Is happiness fleeting?
November 21, 2005 7:21 PM   Subscribe

I'm happy for the first time in my life. Really, amazingly happy. Only, I still have lots of big goals I'd like to accomplish in my life, and I'm worried that any moves I make toward these goals will take me away from the things I love so much about my life. What should I do?

I'm 27. From grade school through college graduation, I was pretty nearly constantly depressed. I also had some big problems with anxiety.

In the five years since I graduated from college, every year of my life has been better than the year before. I've overcome some of my insecurities, gotten to know myself better and for the past three or four years I've felt as though I was past my depression.

Now, though, I've entered a new mental state where I really just love a lot about my life, and when I'm not concentrating on something else I count my blessings and think about how lucky I am.

Why am I so lucky?

I am in love with my job. For the last five years, I've been pursuing the same career goals, and even though I still have a long way to go before I get where I want to be, I've made progress. I feel like I'm making progress every day, in fact, like I'm developing new skills and growing intellecutally. My boss pushes me to work hard, and appreciates my efforts when I succeed. My co-workers are, for the most part, smart, creative and hard working. We do fun things together outside of work, even.

I am in love with Mr. Anonymous. I've been seeing the same guy for just under four years, living him for two and a half years, and we're getting married next summer. He's my best room, we have common interests, he appreciates me and makes me feel good about myself and I think I do the same for him. At the same time, we have different friends and hobbies and spend plenty of time on our separate pursuits. He's cool about my feminism issues and my money issues, he also doesn't want kids, he's willing to move across the country for my career even if it hurts his job prospects, and the sex just keeps getting better.

I've also started eating better, exercising (semi) regularly and taking flax seed oil, all moves that improve my physical and mental health, I believe.

So what's the problem?

Well, not everything in my life is where I'd like it to be, and there are some major changes I'd like to make.

Even though I love what I do for a living and the people I work with, I'd like to work for a bigger, more prestigious organization. Right now I make less than $30,000 per year, and I know that people with as much experience as me are making twice that. With car loans, student loans, credit card debt, and dreams of someday owning a house, I want to make more money. I also want the advantages that come from working at a bigger organization in my field -- I'll be able to specialize more and delve deeper than I currently can.

I also really hate where I'm living (as does Mr. Anonymous). We moved 30 miles from the big city when I got this job, because it's halfway between his workplace and mine. We're living in a town of 5,000. There are two stop lights, two grocery stores, no movie theaters. There's nowhere to buy clothing or eat healthy food. We can take a short walk and find ourselves in cow pastures, but if we want to see the new Harry Potter movie or eat anything other than sour cream or beef we need to drive at least 20 miles. I thought I could handle the small town life, but it's really stifling.

Also, I live more than 2,000 miles away from most of my close friends and all of my family. I have some work friends really nearby, and a couple of close friends within a hundred miles, but it's hard having my fella as the only really physically and emotionally close friend in my life.

Mr. Anonymous and I have agreed that I should be looking for work at bigger organizations in cities closer to friends and family, we both want me to progress professionally and we both want to move. But I'm terrified to take the first step. I don't want to disrupt the equilibrium I've found.

After more than 20 years of depression and a couple of years of OK-ness, I don't want to leave this happiness behind.

I know it will never be this good again.

I see lots of questions on this board about dealing with depression. I want to know: once you kick that demon and cross over to the other side, how hard is it to stay there? Am I being needlessly neurotic? Is there anything I can do to follow my goals and still stay happy?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
make an appointment with a therapist.
posted by brandz at 7:32 PM on November 21, 2005

Second on the therapist. You clearly want to talk to someone, as shown by the very large amount of personal history you included, and you can't have a conversation here. But here's some advice anyway: :)

It's clear to me that you have already made up your mind. You want to move and you want a new job. You say you are happy now but it sounds to me like you are uneasy. How can you know that it will never be this good again? Sure, it will never be exactly what it is right now if you move, but what if everything that made you happy was still in your life, and you had a better job, in a better city, close to family and friends? Wouldn't it be even better than before?

Big life decisions are daunting and we will do everything in our power to avoid making them. In your case, you have invented the idea that nothing could possibly be better than your current situation, therefore you shouldn't move. But you already know that's not true.

Is there anything you can do to follow your goals and still stay happy? Yes, absolutely. It's easy. You just follow your goals, and listen to your gut, and the happiness follows naturally. Not following your goals is what leads to unhappiness and depression in the first place. Good luck.
posted by PercussivePaul at 8:20 PM on November 21, 2005

Sometimes for chronically depressed people, just knowing that you CAN be happy will help you turn things around if you start feeling depressed. The happiness you have found is not only because of outside sources, it's because of changes in the way you are thinking about your life and the way you feel about yourself. This new way of thinking and feeling is up to you to maintain, and can follow you through whatever situation you are in! You are happy, good for you! Hold on to that, and don't be afraid, you now know that even if things get bad, they can get better!
Having a therapist guide you through the process of preparing for the upcoming changes should take care of the anxiety you're going through now.
posted by nprigoda at 8:23 PM on November 21, 2005

The coping behaviors you've learned are excellent, especially the diet and exercise. In my experience, exercise alone has the power to make a person feel the way you're now feeling (it did for me, and I don't even have the sf part of the equation going on).

I'd just say -- as you're considering everything there is to be afraid of, also consider that things might be even better when you reestablish yourself. You can't stay risk-avoidant your whole life, because even if you tried to stay where you are and enjoy the equilibrium, life would happen and disrupt it. Life just doesn't stay static, and the only thing we can do about is try to manage change intentionally and take care of ourselves. You're doing that and doing well at it! Take the edge off by talking to a counselor -- sounds like anxiety is at work, and you can probably defuse it with a few sessions.
posted by Miko at 8:27 PM on November 21, 2005

I'm 27, too, and this year is the first time ever that I've felt like I had my shit together. I'm confident and consistently happy, and that's never happened before for a sustained period. Though I think my life situation contributes to the good stuff, I think it's got a lot more to do with maturity and those leftover teenage brain chemicals finally dispersing. So maybe this is it. Maybe this is what being grown up is like...a little less intense, but definitely smoother and more awesome.

A therapist is a good idea, because yes, you have things to talk about. But also: don't put too much stock in your surroundings. Past conditions contributed to your depression, but they didn't create it, and current conditions are not the only thing lifting you out of it now. I'll bet you could deal with much worse and/or different circumstances and feel just as good.
posted by climalene at 8:49 PM on November 21, 2005

You're simply growing out of your 20s. Get a counselor if you think you need one, but really, use some of your recent successes as confidence to make more bold steps.
posted by SeizeTheDay at 8:50 PM on November 21, 2005

How is she supposed to pay for a therapist on $30k/year?

cripes. Not to go all L-Ron but I don't really think she needs a therapist. She said she's the happiest she's been in her life.

Why don't you try demanding a raise at work? If you've been working there for a while, just tell them that you're worth it. It sounds like you're in a technical profession. Being paid half what your worth would be really distracting from all the other pleasures of working where you do. Maybe you could get a promotion too. (maybe then you could afford therapy *rolls eyes*)

I'd also recommend joining some clubs or groups in order to make new friends outside of work where you live. Put down some roots.
posted by Paris Hilton at 8:58 PM on November 21, 2005

How is she supposed to pay for a therapist on $30k/year?

Eh, they do sliding scales and stuff. And sometimes your insurance will cover it. I bet in this case, one single session would help.

I don't really think she needs a therapist. She said she's the happiest she's been in her life.

Therapists aren't just for when people feel crazy and sad. They are experts on human development and relations. They have a totally non-partisan perspective on your lfie, but they're on your side. They've got a lot of experience talking to people about life changes and helping think them through. Sometimes, going to talk to a counselor is about the best thing you can do, even if you do feel happy. When you reach a roadblock in your thinking and start going in circles, a professional can really help you untangle it, examining your assumptions, building confidence, and helping you go forward.
posted by Miko at 9:22 PM on November 21, 2005

In my opinion a lot of what you are saying chimes with the central tenets of Buddhism.

Existence is suffering, and the cause of suffering is desire. You are recognising that your current happiness will fade, and by desiring that it always continue you will only jeopardise that happiness.

This may sound depressing at first, but it can be liberating. Live in the moment, enjoy your happiness, and don't stress about life changing. Life will go on and there's nought you can do about that.
posted by bruceyeah at 9:23 PM on November 21, 2005

I know it will never be this good again.

That is because it will be even better. You seem to be defining your present happiness as some piece of undeserved good fortune, some safe harbor into which you have accidentally drifted. No! Your happiness is the result of the person you have become--competent, confident, upbeat, able to hold the love of a great person. A new job in a new town won't change the sources of your happiness. Go for it.
posted by LarryC at 9:38 PM on November 21, 2005

I second, third, and fourth the therapist idea.
posted by ryanhealy at 9:44 PM on November 21, 2005

Well, not everything in my life is where I'd like it to be, and there are some major changes I'd like to make.

I know exactly how you feel. After a couple decades of life being ho-hum, if not utterly depressing at points, everything (for the most part) is going so well that I can barely believe it. Except for the fact that, in addition to not really making enough money and not being exactly in the career that I'd like, I've got a few more goals to achieve.

Here's what I'm doing:
Don't sweat about making all of those major changes. You said that you're getting married. That is excellent and congratulations. That in and of itself is a major change. However, it's a very empowering change. When you're married, you'll be in a strong stable position that will afford you the comfort and confidence to really buckle down and make the changes that you want to see in your life. Having a partner through a transitive time has really helped me feel as though I can accomplish the things that I need to get done. It'll help you too, I'm sure.

I know it will never be this good again.

Wrong. Utterly and completely wrong. It gets better and better every day in ways that you can barely begin to imagine. To be honest, though, I still worry constantly about things that I know are unfounded, mostly about how the bottom is going to fall out of my life and that it's going to be miserable and depressing again. But, like I mentioned before, sharing this time with someone is very empowering. Your spouse will have confidence in you and will believe in you. Tell your fiance about your feelings about your life. He'll likely reassure you. Their opinion will rub off on you, believe me. Every day, with the help of my wife, I become more of the person that I've always wanted to be and I worry less and less about this amazing life evaporating away from me.

Advice: Don't worry. Now is the time to really enjoy your blessings. Take comfort in Mr. Anonymous. Keep your goals in sight and make them happen as you feel empowered to do so.

Am I being needlessly neurotic? Is there anything I can do to follow my goals and still stay happy?
Yes. You're being needlessly neurotic (I know because I often feel the same way). Following your goals will help you stay happy. Just approach it at a comfortable pace so you don't find yourself getting overwhelmed. I mean, you say that you don't want kids (and neither does Mr. Anon) so there's really no rush to get a life established so that you can bring a child comfortably into the world. Your goals are entirely for you, so take your time. It's worth it. You'll inevitably find yourself saying things like "But I'm nearly 30 and I've got all this debtfromschoolandcreditcardsandIshouldbemakingmoremoneyandmylifeischaosandallofmyfriendsalreadyownahouseandhowcanItakemyselfseriouslywhenIcan'tevencleanupthesedustbunnies? Just remember that you're living your life for yourself. You're enjoying the time that you're happy and you're soaking up every minute doing the things that make your life the joy that it's become. There's no use comparing yourself to your peers. Chances are, they're all wondering to themselves what your secret to happiness is.

Maybe a session with a therapist can help. Maybe call a friend who has some good common sense and tell them about how you feel. Maybe Dr. Mom can tell you a thing or two. I've found that the more I talk about it (to whomever), the clearer my plans become the the sillier my fears seem.
posted by Jon-o at 10:36 PM on November 21, 2005

Don't go overboard chasing the money. Sure, having a bundle is nice (well, speaking as one with a wildly varying salary history, where some of the data points are quite comfortable) but I don't think there's all that much correlation with job satisfaction and overall happiness. Know what your services are worth (which is not what you're worth!), and try to get paid accordingly, but don't compromise on things that are important to you just for the money.
E.g.: "I want to live in the big city, and I'll make more money, but I can't afford a house. I could live in an apartment, but then I can't have a dog. And I love dogs!" Take the dogs over the money, you'll be happier in the long run.
posted by spacewrench at 10:42 PM on November 21, 2005

It's pretty well established that desire and pleasure involve different parts of the brain; and that quite often, people will end up spending a lot of time doing things that are not pleasurable in order to pursue some desired goal - only to find out that having achieved it, they're not happy with the results and just as desirous of something else.

Personally, I think achievement is overrated; satisfaction is the thing - and the correct response to any suggestion that you're "not living up to your potential" is "f*ck you very much, have a nice day!"

If you love your job, keep doing it. There will always be people who get paid more than you do for doing comparable work elsewhere; there will also always be people who get paid less. A good job is like a good relationship - it's not something you want to kick in the head just because the grass looks greener elsewhere. In fact, the essence of what makes a job good is the quality of the relationships you have with the people you're working with.

IMO, the time to leave a job is when you're bored and fed up and frustrated, and not before.

Also, check with yourself what your goals are FOR. Did you set them while you still felt crappy? If so, now could be a good time to review them.

Seems to me that if you've got a warm place to sleep, enough food to eat, a partner you love and a job you enjoy doing, you're sitting pretty; don't f*ck that up without VERY careful consideration. If you keep paying more attention to what you have and what you need than you do to what you want, there is every chance that your present happiness will persist.

My best tip for getting through bad days is to remind yourself that everything changes; my best tip for enjoying good days is to concentrate on what's going on right now.
posted by flabdablet at 10:43 PM on November 21, 2005

"Therapists aren't just for when people feel crazy and sad. They are experts on human development and relations. "

Good ones, maybe. In my experience J Random Therapist is just as likely to be a misguided bullshit artist.

"I don't want to disrupt the equilibrium."

Bad news, kid. Life does not provide a stable equilibrium.

You're not doing great because of your circumstances. Review what you wrote - there's a lot to complain about, apparently. You're doing great because your inner resources, your strategies, your game, are now up to dealing with life. Go forth and prosper.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:17 PM on November 21, 2005

I second LarryC. This is what happiness is like. It doesn't have to end! I'm 28. I used to be depressed all the time, too. About 6 years ago, the days of depression ended. They have not come back for any more than a day or a day and a half (totally normal). Don't think that you don't deserve to remain happy or that happiness is some temporary state. Happiness is the default state. You must believe this.
posted by redteam at 3:07 AM on November 22, 2005

Right now I make less than $30,000 per year, and I know that people with as much experience as me are making twice that. With car loans, student loans, credit card debt, and dreams of someday owning a house, I want to make more money.

That's the main threat to your happiness right there. That's the American disease, that sense that more money = more happiness. (I know that's not what you're saying, but that's the thinking that lies behind what you're saying, especially "people with as much experience as me are making twice that." Who cares what other people are making? Are they happy?) A couple of years ago I was making more money than I ever thought I'd make in my life (no, it wasn't that much, especially in NYC, but I had low expectations). And I was miserable. Now I'm making hardly anything, but I'm happier than I've been in years. My advice? First, get rid of that credit card debt and don't let any more accumulate—credit card debt is a killer. Pay the card off in full every month, and if you can't make yourself do that, destroy it and pay cash for things. Second, don't make any moves purely for the sake of making more money. Move because you hate the small town and because you want to be closer to people, not because there are supposedly great financial opportunities in the place you're moving to.

If you get married and you and your guy both have decent incomes (and $30,000 is a decent income), you'll be able to get a car and eventually a mortgage; just make sure you get a safe and affordable car (we have a Saturn and love it), not a fancy one that will make passersby weak with awe and envy, and buy a house you can afford, not a big showplace that you cross your fingers and hope you can make the payments on. Live sensibly and place love and happiness far, far above money and prestige and you should be fine. And congratulations on having come so far at such a young age!
posted by languagehat at 6:15 AM on November 22, 2005 [1 favorite]

I just want to point out that you're dealing very well with change now -- every point you make about how great your life is mentions that it's getting better. It's already moving, changing, and growing, and that's not a bad thing.

I used to think of myself as someone who hated change to the point of being paralyzed by the thought of it. It helped to realize how much things are changing even when you're not making active efforts to change them -- or, as my father says, "Not making a choice is still making a choice."

I think it's great that you're not clutching at your current situation and trying to make everything stay *exactly the same* but instead letting things evolve. That seems to indicate that you are, in fact, coping and not just coasting.
posted by occhiblu at 7:15 AM on November 22, 2005

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