Suicide, Pixar, and the Holocaust: Writing an A+ Paper on Happiness

It was supposed to be one of the easier essays of the semester; a research paper about happiness, and what it means to me, and the how’s and why’s I’ve developed that opinion.

My instructor certainly wasn’t expecting it to send anyone into a depressive existential crisis.

Writing about happiness when, well… you don’t have much of it, and it’s always a complex mess when you do, and the only reason you are happy at all is a very careful and calculated decision to not always be miserable, it left me two choices; I could be a big wreck and talk about mental illness and societal expectations, or I could lie.

I chose not to lie.

It was hellish, figuring out how to say what I needed in one essay, and using the required sources, and not having a complete breakdown. I did skip class during group review; my classmates, so much younger than I, already seem frightened by my callous attitude towards adulthood. I did not want to break them. I apologized to my teacher. If anything, I think I made him feel bad.

By the end of it, I had an essay with an important message. Now that it is over, and to tie into my last post, I have decided to share it here; it is too little too late for my friend, but perhaps it can help someone else better understand what they or a loved one is going through.

 

Happiness Not Required:

The damaging effects of the perpetual pursuit of happiness, and why we need to let Sadness run the control panel sometimes.

            I will always be miserable. Accepting this has helped me to become a much happier person over all. By most measurable accounts, my life has been fairly terrible, and up until recently there was very little for me to be happy about. Things going well is in many ways even harder to deal with, but we will return to that train of thought later.

Most people are surprised to know how deeply miserable I am. “But you are so upbeat! You seem so happy!” — words many people suffering chronic depression hear with such frequency we begin to wrap it around ourselves: a mantel of feigning normalcy. The deeper the hurt goes, the more desperately we want to hide it from others lest it should prove contagious.

Robin Williams is one of the most telling examples. Known for his comedy, he spent a lifetime making people happy whilst he himself was miserable. Dick Cavette explores the connection between artistic sorts such as Williams and the frequency of depression in his article “Boxing the Black Dog”. “Isn’t it funny how I can bring great happiness to all these people,” he said. “But not to myself.” He quotes of Williams after a particularly successful show in a small club.

Most people were surprised by William’s suicide, not having had the slightest inkling that he had depression, that he was unhappy. Some might focus on his diagnoses of Lewy Body dementia, and no doubt that made things even less bearable. To say that was the only reason he took his life, though, is ungracious of the disease he battled for so much longer. It was not simply the thought of fighting Lewy Body that caused him to end his life, it was knowing that he already put everything he could into battling depression, the disease that no one even knew he had. That is how it goes. The better you are at hiding it, the harder it can be to get the help so desperately needed. Cavette goes on to discuss his own experience, a time when he was filmed with Laurence Olivier. He describes himself as being blind with depression, and at first refused to watch the film because he knew he would appear sluggish and dead. He was later convinced to watch, and saw that it was not obvious. He looked fine. This is the scariest part, perhaps. How entirely invisible depression can be.

Depression can be biological, situational, or a combination. My genetics lay the framework for mental illness; it wouldn’t have taken much to trigger. Life made certain regardless to make things terrible enough that even the strongest fortitude of my brains chemical balance would not have had a chance. One thing that has helped greatly, though I wish I had come across it sooner, is an actual understanding of said brain chemistry, and of emotions in general. Emotional Intelligence Quotient , known as EQ, is a person’s ability to understand, cope with, and empathize with emotions. I was well into my twenties before I understood to any true degree the importance of actually experiencing all of your emotions; I thought the goal was to block out anything other than joy. It seems I am far from the only one; Pixar made an entire movie about it (fig 1). Inside Out explores the inner lives of, well, our inner feelings. The most important aspect is the role Sadness plays in the film, and the dichotomy of the roles of Sadness and Joy. Riley, an eleven year old girl, has not had too much sadness yet in her life. The control panel is mostly manned by Joy, as we might all hope for. Her life is turned upside down when her family moves across the country, and her parents find themselves too busy to notice the emotional turmoil this sets off and provide the proper support Riley truly needs. With admonitions to “keep smiling”, Riley tries to do just that. Unfortunately, this is a case of Riley’s mother exhibiting poor EQ as Riley exhibits classic signs of Adjustment Disorder and Depressed mood (Scarlet).

In a whirlwind of color and imagination, Pixar manages to show the importance of five of the six primary emotions (surprise is left out), particularly Sadness, who begins as the least understood. Since its release, entire therapeutic lessons have been designed around the film to help children understand their emotions, even the negative ones (Leslie). Sadness saves the day by allowing Riley to seek help and emotional support from her parents. Dacher Keltner, a renowned psychologist who worked with the team at Pixar to ensure a proper and scientifically accurate portrayal of the inner-workings of the mind discussed the role of Sadness in the film and in society. “One of the things I really resonated with is that we have a naive view in the West that happiness is all about the positive stuff. But happiness in a meaningful life is really about the full array of emotions, and finding them in the right place. I think that is a subtext of the movie: The parents want Riley to just be their happy little girl. And she can’t. She has to have this full complement of emotions to develop. I think we all need to remember that. This is a weakness in Western culture and the United States. You need sadness, you need anger, you need fear.” (Judd).

Darrin M. McMahon, author of “Happiness: a History”, wrote an article for the New York Times that explores societies preoccupation with happiness, how wishing someone “Happy New Year” is in ways an order in this society, and that it in itself is damaging to ones hopes for happiness. Happiness is, relatively speaking, a new goal for humans, yet it has become a primary one. The number of people who claim themselves to be happy has not increased, despite the never ending barrage of self-help books and well-wishes. The obsession, the absolute conviction with which we purport that people need to be happy all the time, is hurtful when you are not. Before I knew to a great extent that my misery was largely beyond my control, that it was acceptable to use modern chemistry to help get me closer to okay, I assumed I was broken. It seemed vital for everyone to be happy, yet I was not. I could not figure out how to be. To me it seemed obvious that it was an internal flaw, and I was in some way damaged. I only wish someone had told me sooner that happiness is not a requirement. McMahon goes on to quote John Stuart Mill, who vowed to seek happiness in ways other than simply questioning if he himself was happy. “Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others; on the improvement of mankind, even on some art of pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way”. (737-739) I may not be so lucky as to find my own happiness in any lasting way, but I can strive for my goals, for making the world as decent a place as it will be, and improving the lives of others. I’ve long now believed that it is okay if the happiness I find is not my own.

Seeking happiness for self by pursuing happiness of others is but one of many types of self-care. In a handout created for students by Allison Hitt, the suggestions range from coloring to meditating to yoga or the gym, and everything in-between. The importance of self care has been gaining some recognition in recent years, a thankful reprieve from the old American mindset of  “work constantly and never need help with anything”. Mental health services are slowly losing their damaging stigma, and taking “mental health days” or “treating yourself” are recommended, not frowned upon (except, perhaps, by some employers).

The breakdown in modern times of gender roles has helped men and women alike in the realm of mental well-being. Men are no longer expected to be emotionless and shoulder all the financial and business related burdens of running a home, and women are better respected and have hopes of one day actually enjoying equal pay to our colleagues. In the article “I Want a Wife”, published in the first issue of Ms. Magazine in 1971, Judy Brady exemplified many of the struggles of women at the time by going on about how she herself would love to have a wife to play all the roles expected of her. Her wife, should she have one, is expected to maintain a job, the house, and all the child-care related needs so that Brady could go to college and further her education(754, 755). Brady’s article is written toungue in cheek and dripping with disdain for the double standards she lived with, and considering her divorce not long after the article passed, I believe it is safe to assume she finally had enough with it. As I myself write this for school while my loving spouse takes on the duties of househusband I find myself grateful we live in a time where both of our roles are accepted, and we may both seek stigma-free help when life is overwhelming, or simply when we are driving each other crazy.

Self-care and newly equitous relationships can be great boons in seeking happiness, but for many, they are not enough. Spirituality in many forms has been used as a means to guide someone to a happy life, to provide meaning for both the good and the bad. Spirituality may come in the form of religion, meditation, lifestyle, or sometimes in the form of a particularly touching book. Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah by Richard Bach played that part for me during a time when my life was in turmoil. The protagonist is not a particularly happy person, nor does he know if he believes in much of anything beyond the physics he uses to fly his plane; that is enough for him. The example of someone who finds a good life that works for them without it being a fix to everything, with his still being a grouchy curmudgeon, it spoke to me on a personal level. It is not in any way a bible, but it does help me feel I am not alone. I know my spirituality doesn’t work for everyone; it probably won’t work for most people in fact. That is sort of the point, everyone needs to find what works for them.

Religion is a great source of comfort for many. I must remind myself of this every time I hear the same tired diatribe about “putting it in God’s hands” and “everything happens for a reason”. Such mindsets are not only useless, but can be incredibly damaging to an introspective person with a shitty life. I was about eight years old when I decided that I hated God and he was terrible. You see, I was taught that he controlled everything, and if you were good enough and holy enough and righteous enough, God would take care of you. But he did me no favors. My fears of His judgement as I’d heard it preached left me only more shamed and more terrified and with even more crippling self doubt. If there was a God and he was all powerful, why would he let me and so many others be hurt? What sin could I have committed that would be so wrong, so terrible, that I earned what I went through? What twisted plan did he have in store that required me, and so many other young girls, to be hurt so? Why did babies die of cancer? Why do rapists and murderers live long, healthy lives?

A quote frequently, though questionably, attributed to Epicurus sums up my thoughts on God succinctly. “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”. I know not if God is real, but I do know I’ve no interest in worship, and that my brief time where I did believe in all the doctrines preached at me, when I sang with the choir every Sunday, they made me only more miserable.

I am far from being alone in this. One of the most gut-wrenching examples of a belief in God leading to feelings of betrayal and abandonment comes from the Holocaust. In the workcamp Mauthausen, countless people wrote their final words in the form of graffiti on the walls. To modern visitors, one example is shown during the informational movie. The author is unknown, but the message is clear. “If there is a God, he will have to beg my forgiveness” (Eames, 149). Primo Levi, a chemist and survivor of Auschwitz, likewise said “There is Auschwitz, and so there cannot be God”. Levi lived with the dark shadows of depression after his time in Auschwitz, but did his best to bear witness to the atrocities in hopes of helping prevent humanity from going down that road again. It is a subject of debate if the depression killed him at the age of 67, leading him to jump to his death, or if he simply fell from a dizzy spell (Berel).

I’ve explored a number of things which do not bring happiness. I seem far better at finding those; it is almost a perverse talent. I promised to return to the downside of finding it, of when things are going well. This is when the anxiety becomes a problem. If things are going terribly, it is understandable to be miserable. It is easy to list off reasons why life sucks and be done with it, with any luck there are things you can actively work to improve for hopes of making things better, or at least keeping you preoccupied. When you are happy, however, there is whole new problem. When you are happy, the anxiety will pipe up and tell you that this won’t last, your world will fall apart again, and you can not help but think of what is about to go terribly wrong. Then, the depression creeps back in. But there is no “cause” for it, and thus, nothing you can fix. Life is going well, and yet you are still miserable. These are the times I start to feel broken again. When everything is going right and yet I can not be happy, that is when I feel powerless. That is when it feels as if there is nothing more to be done.

With that, I accept that I am miserable, and always shall be. I do my best to enjoy moments of happiness as they come to me, to fully embrace the small and simple pleasures. My happiness is the first sip of a good coffee, sweet snuggles from my children, the moments I help others find their happiness. They are small, and brief, and inconsistent. They are mine.

 

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