A Return to Happiness

Polarity is an interesting animal. We think we know opposites–day and night, sun and moon, light and shadow–but then we’re faced with nuanced categories that defy perfect dualism–male and female, black and white, good and bad. Here there isn’t so much a binary system as much as a continuum, and it’s easy to get lost in the grey matter.

So lately I’ve been longing, lingering, languishing…and I’ve been fighting against it, feeling frothy and shameful, and it hasn’t gotten me anywhere. So I’ve been perusing TED Talks, because they’re awesome, and sometimes a little awesome makes you awesome, too.

And in a way, somewhere in this mess of chaos, a new story began.

Or, perhaps, it’s the next chapter of an older, still-unfinished tale.

I often visualize my life as a timeline. There, on the far left, is birth and the first few moments of my life beyond the womb before I began to breathe. There’s childhood in Pennsylvania, our moves through a half-dozen houses in New York before we settled in North Carolina, some years in Hebrew school, my Bar Mitzvah and then explorations in Paganism. I could color each of these things, draw fine lines to delineate them, but then I reach a period in my teenage years when there’s nothing there. It’s an abyssal black, a blur, a feeling of numbness. Self-hatred, self-loathing, endless clouds with no sunshine.

For a time, I rediscovered myself–for a time I felt as though I were upon Maslow’s path to self-actualization, that those days of dismal belonging had passed. I found renewed vigor in my faith, I began the process of coming out, I went to college, I became involved in student leadership and professional development–and every moment was amazing.

Then, after gaining my associate degree, after being top of my class and known by nearly everyone on campus, things changed. I developed a food allergy and became paranoid every time I ate. I moved away from home, away from all my friends, and found myself challenged and forced to the brink of my personal limits. An intimate relationship ended abruptly, and I spiraled into poor decisions and another bout of blurry shadows.

I remember doing an exercise my therapist gave me to describe what I was feeling, to give it shape and color and texture. It was impenetrably dark, void of any real color, and so colorless, akin perhaps to a black hole just beneath the surface. And it was smooth, like running my fingers against polished glass, and vast, as though a concert hall with expanding walls, but I could feel them, constantly curving away from me, as though I were tracing the inner contours of a sphere. That, to me, was the surface of the abyss.

The counseling, weekly and monthly both, helped me come around, and I achieved a new level of self-worth, a new appreciation for life, a new understanding of my emotions.

But then something remarkably odd happened. A singular path came to have multiple fingers, and while on many the trajectory was upwards, for the rest it was decreasing. I forged new relationships and found my leadership involvement swell with new opportunities and vast seas of awareness. But in the classroom, where I prided myself most, I was pushed to the extremes, and under that pressure, I shattered. So I took some time, recentered, and tried again–to only far further than I had before.

There I found this summer starting, and I thought with some time to myself, all this stress would dissipate and I’d return to my usual self–my high spirits, my unbridled optimism, my love and adoration for all the things that I’m learning–those constants I most admire about myself, those elements of my identity I most appreciate and celebrate.

Instead I’ve felt disinterested and emotionless. I’ve felt numb and lifeless.

It would seem, in general parlance, that relaxation is the opposite of stress, that freedom is the opposite of oppression, that happiness is the opposite of depression. But as with many things that we learned while young, each of these is sourly mistaken.

Stress isn’t necessarily bondage to be released from–Kelly McGonigal inspires us to make stress our friend, reminds us that stress helps our bodies physically perform their best and makes us more alert while compelling us to strengthen personal relationships. And freedom, for all we’ve been given it, is often as stifling and blinding as it is freeing.

So we realize happiness, antonym sadness, isn’t the opposite of depression. As Andrew Solomon in his TED Talk tells us, “The opposite of depression isn’t happiness, but vitality.”

It is precisely that vitality I feel so lacking in my life.

I’ll be honest, I don’t know if I’m actually depressed–in all my life, I’ve never once been diagnosed (not even while receiving counseling), but at this moment, with all I’ve learned about mental illness and depression in particular, I’d be surprised if I weren’t depressed.

I don’t want to be depressed, I haven’t met a single person who is who wants to be, but trying to push it away and cover it up causes it to rise up higher and further infiltrate every point in my life where it didn’t already hold power. It’s rather much like swimming: as a child (and still today), I held a great fear of water–but standing at the edge of the pool didn’t help me overcome it. In fact, staring down at the water or pretending I wasn’t afraid of it simply made the fear worse–uncertainty and trepidation turned quickly into terror. Only by diving into the water was I able to move past that fear and overcome it.

I’m still afraid of water, I imagine I always will be: My heart shudders if I slip into a pool, my blood runs icy in my veins every time I step into the ocean, and if you dare place me on a boat, were I to lose any more color I’d probably cease to be visible at all.

But I also recognize I quite enjoy the water–how buoyant I feel, how I can move with fluidity, how the tide pushes and pulls and wraps me in its undulating fingers. So while I pale at the edge of the ocean, I move toward it and live through that terror in happiness.

So it should be with depression.

What confused me, perhaps, is that all these speakers on depression proclaim that they suffer through depression, but I hardly wish to suffer–rather, I wish to live. If I shall carry this burden, I shan’t suffer it, but rather live through it–just as I live through aquaphobia.

If vitality is the opposite of depression, we’re forced to wonder the opposite of happiness, or if happiness and depression can coexist–that’s a question I can’t answer, but to me it seems the parallel to happiness is despair–from the Latin desperar, “down from hope,” the word conjuring images of breathlessness and suffocation. Happiness is that summer breeze, that lungful of spring aromas that causes your mind to swell in its sweetness.

And like our breathing, an unconscious habit that we can learn to control, happiness begins as an unconscious response to external stimuli, but can also be mastered.

The mastery of happiness must be physical and psychological. As psychologists Amy Cuddy points out our body language shapes who we are and Shawn Achor adds that the secret to better work is intentionally celebrating positivity through gratitude and reflection.

We’re also taught that new is the opposite of old, but as a mathematician I’ve been forced to study the continuous, and sometimes what’s new and old are the same thing. They might occur at different points, past highs and lows, but share a greater, global structure.

Years ago, tangent to the tales I shared above, I began a challenge to myself to share a hundred words of gratitude–but as of my last post a year ago, I’ve only reached 65. It’s time I complete that list, and it’s time I commit myself to reshaping how I think.

Achor recommends spending three weeks taking at least two minutes a day listing three things we’re grateful for, journalling about something positive that happened, exercising, meditating, or performing conscious acts of kindness–and the more of these each day someone does, the more their brain is trained to behave not with despair, but happiness.

So this is my challenge: for the next three weeks, I’m going to do each of these things, but I’m not simply going to blog about it every day. I’m going to Tweet and Instagram my gratitude and good fortune (while even doing some through intentional gaming) so that my positivity can spread as far is it can in as many ways as it can.

It’ll be a challenge–any sort of learning and rekindling always is, but I’m thankful I’ve been able to lean upon these speakers, these leaders, and envision a brighter path to follow.

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