Does Trying to Be Happy Make You Depressed?

Photo by Sister72.

According to one source the amount of people seeking treatment for depression has doubled in the last 15 years. Ninety percent of those people left their doctor with a prescription drugs. Clinical depression is a real disease, and antidepressants can help. But these statistics make me wonder whether our perceptions on happiness are in dire need of an update.

Somewhere, I think society got into the idea that its wrong to be unhappy. Not just that being unhappy was undesirable, but that happiness was the entire measure of life. As a result, if you feeling blue, you aren’t just sad –you’re also a failure. I wonder if the relentless focus to always be happy can actually make more people depressed?

Respect Your State

There’s nothing wrong with feeling sad, angry, frustrated or burnt out. It isn’t a moral weakness and it doesn’t mean you lack emotional control. Of course, if you aren’t feeling happy, you should do something about it. I’d never recommend a pity party. But at the same time, don’t compound your bad feelings because you don’t have a giant grin on your face all the time.

Respect your emotional state. Respect doesn’t mean you need to wallow in it. But it does mean you need to acknowledge and accept it. Trying to deny that you feel burnt out after an 80 hour workweek might kill you. Your emotions are an indicator, and if you ignore them, they will only get worse.

Change Your Vocabulary

Energy levels and happiness are tightly intertwined. One of the major symptoms of clinical depression is being completely drained all the time. The connection between energy levels goes both ways, and what can often feel like sadness is really just being temporarily drained.

I find it more useful to look at happiness as closer to a fuel, rather than an absolute indicator of your quality of life. If frustrations zap your energy, it takes time to recover back to a stage of happiness. But if you panic because you aren’t feeling ecstatic every second of the day, small bumps can become negative spirals.

Minor problems can temporarily bump down your emotional energy. If you don’t recognize what has happened, however, it is easy to extrapolate one negative incident onto everything. You may feel bad about a fight with your spouse, which causes you to color your work, relationships and life black.

Instead of telling yourself you’re sad or depressed, try using the word “recharging”. For the minor upsets that everyone faces, it’s probably true.

Sometimes You’re Depressed for a Reason

Everyone needs to accept small dips on the emotional thermostat occasionally. But if the same feelings of unhappiness keep rising up, there is probably a good reason. Full-blown depression can be caused by a chemical imbalance in your brain. But often there is a more obvious reason you don’t feel fantastic: your life sucks.

Maybe you’re working a job you hate, have an addiction or just went through a breakup. These are all legitimate reasons to feel bad. Often they are also a signal that there is something incredibly important you need to do.

Instead of responding to that signal, it’s far easier to medicate. Not just pharmaceuticals, but self-medication. Drinking, smoking, junk food, endless reruns and video games. Mindless activities to escape the signal your emotions are trying to tell you.

Listen to the signals you get. Turn the dark times in your life into a fuel. Open up a journal and write out all the reasons you feel. Then do something with that information. Quit your job, meet more people or start a plan to get in shape. Your emotions are the traffic signals of your life. If you keep ignoring the red lights, you’ll eventually crash.

My Battle

I can remember several years ago going through a dark period of my own life. I was never diagnosed with depression, but I can remember feeling bad for long stretches at a time. While this was also a dark period, it also gave me a powerful signal. From that point I really started to make changes in my life.

I realized that I was depressed for a reason. I was out of shape. My social life was bankrupt. I was lazy and disorganized. My philosophy of life was broken. The solution wasn’t to ignore or self-medicate, but to work on me. Change wasn’t immediate or easy, but after a few years of work I broke away.

Today my life has improved so much, the former me wouldn’t even recognize it. Health, friends, work, finances and relationships have all improved. Even more important, my philosophy of life has become stronger.

I write about this not because I’m a special case, but because I’m everyone. Everyone faces there own battles and conflicts in life. I moved to this point today not by trying to “be happy” all the time, but to pay attention to the signals I was getting. Signals that things needed change and that happiness is the effect of a good life, not the cause.

Ask the readers: what do you think? Does trying to be happy make you depressed?

29 Responses to Does Trying to Be Happy Make You Depressed?

  1. Excellent points. And to elaborate on your point that unhappiness can be a sign for a need to change, I’ve personally discovered that whenever I’m feeling unhappy, it always boils down to that I’m entertaining unhappy thoughts. A lot of people assume they have unhappy thought because they are depressed (bad neurochemical), but it is really the other way around. That’s why drugging doesn’t really solve the problem; it deals with the effect, not the cause. So, whenever I’m personally feeling unhappy, I simple ask myself, “what is the purpose of this?” And that puts me on the level of cause (mind) instead of effect (matter) and I’m usually able to change my thoughts, which often leads to changing my actions, which in turn changes my mood.

  2. Cathy says:

    To be honest, I wish my depression was that “simple”. However, for me, I have clinical depression. And what’s more, it is recurrent clinical depression. I know that life events trigger it to worsen; however, I’ve also found medication to be a help.

    Although “life sucks” can be the trigger, often these negative life events (losing my job for instance), just worsen a recurrent episode. In other words, it was “time” for the recurrence and the life event made it arrive that much faster.

    On a slightly different note, I wonder if the reason more people are seeking help is because depression has lost some of it’s connotation of failure? I also wonder how many people have the disease but don’t seek treatment?

    I didn’t for over 10 years because I thought it was just a phase that I would snap out of. Even though the episodes did eventually pass, they came back again and again. I also realized that even if my life wasn’t as good as it could be, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was. In other words, “life sucks” wasn’t enough of an explanation for why I felt so bad.

    So, in the end, there’s my perspective from the other side of the fence, in a matter of speaking. :)

  3. Great post Scott! Love the part about respecting your state. Good stuff. :)


  4. Trish says:

    Like Cathy, I have clinical depression. I do think that people would do well to accept their down times. I also think the word “depression” gets used in cases when sadness, burnout, etc., are more fitting words. I have a whole rant about this over at

    But it’s kind of like a cold. Some people do run to the doctor for a antibiotic at the first sign of illness. It would be just as effective in those cases to take care and wait it out. But if you have extreme symptoms or it doesn’t go away or gets worse, you need medical intervention.

    Now, a lot of doctors have trouble sending people with the sniffles away without a prescription. The patients wants SOMETHING. Give them a script, they go away feeling like they got treatment. Such doctors probably are probably similarly suceptible to giving a sad patient the antidepressants the patient thinks they want.

    Personally, I think the over-prescription of antidepressants would go way down if PCPs/GPs stopped prescribing them and insisted on referring people to psychiatrists, who have more experience with the drugs. In my experience, psychiatrists are more likely to insist on therapy and other depression treatments and spend more time trying to get to the root of depressive feelings. Every psychiatrist I’ve seen has spent more time in my quarterly (or more often) check-ins than any PCP has ever given me for a diagnosis. But I know, not everyone has had insurance with mental health parity. I’ve been lucky.

    So from the sad person’s perspective, the question is this: do you have the depressive equivalent of the sniffles, or has it developed into mental pneumonia?

  5. Anna says:

    Well, I used to be smarter than all those people with depression, because I knew better how to handle my life and it always worked and everything.

    A few months ago, I started feeling worse and worse. I started questionning everything in my life: my major in college, whom I live with, focusing on studies instead of getting a job… everything. However, wafter giving each of this a deep through, I always came to the conclusion that I had made the best choice and was in the best situation possible. I had no idea what to do.

    Then came the throught: “Maybe it’s just some irrational depression.” Within a few days, I felt totally relieved. My life was okay and I stopped worrying so much about my sadness. I don’t have a diagnosis yet, don’t know if it’s seasonal or clinical or anything, but knowing that everything is in order but my mood feels great inside.

    I know your post isn’t about my case, it’s actually about the complete opposite. But I’m leading to this:

    Don’t make too much assumptions too fast. Take some time to consider many possibilities: maybe you’re sick, maybe your life needs fixing. Maybe both. But whatever it is, the truth will set you free, as the Bible says.

  6. svenskalyx says:

    Thank you so much for this! The more I have read about “happiness” the more it seems like an impossible to attain state. If I’m ever less that a shiny happy person certain friends as, “What’s wrong?” and refuse to believe me when I say nothing. It is OK to not be bouncing off the walls with joy. It isn’t a long term state, just a case of, “I just got out of work and had an hour and a half commute and need some food before I can even think of being chipper again.”

    I think instant gratification has a lot to do with this as well. People want to be happy all the time in a similar way that they want what they want NOW! Sometimes, happiness is more of a thread throughout our lives than a permanent state of being. I would rather be happy long term while going through the various struggles of life than not to live at all but be at the extreme end of “happy” all the time.

  7. myself says:

    Scott, I read your blog often and I am very impressed by many things you say, this is not one of them.

    This post is a very dangerous oversimplification of a very serious issue that you obviously know little or nothing about.

    Many dynamic successful people suffer from depression, some even lose the QUALITY of their lives because the neurochemical imbalances in their brains cause severe chaos in their lives the same way multiple vehicle crashes disrupt traffic on icy overpacked roads.

    I agree that many cases of depression probably are just the blues or the blahs, but I do not feel that you with your life inexperience and mental health training are QUALIFIED to be making that judgement for people (and the people who interact with them!!) that you know nothing about.

  8. Ed says:

    I just wanted to thank you for writing this article. It pretty much validates what has been going through my head for the past few months.

    I’ve been in a state of depression for the past few years (or more). For the most part I didn’t even realize it. As I became more aware of it I started thinking more and more about myself, who I am, and where I want to go.

    I think being depressed happened for a reason. I became complacent in life and didn’t try to do anything beyond the status quo. Lately, I’ve started changing the way I think. I’ve started pushing myself to go to the gym. I’ve even started writing down life goals. Yes I still feel down, and depressed (for mostly life sucking reasons) but I seem to be able to bounce back faster.

    I’m not saying people shouldn’t be on medication, but I do think people need to put a lot more effort into understanding themselves and understanding their depression.

  9. Wai Ling says:

    Great post. Totally agree with “recharging” ourselves to ensure that we are energized all the time.

    For me, I kick start my day by watching at least 1 positive online seminar (average 20 minutes) to stay positive and keep all the negative energy away.

    Wai Ling

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  11. Emotional intelligence really is crucial these days. A book I HIGHLY recommend for anyone starting out is Heart of the Soul by Gary Zukav and Linda Francis. It’s beautifully written and full of insight:

    “You must become aware of everything you are feeling all the time. Continuously scanning your energy system and the accompanying thoughts, moment by moment, is emotional awareness. Emotional awareness means relaxing into the present moment even when it contains painful emotions. Intimacy means trusting that the universe will provide what you need, when you need it, and in a manner most appropriate for you.”

  12. STL Mom says:

    Gretchen Rubin had a post on her happiness project blog about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right.
    I realized that for me, feeling right is more important than feeling good every single day. Sometimes I feel sad or angry because I am doing things that are boring or difficult – but that’s okay because they are things that are good for me or my family.
    However, there is a big difference between my negative feelings and actual clinical depression. When I feel sad, I may get less done, but it doesn’t prevent me from doing my job, having relationships with other people, or taking care of myself. When sadness affects a major component of your life, that’s when you need to get professional help.

  13. SpriX says:

    Your article really inspired me to change, althought I’ve already started changing graduatly half year ago. But thank you for idea of an emotion as signal. It realy cleared up my mind and helped me understand what I want to do. P.S. this is the first time I chose to comment an article on this site usualy I’m just a reader.

  14. Sam Rutherford says:

    Good post. Although I am basically a happy person, I find that when I get the blues, it is usually because a) I need more sleep or exercise (physical) b) I have lost my “attitude of gratitude” and need an some kind of attitude adjustment,(mental) or c) I need to attune more to my spiritual needs (for me that involves prayer, Bible reading, and spending quality time with other Christians). Just as we listen to our body, its important to listen to our emotions as well, keeping in mind that elusive mind-body connection. Sometimes we find that the only thing in life we have any control over is our attitude, but in the end, everything else seems to hang on it. And, I agree that it is important to treat clinical depression appropriately. If I had that, I would definitely get help. Blessings to all! Sam

  15. Paolo Merolla says:

    You didn’t need a psycologist to say that “Trying to Be Happy Make You Depressed”

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  17. Victoria says:

    Actually, an obvious reason why many of my friends feel depressed and strained and working overtime at jobs they hate is: survival pressure.

    I think you’ll notice that for our generation, particularly in clinical-depression-prone areas of New York, Boston, San Francisco Bay Area, and Los Angeles/Orange County…a middle-class life is largely unaffordable.

    Purchasing a normal house ~$500,000+ is out of reach for the median single income (only 3% of houses are affordable to the median income here) and rent will eat a significant percentage of salary. Then add higher taxes, higher costs of living, forget about being picky about jobs. As a young professional here, even a slightly higher salary won’t be able to make those $4,000+ per month mortgage payments, but the other choice is to rip out our social circles and close families to move out to mid-sized cities. Many aren’t willing to do that, (for prestige, for fear) so that’s where the silent depression comes from.

    In these hot-zones, you have is legions of well-educated, talented professionals with $100,000+ school loans who cannot afford to start a family. Even at $70,000 a year almost all of the well-paid Google-hires can only afford rent, which means our financial assets hemorrage, and everyone feeling pessimistic that greedy speculators have cheated out our most promising brain talent of the ability to have a nest-egg for family. What about those service industry people who earn less? Choice for the 20-something to stay in the state: move back home with disappointed parents, or, rent a place and live like a naive bachelor until your late 30s without a house title to your name. I cannot stress how many 40-year-olds here still living in a small condo, barely making mortgage payments because of this real-estate madness, and these are our nation’s hardworking intelligensia and innovators we are screwing over. Not a wise investment for America’s future.

    This depression linked with unaffordable cities is formidable in Taiwan, Japan, Israel, England and Western Europe too.

    I’m generally an optimist, but seeing my MIT/Princeton/Columbia/Stanford colleagues bound by financial slavery and forced into $80,000+ stress-jobs to pay off debts helps explain an external cause to despair. Those earning under $50,000 are drowning, and no they aren’t spending brashly, they are paying off debts and the $3.99 tomatoes, and no the high-end sophisticated engineering jobs they’ve been trained for simply aren’t in Minnesota. These are friends of mine who live in SF, LA, NY be barely able to afford the room for having children, or mistakes, because a house is out of reach. It’s slavery.

    Of course, there are wiser decisions and drastic measures. We can hope that there’s a start-ups elsewhere (ha!) or just move there and let our invested skills atrophy. Moving out requires resilience and major costs and headaches too, but, that’s a major reason my friends who choose to remain in coastal CA, Boston and New York become that depressed. The strain is unbelievable.

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  20. Bob Collier says:

    svenskalyx wrote:

    “I think instant gratification has a lot to do with this as well. People want to be happy all the time in a similar way that they want what they want NOW! Sometimes, happiness is more of a thread throughout our lives than a permanent state of being. I would rather be happy long term while going through the various struggles of life than not to live at all but be at the extreme end of “happy” all the time.”

    I agree. I think the popularised idea (“as seen on TV”) that happiness means living in a constant state of joy is a major contributing factor to high levels of dissatisfaction. It seems to me it would be difficult to avoid feeling depressed if you believe you have to live in a constant state of joy to be “happy” and experience every day the impossibility of achieving that.

    For me, happiness comes and goes and most of the time I don’t notice whether I’m happy or not. Until somebody asks me.

  21. Janet says:

    I can tell you what makes most people depressed and they don’t even realize it. Everyday, they see filth and badness all around them. There isn’t anywhere that white people can go to see beauty or have peace. There is nowhere to find happiness anymore. There is nothing but dirt, filth, lowly people, murder, theft, and disgust. OF COURSE, people are depressed! When they lie to themselves and PRETEND that the OTHER people aren’t bad, and start having imaginary hallucinations that they are good people, the brain goes into relapse and cuts of the necessary dopamine for happiness. Imaginary hallucinations are different from dreams…..imaginary hallucinations are hell…similar to enjoying a nightmare. Enjoying a nightmare is not normal. It puts the dopamine at halt. Once you realize this, happiness can be attained.

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  23. mark says:

    great comments Janet, that has helped me think alot, and i like your attitude, its real, and I have been thinking this but not really admitting, it, and I have felt happier when I am in touch with what is really going on, well put !

  24. Brian says:

    That’s a shame that you would say white people can’t go anywhere to see beauty or peace. As if white people are all good and other races are all scum. I am white and I know a lot of bad white people and a lot of people of other races that are great people. There is good and bad in every race, nationality and creed.

  25. Justin says:

    How does a 15 year old deal with depression how when i try I just can’t I feel alone and it bothers me I wanna try to talk to some one but when I do nothing comes out about my depression and I’m scared to talk to my mom r go to the doc about it .

  26. prom gowns says:

    Im glad to see that people are actually writing about this

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  27. loser says:

    What if you are trying to be proactive in changing your life, knowing that you’re not happy for a reason and accepting it, but still can’t find a way to overcome your problems? Does that mean I’m depressed or just hopeless? 

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