After recovering from depression, how to get from functioning to happy?
January 19, 2014 7:25 AM   Subscribe

I spent much of my teens and 20s suffering from severe depression, anxiety, and OCD. During those years, I saw many therapists and tried many forms of treatment. Now I'm in my 30s and feel comfortable saying that for the last few years I've been stable. I know how to handle my lingering issues but pretty much have things under control. However, despite being "stable", most of the time I honestly feel kind of neutral and sort of empty. I often feel content enough, or just grateful to be alive and healthy, but it's been a long time since I've felt genuine joy, excitement, or a real spark in my life. After recovering from depression, is there any way to get past simply "functioning" and perhaps to "happy"?

A little more info: I am female, and the conditions of my life are at this point pretty great - married to a wonderful man, working at a fulltime job that pays well, and most importantly, pretty much recovered from some pretty horrible depression and anxiety issues that plagued me for most of my young life. I've been off meds for several years, and I no longer feel the need to go to therapy - I maintain my sanity through a careful routine of yoga, exercise, eating well, writing morning pages, getting enough sleep, and practicing some of the tools I learned through years of therapy, namely CBT exercises to control negative/obsessive thoughts, taking things "one day at a time", and being mindful and grateful for the many things I do have. When I get lazy about the above things, I start to feel worse, so I'm pretty good/strict about keeping myself on track.

However, even though I am absolutely thrilled to be healthy and functioning again - something I definitely do not take for granted - it makes me a little sad that I seem to have lost my personality through all those years of struggle. A lot of the time, I just feel like a functioning yet sort of empty shell. I don't feel sad or depressed, but I just sort of feel... well, not much. I know "feeling nothing" can be a sign of depression, but having been through severe depression, this is different. I intellectually know to look at my life with "gratitude", and I can look at my life and how far I've come and feel genuinely grateful and contented by that, but at the end of the day, I see my husband, friends, and colleagues feeling passionate about things, and having hobbies/careers/projects they can lose themselves in, and I feel weird because I don't really have anything like that.

I'm good at my job, but I don't really care about it or the industry I'm in (which is the field I have my degree in). If I left tomorrow I geniunely wouldn't care. I've been casually job hunting for a couple years, but I'm not really sure what to look for - I don't know what different sort of job or field would make me happy, and none of the job listings I see make me think "a-ha! that's what I'd really love to do!" I also don't really have many close friends - I have friends and acquaintances that I like hanging out with in groups, and I'm not shy, but I do get awkward and a little stressed out when having one-on-one long conversations or outings. And when it comes to hobbies and interests, there's nothing I've found that *really* sparks my interest. I mean, I like writing, I like cooking, I like drawing/painting, and I'm trying to learn a new language. But if you told me hey, you need to give up those things tomorrow, I'd be like, eh, whatever, okay.

Maybe my baseline personality is just that I'm really boring. Or is this just what regular, non-tumultous, normal adult life is like? Is there still hope that I might find a calling of some sort, or even some sort of hobby that I get really excited about spending my free time on? It's frustrating because for years - from therapists, from yoga teachers, and from books, I've heard that the key to happiness is gratitude. But even though I do take the time, every day, to consider the good things in my life, and genuinely realize how much better I have it, I do not feel full. I feel empty. What can I do?

(and please don't tell me to go back to therapy. I have, and it hasn't really helped for this particular issue.)
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (15 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
The opposite of depression isn't happiness. The opposite of depression is pretty much what you're describing, honestly. Happiness is a very fleeting thing, that comes in fits and starts, and you really have to work hard to get it.

I found that when my depression was well-treated, I felt somewhat empty, because depression takes up a hell of a lot of space in your brain, and when it's not constantly there, I was wondering where the "good" things were to take its place. It just doesn't work that way.

Find happiness in things you like to do. If you are happy when you're laughing with friends, invite friends over. If you want happiness at your job (which is different from "fulfillment" or "profitable"), find another job. But don't confuse the absence of happiness with something wrong. Happiness isn't a constant state.
posted by xingcat at 7:29 AM on January 19, 2014 [15 favorites]

You don't mention children and whether or not you want them. It's your prime time. Do you want a baby? Is this a baby fever (or worse, a thwarted baby fever) disguised as anhedonia?
posted by crazycanuck at 7:42 AM on January 19, 2014

Maybe your baseline personality is that you're really steady and adaptable. Not every soul is passionate and ambitious. Do you laugh? I use that as my yardstick for mental health rather than happiness or joy because those emotions are exceedingly rare for me.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:52 AM on January 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you are feeling nothing it may be related to having a mild depression called dysthymia. Medication may increase the range of your mood.
posted by AlexiaSky at 8:14 AM on January 19, 2014 [4 favorites]

Yes, I was going to say what AlexiaSky said. You're intimately familiar with severe depression, but you may now have mild-to-moderate depression, and this may be something you're not recognizing as depression, since it's probably a bit different from what you've had in the past.

If it is mild-to-moderate depression, the work you are doing in your daily routine probably would be a treatment that any health professional would recommend, but if despite your efforts it persists, and you've responded well to meds in the past, it may be worth exploring that as an adjunct to what you are already doing.
posted by gubenuj at 8:27 AM on January 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Honestly? "Happy" simply may not be something you will ever experience for any meaningful length of time. You might get in bursts, when something positive happens in your life. But, speaking as someone under the thumb of chronic, lifetime depression, the best you may be able to achieve is "steady" or "level". And, honestly, compared to the depths of depression, that's pretty damned good. Maybe redefining "happy" to include "level" is in order?
posted by Thorzdad at 8:40 AM on January 19, 2014

I would also suggest that you're a little depressed right now. But that's ok! Keep upwith your self-care, and it will pass.

Also consider the idea of "all-or-nothing thinking" from CBT. Depression tends to focus on the negative, and it's easy to brush off a fleeting moment of happiness so you feel as though "everything is bad, overall." You may be treating happy moments as if they don't count.

I won't say I'm a happy person or know the secret to happiness, except that I know it comes from inside, and not from hobbies or friends or family. There's always something to criticize or be unhappy about, but you don't have to react that way. Easier said than done, for sure!
posted by jeweled accumulation at 9:13 AM on January 19, 2014

Congratulations on managing your depression/anxiety/OCD, first of all. That's no small feat.

I think I've been in the same boat as you quite a lot, OP: mentally well but feeling like I'm missing out on more. What I've found that helps is having something to give me a sense of direction: a long-term goal, or something that I can gradually improve in. It doesn't have to be big, and it doesn't have to be your entire life, just as long as it's something you find worth the time and can feel proud of.

There's also a good deal of pleasure in taking care of myself, I've found, especially if I can feel the results right away. Being able to manage my depression has made me more aware of how certain things have a real and immediate effect on my mood. Things like getting some sunlight, exercise, going to bed when my brain tells me to, saving some of the ice cream for later, doing chores, not getting into pissing matches online, and all that stuff. Whenever you do these sorts of things, take a moment to note how you feel afterward, and if it's a good feeling, take a little time to bask in it. This is more immediate, concrete, and achievement-oriented than attempting to cultivate gratitude for your general circumstances (which isn't really terrific advice, anyway: sometimes it works, sometimes it makes you feel like an ass because you have it better than others and thus shouldn't be unhappy, yet you are).

Suggestions for activities that combine the above two things: running, meditation, dressing well and developing a personal style, cooking all of your meals from scratch, a long-term writing project like a novel, etc.

Don't worry about passion or finding something you can lose yourself in. Some of us just aren't wired to enjoy things in that all-consuming way. I have a tendency to dabble in hobbies, or to get obsessed for a few months and then lose interest, and it's fine. Enjoyment, challenge, and progress are what matters. You don't need a calling to start a journey.
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:24 AM on January 19, 2014 [4 favorites]

I've been working with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for a few years now, and one of the things that I really like about it is that it makes me think about what I want in my life (my goals, my aspirations) rather than only focusing on what I don't want in my life (depression, anxiety, numbness).

You're currently successful with one process which is focussed on holding depression at bay. This is a wonderful achievement. However, it is not the same process as the cultivation of happiness, joy, satisfaction, etc.

I agree with those above that not all of us lose ourselves in passions. Personally, I am introverted and I like tinkering with things by myself on weekends. I'm the type of person to do a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle and then tear it up immediately when I'm finished. I'm just not interested in the end result, it's the tinkering and puzzling that I enjoy.

There's something about having the Ultimate All-Consuming Passion that scares me off a bit. I can't really articulate it, but it's not attractive to me. I suppose I am a bit intimidated by it — how does one choose? What if I made the wrong choice?

Is that part of it? Is it possible that you do see a route towards a deeper passion but it conflicts with your depression management and so you opt out? Are you making a choice to stay in a safe zone so you can stay in the not-depressed zone?

If that is the case, are there things within the safe zone that you can do to cultivate joy? This could be as small as giving yourself permission to opt out of some long one-on-one conversations, or having a regular dinner party with a group.
posted by heatherann at 9:38 AM on January 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

I hear you with this, very very much so. I like the approach Metroid Baby outlines above. To more or less reiterate: when you are depressed, the self-destructive and darkly-self-soothing parts of you set the agenda, lead your thoughts, and determine how your time and energy are directed. When you have more of a choice, and feel stabler, you sometimes have this cleared out, somewhat disoriented sense of inner silence. Calm, but calm-ish. Relaxed, but realxed-ish.

What's great about this point is that you get to relearn the things that you just automatically, intrinsically enjoy, the energy that you naturally project, the things that bring you the world. Those voices might feel faint, but they are certainly there. Your task now is to listen actively and openly to yourself. Kind of like being kind and patient to a young kid and enjoying as they open up to you. This might lead to creative projects, trips to check out things that have always fascinated you, new friendships based on interests you haven't given yourself a chance to explore, a period of reading or learning, a new dog, whatever!

I also relate to what you say about the gratitude mantra. I mean, it's great to feel like your life is full and richly dependent on others. But I think that has to be accompanied with some kind of personal practice of its fullness -- again, an active listening to those little blips of interest and passion and curiosity in you. You are most certainly not boring, so don't waste time worrying about that! I find a lot of solace in treating myself like a patient, kind of amused friend sitting with myself as a child, who is quiet and occasionally inept but ultimately full of things to say.
posted by elephantsvanish at 10:38 AM on January 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

I just wanted to chime in and say that I thought this was a really great question. I'm coming from more of a place of sympathy with the question than having a good answer. I just wanted to throw it out there that you mentioned hobbies a few times and I wonder if what might be missing is a feeling that psychologists call "flow," which is immersion in work or a creative outlet such that time seems to be passing more quickly and you are wholly engaged. I don't know how you create that from scratch, but have you ever thought of setting a goal for yourself for one of your present hobbies? If you like to write, what about starting a novel? Or a memoir of what you have been through. For me I am a pianist and I get really engaged and driven by listening to the really great pianists and saying to myself, "I want to be about to do THAT." Is there an painter or writer or artist that has ever sparked something like that for you?
posted by mermily at 11:36 AM on January 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

What's the role of travel in your life? I find that travel, while definitely posing a challenge to the regularity of a self-care routine, is like an injection of spontaneity, serendipity, hope and delight into regular life. I often have peak moments during travel that, in recalling them, increase my sense of overall happiness and sometimes do point the way towards new, deeper interests to pursue. Novel experiences - that you seek out - are very powerful.
posted by Miko at 7:39 PM on January 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

As a Bipolar II, my highs tend to be what everyone else calls low! Not really, but I am well acquainted with depression and dysthymia. There's good advice above, so please consider it. I want to strongly second finding your passion as well as setting a goal. Set easily achievable goals that are milestones on the way to a harder--but still achievable--goal. Fulfillment isn't necessarily happiness, but it certainly is one of the things that promotes happiness.

Happiness is a very fleeting thing, that comes in fits and starts, and you really have to work hard to get it.

I want to both agree and disagree with this statement. Happiness is fleeting, but there is an afterglow that can be summoned when you think of what makes you happy. It won't last forever, but now, several hours later, I can think back to this morning and still smile as I remember how a maneuver I finally accomplished with my horse made me happy--for that brief instant.

I don't think you can work hard at being happy. The more you pursue it, the further away it seems to recede. What you can work hard at is the things that can make you happy and fulfilled--being creative, working with animals, being physically active, helping others.
posted by BlueHorse at 8:27 PM on January 19, 2014

I recommend reading Jenny Diski and her wonderful and funny review of the book the "Happiness Project" by Gretchen Rubin. (Incidentally she is readable on any subject but her Diary articles for the LRB which touch on mental health are a revelation to an 'outsider' to these issues like myself).
posted by dry-jim at 12:15 AM on January 20, 2014

It makes me a little sad that I seem to have lost my personality

"Personality" is a whole constellation of traits and habits, and like anything else being sparkly takes practice. What were you like before your depression? Many people settle down as they age. If you were depressed during your transformative years, is it possible your memory of being "more yourself" is skewed to a younger, wilder person?

Use your CBT and mindfulness training to identify points in your day where you could respond like a happier, less boring version of yourself. I have an alterego called "Future Fritillary" who acts like me, only better! She's the girl I want to be. I think, "What would Fritillary do," then "What would Future Me do?" It's so I can short circuit my natural reactions. After using her for a few years our personalities have converged, so I don't have to take her off the shelf nearly as often. Maybe you need a similar model... fake it 'til you make it, right?

Everything you list is externally oriented. You can be passionate about things besides hobbies you know. Abstract ideas, or process, or the art of conversation, or being really good to your friends and husband and yourself.
posted by fritillary at 3:01 PM on January 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

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