in the world for most depressive disorders year-round behind India and China, a not-so-happy title to claim.

Though researchers are not sure exactly what causes depression, and why it’s so ubiquitous, some believe it to be largely influenced by environmental factors such as political climate, social unrest, and economic prosperity. This theory follows the logic of chaos without, chaos within: when we observe high rates of dissonance, we internalize those as mental illness. The most recent twist to this theory comes from a fascinating study that posits depression not as a disorder caused by our environment, but rather an adaptation to our environment—one that comes with very distinct evolutionary advantages.

The study found that depressed people are actually better at solving social problems than their non-depressed counterparts, in part because of their ability to digest complex issues by ruminating, or thinking deeply.

What gives depressed people the edge over others when it comes to deep thinking?

The very symptoms that are disruptive and even life-threatening to those with depression such as sleeplessness, lack of concentration, and social isolation, actually aid the process of rumination. They force the body to slow down and withdraw from the regular cadence of life, giving more room for careful consideration of a particular set of problems, perhaps those problems that caused the symptoms in the first place. In the perfect world, from this careful consideration arise solutions, or at least changed perspectives, and symptoms improve.

On the evolutionary scale, this has given humans the opportunity to solve many complex social issues that potentially otherwise wouldn’t have been solve-able. Fewer social problems then contributed to a more cohesive society, giving a survival advantage to those within.

So, what can we learn from this about what it means to be happy in 2018, a year that seems to have an especially high level of environmental conditions for depression?

Well, first, we can learn that sadness and depression don’t have to be universally “bad.” Our internal reactions to external events can actually be helping us cope with our circumstances. In addition to seeking mental health care when appropriate, we can learn to embrace our emotions. By doing so, we take the weight of shame off of our shoulders, giving us more energy to focus on the positive.

And just as sadness and depression don’t have to be universally “bad,” happiness doesn’t have to be a universal “good.” By telling ourselves that happiness exists only when it is uncomplicated, uninterrupted, and totally blissful, we blind ourselves to the smaller pockets of happiness that are found in almost any circumstances.

If we give ourselves a wider definition of happiness, we can empower ourselves to feel it more often.

For example, let’s say you have a bad day at work where nothing seems to go your way from start to finish. But on the car ride home you hit a string of green lights—a near miracle during rush hour—and your absolute favorite songs play on the radio. Under a narrower definition of happiness, you might be hesitant to feel happiness on that commute because of the conflicting emotions of frustration and defeat left over from your day at work. But under the wider definition of happiness, the presence of negativity doesn’t affect your ability to feel positivity. And so, without ignoring your emotions from earlier in the day, you allow yourself to feel a little slice of bliss amidst the negativity.

For the ultimate inspiration for finding bliss amidst pain, take a look at the “Marathon Monks” of Japan

These members of a small sect of Buddhist monks that live near Japan’s Mount Hiei and run long distances as part of the journey to spiritual enlightenment. The sect’s ultimate mission, kaihogyo, involves running a distance of between 18 and 50 miles each day for 1,000 days—that’s nearly three whole years. For the monks, physical discomfort is not a hindrance to their journey, but rather an essential part of their spiritual process. Though a monk embarking on kaihogyo may be expending energy each day, he is gaining wisdom, enlightenment, and bliss. It’s a reminder to us all that if a monk is able to find the silver lining in his 99th marathon in 99 days, we can find something similar within our own routines.

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