The opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality.” ~ Andrew Solomon, Why Is It So Hard To Talk About Depression?
As a physician, I have always been aware of the impact stress can have on both our emotional and physical well-being. Stress is a risk factor for many diseases and illnesses you encounter in practice such as heart disease, headaches, depression and addictions, just to name a few. Most of us are able to manage our stress in a relatively private way, whereas others such as Kayne West are a public reminder of what can happen when stress reaches a critical tipping point. In fact, we often celebrate the openness of a public figure’s struggles with emotional wellness but might remain quite secretive about our own struggles. When was the last time we asked someone “how are you?” and expected them to say “not well in fact, I am really stressed out”.
Stress is just one threat to our emotional wellness. When emotions become beyond our control other mental health concerns can surface such as depression. Andrew Solomon speaks openly and eloquently about his experience with depression in his TED Talks Depression, The Secret We Share and How The Worst Moments In Our Lives Make Us Who We Are. He says that “emotion can be more real than fact” and that “depression is a family secret everyone has”. He goes on to accurately separate depression from grief (which is reactive), and sadness (a normal human emotion). He says mood is adaptive and depression is maladaptive. It is amazing to think that our moods, or emotions, really shape the person we are.
How do we deal with difficult emotions before they take over our emotional well-being?
I wish I had a tidy answer to this question that could be prescribed to us all. Most of us feel a range of emotions, which is part of the human experience, and when we feel miserable or anxious, we want nothing more than to erase that feeling. Doc Mike Evans, in his his video The Science of Making Us Happy!, offers another way to look at our subjective emotional well-being. He says that our predictors of ‘happiness’ fall heavily toward our genes (50% is pre-programmed if you will), followed closely by life choices & behaviours (40%), and life circumstances contributing the least (10%). As Solomon says, “happiness is not the opposite of depression”, but improving our emotional wellness can in turn help us when times are difficult or we feel unhappy.
Evans points out two common ways to live our lives in order to extract the most ‘joy’ we can:
- recognizing what we do have – gratitude
- extracting from the present – mindfulness
He also points to other life choices that enhance our emotional well-being including our relationships, kindness, altruism, forgiveness, and physical activity. The highest predictor of a healthy and happy life ends up being connectedness – to family, friends and community.
True our emotions are not always fact. Sometimes we don’t have a reason to feel sad or anxious, but they shape our lives nonetheless. Our subjective emotional well-being is for the most part within our control.
In the end, feeling grateful for what we have, enjoying each moment and surrounding ourselves with people who lift us up, will put us on the path toward a life rich with positive emotions.
Podcast on human emotions – Headspace from TED Radio Hour