Depression: The Yin of Happiness

In my mind, authentic and long-lasting happiness requires what positive psychologist Tal Ben-Sahar calls, “a permission to experience the full range of human emotions.”

This permission includes what are sometimes thought of as “negative” states of mind such as grief, anger, or sadness (the exact opposite of what we would usually consider to be “happiness”). As paradoxical as it sounds, I believe those lows can sometimes be necessary to help define our highs.

Like darkness and light, or yin and yang, happiness and depression are interdependent; you can’t have one concept without implying the other. In fact, even the happiest of individuals occasionally go through bouts of sadness and depression, and I think in many ways we need to occasionally engage with those states if we want to find true bliss in our lives.

A common theme that I try to emphasize on this blog is that all emotions are resources. Therefore, true emotional intelligence requires that we engage with all of our emotions if we want to learn from them.

This is because I consider emotions important signals of information, but if we try to run away or ignore the “negative” ones, then we neglect that information and what our minds are trying to tell us.

In extreme cases, the more we suppress our emotions, the more they bottle up inside of us, like when you ignore a toddler and they just yell louder and louder until they finally get your attention. In the same way, we need to pay attention to our feelings and the thoughts behind them, or they build up in our subconscious and can eventually explode in destructive ways.

Let me relate this to a personal experience of mine.

During my freshman year at college I found myself in the midst of a major depressive episode. It sucked up all the zest out of my life, as all my energy was being used to constantly ruminate over thoughts in my head. At this point, I wasn’t yet familiar with self improvement, but this depression actually sparked a turning point.

I had reached a period in my life where I knew I couldn’t go on living this way – I had to change something – and this depression motivated me to make that change.

Over a short amount of time, I took that energy that was making me ruminate and found more constructive ways to think about my life situation; and looking back, it was like self-administered Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. Today, I still apply these lessons I’ve learned through my depression. Somehow, it has made me a better person. Now I think about that negative time in my life and I am strangely grateful for it.

And apparently I’m not the only one who has experienced benefits from depression.

A recent article by science blogger Jonah Lehrer is called “Does Depression Help Us Think Better?” In it he mentions how the ruminating tendency associated with depression may be a kind of cognitive mechanism to help us solve deep problems in our lives.

Several studies have illustrated that those who are more depressed actually turn out to be better thinkers and decision makers. When we are depressed, our brains often motivate us to reflect inwards and think about the issues in our life at a deeper level. This can be a great opportunity to re-evaluate our thoughts and values, and thus find different and more meaningful ways to look at our situation.

In many ways, sadness and depression can be a catalyst for personal problem-solving. Engaging with these emotions in a healthy and constructive manner can lead to long-term benefits.

So what is the takeaway?

I’m not saying we should actively seek to be more depressed or sad. What I’m saying is that if you find yourself depressed, don’t be so eager to run away or get rid of it in the quickest way you know how.

Instead, learn how to be comfortable sitting down with your thoughts and feelings, and reflecting. Don’t be afraid to dive deeper into the thoughts and beliefs that feed into your emotions, and be willing to adjust those thoughts and beliefs to something more constructive once you’ve learned from your negative emotions.

Suffering can at times be our greatest teacher.

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