This past week one of my running buddies mentioned that his wife was pestering him about how much he has been running lately. I won’t go further into that beyond saying that of all the habits a person could have for their significant other to complain about, exercise should not be anywhere near the top.
We began talking about how running is a stress outlet for us, and he said if he wasn’t running as much he would likely be drinking more alcohol instead. I told him that every time I wound up in counseling in the past it was during times when I wasn’t running as regularly. That’s not to say I still wouldn’t have needed counseling if I was running regularly, but rather that when I am consistently working out I find my mental wellness fares a lot better.
I began reflecting on the conversation with my friend today, and it made me realize just how much more content I am with my life than years ago. I am a firm believer that there is a difference between happiness and contentment. To me happiness is a state of emotion that can quickly change based on external circumstances. Contentment on the other hand is a state of well being. It’s the ability to live life in such a way that emotions can come and go, but the stability of one’s life and adaptability to life remains intact. One can be content with life while not necessarily being happy or stress free all the time.
Depression is an epidemic in the United States. A TIME article reported data from the National Center for Health Statistics that 13% of Americans take antidepressants. While I’m sure there is a multitude of data with the reasons behind this, and I do recognize that some people have a biological/neurological/genetic component that plays a factor, I feel that an underlying source is that being happy in life as an ultimate goal is setting people up for failure.
We go through life constantly bombarded with images of what happiness is while being told counter information at the same time. Buy the new car/house/electronic device. Money can’t buy happiness. Don’t settle for anyone, wait for the “right” person. If you’re not married by a certain age there’s something wrong with you. Spend time with family and friends. Take time for yourself. Set goals and reach for the stars. Enjoy the little things in life. Is it any wonder that people end up confused and discouraged and lost in life?
Not only are people inundated with conflicting information on happiness, but they are also given a false expectation of how to be happy. Society portrays happiness as if it was a checklist of tasks to complete. How often do we say that we’ll be happy once “ABC” happens? Only to then say we need to have “XYZ” happen and then we’ll be happy.
For years I was guilty of this “delay of happiness” pattern. Sure I enjoyed things in life, but felt that in order to achieve ultimate happiness certain events had to happen. First it was reestablishing a friendship I lost for no explained reason. Then it was transferring from one college to another. Then it became getting back together with my first boyfriend. Next it was graduating college. Then it was finding a job. And so on and so on.
I was blind to the fact that a person can find contentment in life while still being unhappy with certain elements and working to change those. Instead I relied on short bursts of excitement to appease me which I falsely believed were the best that life could give. This often led to me emotionally crashing deeply when even the smallest of things did not go as I expected and ruined those planned “top moments in life”. I would mentally mood swing from elation to misery over sometimes very trivial things.
So what is different about my life now compared to then? I would say largely a greater understanding of myself and what I need to truly be me. It’s cliché but true that you can’t help take care of anyone else if you don’t take care of yourself. To find true contentment I believe a person needs to define himself/herself and seek out in life that which supports that definition.
Too often people follow a path that society dictates they should follow because it’s the “right way” to live or the way that “everyone else” goes. I watch family and friends do this all the time; they continue down an invisible path to happiness believing that as long as they check off all the items on the “happiness checklist” that they are and/or will be happy. It saddens me because I know while they may experience moments of happiness, they’re not truly content with life. I wish I could help them, but the journey to contentment is a very personal one that takes a lot of self analyzing, self defining and above all, self acceptance.
I would encourage anyone who feels depressed, even if it’s at a very mild level like I experienced in the past, to seek out counseling. Talk therapy can help immensely to change one’s way of looking at a certain situation or more importantly, the way they understand themselves. Then they should find one activity that makes them feel connected to life, not even necessarily happy all the time, but something that makes them want to move forward.
For everyone else I would say take a step back sometimes and look at your life. Are you living it based on how you define yourself or how others or society in general tell you to live it? Are you wandering down the “happy trail” just because, delaying your life until you complete the “happiness checklist” or are you truly content with your life? Don’t settle for fleeting moments of happiness; find the real contentment that makes life worth living.