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?


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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