On Mental Illness: Permission to Be Happy

By Jack Bragen
Saturday September 17, 2011 - 10:01:00 AM

The truism: “life is what happens while you’re waiting,” is very applicable to people who are struggling to recover from mental illness. Frequently, people are unhappy because they believe they should not be happy. A lot of people believe that before they can be happy they need to fix their perceived adverse life circumstances. This is not always true. This partial erroneous belief is present in the minds of people at large and not just those who have a mental illness. Abe Lincoln said: “Most people are about as happy as they make up their mind to be.” 

Persons with mental illness are more of a work in progress than most people. We need to enjoy the journey because, for one thing, it could end at any moment. A person can go through their life without succeeding at what they set out to accomplish, and that has to be acceptable. Living in a boarding house, which is the fate of many persons with a mental illness (also known as a board and care), certainly doesn’t seem like much of a life. Yet, even such a possibly miserable existence can have happy moments, such as a visit to the library, going out to get a cup of coffee, or spending time with another mentally ill person. Whatever someone’s circumstances are, no where is a law written that a person must be miserable at all times. 

An important step could be to acknowledge a source of misery and how one is being affected by it. For example, someone could say: “I am unhappy because I don’t have a job,” or “I am working in a low level job and I know that I am capable of much more…” And then once the offending life circumstance gets acknowledged, a person can set it aside mentally and choose to be happy about other things in life that are going well. For example: “I have a date for Friday night and I’m not going to think about my dumb job.” 

The above examples don’t follow a Buddhist model of non attachment in which a person is not supposed to get upset about anything. Instead, I am giving weight to life circumstances as possible real sources of misery. In the absence of hope, any attempt at happiness could be merely escapism. Becoming a student, a volunteer, or even a hobbyist, not to mention getting employment, are all ways to creating hope in one’s life. It is not necessarily important that one succeeds at the things one tries, as long as one keeps trying. You could have a dozen failures in a row at the things you’re trying to do, but this is better than sitting around and drinking beer while gossiping with your buddies all day. One route may or may not lead to something, while the route of sitting around definitely leads nowhere. 

Aside from a person not creating something to look forward to, lack of happiness can often be attributed to negative and self-critical thinking. If you are already engaged in some type of meaningful activity, and yet you are still unhappy most of the time, it might be a case of being persecuted by your own thoughts. A person can also naturally be unhappy due to tragedies or problems in life. One hopes this type of unhappiness is temporary and goes away when the crisis is solved. It is not reasonable to expect yourself not to have a reaction to events in life. The ones that I have heard espousing non reactivity to life circumstances were in a cult; their techniques delivered cultism but did not deliver the state of bliss that was promised. 

Concerning unhappiness due to negative thinking patterns, it might be good to explore the thinking with a written exercise. If you can identify the exact thoughts that are inflicting pain on you, you can then dismiss those thoughts individually. The more specific you are the better are your chances for getting such a release. 

Again, sometimes we may feel that we are not “allowed” to be happy because of not meeting some standard in life, such as a level of financial security that we perceive is adequate, or the perception of an adequate social life. Or we might disallow our own happiness because of thinking we are overweight, or thinking that we don’t have abdominal muscles that are good enough. The mind can invent any reason why we should not be happy. When we grant permission to ourselves to be happy, it can be like a giant relief. 

Being unhappy is sometimes an indicator that medication is needed to correct a problem in the brain that is causing pain directly. Also, unhappiness can be caused by a disturbing environment, such as if you live among people who fight. It can be caused by not heading in a positive direction in life. And it can be caused by negative thoughts. Each of these categories should be addressed in the quest for feeling better.