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The Ideal of Happiness: Today's underlying cause of depression and anxiety

Today, the diagnosis of Depression is more rampant than ever, as it is the leading cause for disability in the United States. Is it possible that our Western ideal that one should be happy all the time may actually be what is causing our unhappiness?

The ideal is seen and pushed everywhere. On social media, in advertisements, which we are increasingly more and more exposed to throughout our days… we see happy faces. We see products and lifestyles making people happy, and the repetitive nature of this suggests it should be the norm. Not only are we happy-pushed to think this way, we are also led to believe there is something wrong with negative emotions. Also everywhere… Zoloft commercials, mood stabilizer commercials, other forms of treatment offered for a depressed mood. These all suggest that it is not acceptable to be unhappy. If we are unhappy, something should be done about it. We’re a burden to our loved ones, we may float quickly toward suicidal thoughts, we may start to bully others. The message on repeat is that depression, and by relation, other negative emotions are bad. Honestly, how are we supposed to avoid feeling the result of this kind of pressure to be happy?

Other cultures are not this way. Whereas clinical depression is noted and treated in different ways worldwide, negative emotions are not lumped into that Depression category and are not seen as bad things. In cultures other than ours, “suffering” is accepted as a part of life. Negative emotions are viewed as temporary, fleeting, or normal states of our mood because we are human beings and things that piss us off or make us sad, jealous, unmotivated, depressed or anxious are seen as normal reactions to events. Their ads are less coercively happy. Their moms don’t freak out when their sons or daughters reply on the other end of the line with, “I’ve been feeling down lately.” Rather their moms ask, “why?” or “what happened? Let’s talk about it.” Suicide is not “just another option” for this reason.

Several studies have been done on this topic and have shown supportive results. When subjects are placed in an environment where they feel pressure to feel positive emotions, when the experiment causes them to react with negative emotions, they end up feeling more intense negative emotions (loneliness, sadness, rejection) than the groups in which there is no “pressure” to feel good.

In another study, two groups of people were given tasks to solve anagrams. In one room, called the “happy room,” there were pictures of happy people enjoying themselves all over the walls, simulating a subconscious reminder that the subjects should feel happy. In the other testing room there was no such paraphernalia. The people who failed at the anagram tasks in the happy room, when compared to the people who failed at them in the regular room tended to ruminate longer and more intensely on their failures and report feeling more intense negative emotions. This suggests that even an unconscious exposure to the happiness ideal can have these pressure-inducing effects and result in “worse” mood states and for longer periods of time.

So, should we blame our western culture for the way we feel and react in certain situations? That is not what I’m suggesting at all… but rather, we should be aware that these cultural messages we receive up to hundreds of times per day may be subconsciously experienced as pressure that doesn’t have to be real. Awareness is key in fighting the happiness ideal. Remember this blog, remember that around us people are certainly acting happy to persuade us of something, and that you do not have to be or remain a feeling follower.

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