How to properly enjoy happiness?
October 6, 2015 10:03 AM   Subscribe

I realize this is almost a bratty question to ask, but it's giving me a hard time. I am happy. Things are going well. I feel like I'm looking at a pretty sunset and thinking "eh, okay. enough of that. ho hum." How can I maximize my enjoyment (?) of this blessedly uncomplicated time in my life without screwing it up?

If it's not already clear, I am being treated for depression and as far as I can tell, the meds are working. Maybe too well? I've got a great job; my living situation is good and about to get better; my family is all in good health; I'm insanely happy in love with my fiance.

I think forward to what the coming months and years will bring--the big crescendo moments of weddings, children being born, etc., and I have no idea how I will handle it without retreating into some worry shell because I feel more comfortable worrying.

My first reaction to all of this is feel guilty, then to invent or exaggerate problems so that I have something to chew on. But I don't want to do that. Instead, I could...make art about it? But there is no art about happiness! Only depression!

How do you, Mefites, enjoy an enjoyable thing? If you have book, art, or other media recommendations, I'd appreciate that as well. I've spent so much of my life dealing with crises and feeling depressed that I'm a bit lost in this new happy territory, and I don't want to waste it.
posted by witchen to Human Relations (21 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
How can I maximize my enjoyment (?) of this blessedly uncomplicated time in my life without screwing it up?

First step is recognizing that you can't screw this up. There's literally nothing to screw up here. You experience a thing how you experience it. You experience this time in your life how you experience it. There isn't a wrong way. To this bystander, it seems like maybe there are echoes of your depressive thought patterns that are still dominating your mind right now and telling you that oh, you might feel better now but stakes are high and doom doom doom. That's not truth, it's depression brain. Are you doing any kind of CBT or talk therapy in addition to meds? That can help you break or rewrite some of these trains of thought.

But there is no art about happiness! Only depression!

Well that's patently untrue. Plenty of art is about things that are not depression. Depression has a certain artistic glamour in our society but there are artists and creative folk out there who are very consciously grounding their work in joy and sincerity and levity. (Mefi's own Jesse Thorn comes to mind--his entire podcast network is called Maximum Fun, after all.) and again, this kind of all-or-nothing thinking could possibly be a remnant of more depressive thought patterns, and you may find that it fades away as treatment continues or if you incorporate something like CBT.

All that said, what you're experiencing is pretty common. Regardless of mental health issues, people tend to have a hard time stopping to smell the roses, as it were. But as someone who's also struggled with depression, I definitely know that feeling of "oh my god, stuff is real great it turns out, MUST DEVOUR ALL THE GREAT STUFF before depression returns, why is there not constant joy yet, there should be constant joy!" But you just can't force it. Do a little mindfulness, maybe; let both the positive and the negative feelings wash over you more, try to stop critiquing them. And be patient. It took a long time after my last episode for me to get that kind of body-filling, goofy-smiling joy out of sunlight on the trees. Depression is exhausting. Give yourself some time.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:19 AM on October 6, 2015 [3 favorites]

Negative visualisation!

Have a good job? Spend a few moments every day thinking about losing that job and being forced to work a really shitty, unfulfilling job. really imagine it's happening. And once you're done, open your eyes, like waking up from a bad dream, and remind yourself how great your job is.

Family in good health? Spend a few moments every day imagining that your family members have just died and you are left alone without them. When you go to hug your mother, imagine that you are hugging her for the last time because she is about to die. When you're done, wake up from your nightmare and realize how lucky you are to still have living family members that love you unconditionally.

In love with your awesome fiancé? Spend a few moments every day thinking about your fiancé going off to war and getting killed in a shell attack. then wake up from the nightmare and relish in the delight of having your dearest one beside you.

If all of this sounds crazy, just know that I didn't make it up, it's part of ancient Stoic philosophy.

I recommend reading the Stoic text On the Shortness of Life as well as A Guide to the Good Life : The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (recommended to me by jpeacock in this thread.
posted by winterportage at 10:19 AM on October 6, 2015 [14 favorites]

I started looking for Perfect Moments. Something about labeling them as such makes them stand out so much more, and it has been shocking to realize just how often they happen even in the course of humdrum daily life now that I'm being watchful for them.
posted by anderjen at 10:23 AM on October 6, 2015 [4 favorites]

Share it.

Be really nice to people, but not in a fake way. Give $10.00 to a homeless dude. Donate every time one of your friends posts a "please donate to my Out With Gout Walkathon" thing on Facebook. Invite friends over and cook them awesome meals or just coffee. Pay someone's tab at a bar. Volunteer your time helping build a playground or something. compliment people. Tell people you love them or just appreciate them. Adopt a kitten.

Make other people happy.
posted by bondcliff at 10:23 AM on October 6, 2015 [30 favorites]

Share it.

yes. you're only ever as good as you give.
posted by philip-random at 10:29 AM on October 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

If you're depressed, I would worry about catastrophising/ruminating on how bad things could be during your happy moments. Your brain is already good at telling you how bad they could be.

One treatment for depression that some find helpful is mindfulness, more formally through programs like mindfulness-based cognitive behavioural therapy (MBCT). One part of that could be taking the time, when you are experiencing something nice, to check in with yourself - body and mind, and really try to notice everything that you're experiencing in that moment.

For a concrete example, try pausing sometime when you're feeling happy and take a three-minute breathing space as guided by tracks 8 or 9 on this page. That link is to a companion site for a workbook for a whole MBCT program/system, but I think the breathing spaces can kind of work as a stand alone.

Maybe after you take the breathing space, you take another few minutes to jot down what you were feeling/experiencing. Maybe that might inspire you to some other creative activity?
posted by sparklemotion at 10:29 AM on October 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Meaning is more concrete and important than happiness which is a nebulous concept and it can never be "enough". That's just how we're wired. Think about what gives you meaning and do more of that. You will be happy and appreciate it.

And there is so much art about happiness that I'm not sure if that was just a really dry joke. :)
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 10:48 AM on October 6, 2015 [3 favorites]

I think meditating helps with this. We're always so bombarded with thoughts/worry/etc that we are unable to just sit and enjoy the moment.

I've had some luck with Headspace, 15 minutes a day. Very helpful.
posted by getawaysticks at 10:51 AM on October 6, 2015 [3 favorites]

Cultivate gratitude and acknowledge impermanence. You have a greater appreciation for things that you know you won't always have. Gratitude is the salt that brings out the flavor of all experience.

To be clear, you can be grateful for something without being grateful to someone/something for the thing you are grateful for.

A gratitude journal is a good way to get into practice with this.

Impermanence is the big one, though. When we really get it that everything ends, we stop taking shit for granted.

All meetings end in separation
All accumulation ends in dispersion
All life ends in death.

The Buddha said that ^^^, and on that tv show Men of a Certain Age, Ray Romano's bookie says to him "Every hundred years, all new people." These things are very comforting and edifying for me. Maybe they will be to you, too.
posted by janey47 at 11:17 AM on October 6, 2015 [14 favorites]

just some ideas that others haven't said (i think):

1 - you don't need to enjoy things! in sense this is the luxury of being normal. you can get lost in life and the cool bits will still be there, peeking through the cracks. when you make a cup of tea, kick of your shoes, and stop, for a moment, it's there. when you need it. there's no need to overdose now, to prepare for some unhappy tomorrow.

2 - you can also take more control of your life, dropping things you don't want to do, or don't look forwards to. weddings are not compulsory. and a small, simple wedding is ok too...
posted by andrewcooke at 11:23 AM on October 6, 2015

1. Learn to play a musical instrument.
2. If you already play an instrument, learn another one.

Once of the great regrets of my life is that I never put in the time to learn to play something.
posted by Billiken at 12:07 PM on October 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Mindfulness meditation
posted by mermily at 1:12 PM on October 6, 2015

I think I know the feeling. Kind of that feeling when you're on vacation and you're either thinking about how you've only got a few days left or about how someone could be breaking into the house right now.

I had a few years where everything sort of clicked into place and hummed along very nicely for a while, and I had that undercurrent of anxiety, too. I can't say that I ever squashed the anxiety for good, but I generally kept it in check. And life did eventually knock things out of balance for me, and I've had to adjust, but I didn't crash. Having those halcyon days gave me the motivation to continue looking for that sort of happiness, and I think I've gotten better at finding it.

A big part of getting the most out of the good times, I think, is to pay attention to the background noise, the things that are there when you're not actively living! life! to the fullest! There's a lot of pressure to fill our lives with events and adventures, and that attitude can backfire: there's always more that can be stuffed in, and there are always going to be things that fizzle or days when you can't be bothered. Let those happen. Let time go to waste. Let yourself worry now and then, even. But when you catch yourself thinking "this is really lovely weather" or "these shoes are really comfy," let that observation hang out in your mind for a little bit. It's become sort of a cliche to appreciate the little things, but it works, and here's why: the little things are always there. You don't have to expend any additional effort to seek them out, and you don't have to actively enjoy them every single time to get the benefit. If the sunset doesn't move you today, there's another one tomorrow.

There are a couple of Calvin and Hobbes strips that express this appreciation for simplicity that I've taken to heart: this one (mostly Calvin's dad's "How I love the crazy hedonism of weekends!") and the sandwich one.

And the good thing about fighting depression and winning, even if it's a temporary win for now, is that every day you're not depressed gives you an extra bit of knowledge about how the difference feels, and what to do if you need to fight again. You're gaining strength and experience.

Since you asked about art, I leave you with "The Orange" by Wendy Cope, which is a pretty accurate depiction of how this sort of "good" feels for me:
At lunchtime I bought a huge orange—
The size of it made us all laugh.
I peeled it and shared it with Robert and Dave—
They got quarters and I had a half.

And that orange, it made me so happy,
As ordinary things often do
Just lately. The shopping. A walk in the park.
This is peace and contentment. It’s new.

The rest of the day was quite easy.
I did all the jobs on my list
And enjoyed them and had some time over.
I love you. I’m glad I exist.
posted by Metroid Baby at 1:27 PM on October 6, 2015 [35 favorites]

Surround yourself with people who are lighthearted, sunny, friendly, and gentle. Then spend time with them talking and laughing and enjoying various outings...or innings, like a potluck dinner and fun chick flicks, or going to those wine and painting nights Groupon/Living Social are always offering.

If you don't have those people around you, then think up making care packages with small stuff or baked goods and a card, just to delight them (as you would be delighted if they sent that to you). I did that a couple of times this past summer, and I felt pretty excited to surprise them, and felt a wonderful sense of well-being, which I felt consistently throughout the whole baking/packaging/writing out handwritten cards/taking to the post office steps because I was really excited at the prospect of them getting mail.

We're not too old to send each other care packages at camp, even if we've graduated to the Camp of Being Adults with Responsibilities. (I was actually inspired to get off my tush and make a few small care packages because one of my darlingest best friends of nearly 20 years now surprised me by sending me a box of awesome goodies she'd been collecting for me since January, along with a handwritten card and a photo of us from last year in a beautiful frame (!). I was so surprised and delighted. And since she did all that while being a doc in a very demanding hospital ER while having a new baby that's not even 6 months old yet, I had no excuse. She's always randomly sent little presents in the past--something she did as a med student. But I see now why! It's really relaxing and fun and fulfilling to send your mushy love and affection out into the world to the people in your life who will love and appreciate it. They feel special, you feel excited about surprising and delighting them randomly. It's super fun. (I think that's why Taylor Swift does it. It just feels good.)

It is really good for your heart and soul to tell people you love and care for them, and are thinking of them, maybe when they least expect it. (And yes, I'm very sober (though highly caffeinated) in making this suggestion.
posted by discopolo at 2:24 PM on October 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

Yup it's super weird. I'm not happy right now (transitions are hard and my life is in flux) but I've been where you are and didn't know what to do with myself.

Create! Produce! Make cool stuff! Plenty of art is not about sadness. The entire Arts and Crafts movement was about functionality, for example. Make something useful and cool!

And share, like was said so eloquently above.
posted by sockermom at 2:47 PM on October 6, 2015

Ah! So glad I found this post. That poem Metroid Baby just posted has eloquently described how I have been feeling lately.

To summarise I have been very down due to several bereavements and at one point depressed during the past five years. Until, I would say, about half way through this year everything changed. I have felt relatively happy ever since...and, like you, I sort of keep waiting for something to go wrong!

Ultimately...this is life. Something has to go wrong at some point. So enjoy your happiness to the maximum I say!
posted by Kat_Dubs at 7:04 PM on October 6, 2015

How do you, Mefites, enjoy an enjoyable thing?

By approaching life from a perspective of innocence, humility, wonder. From such standpoint: everything--from the mere fact that one exists, that one is able to experience pain and pleasure and all the beautiful nuances in between--can eventually be appreciated as an unearned privilege of being human that we should honor and celebrate as often as possible.
posted by tackypink at 8:02 PM on October 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think it depends on what medications you are taking and how long you expect to take them. When I began the meds I have been on for the last 30 years, my shrink said, "You know, if these work you're going to take them for the rest of your life." They did, and I am. But I found that they resulted in no elevation of my "happiness". Life was the same, it just didn't seem like doom. Your description of your current happiness (which I am sure, believe me, is real) makes me wonder if you are on a regimen you expect to maintain "forever", or something more temporary which you expect to "fix" something and eventually stop.

So far as happiness itself goes, it is nothing you earn, deserve, are responsible for, owe anything for, etc., etc. It is a blessing you have at the moment, and anything you can do to take advantage of it is what you should do. (I realize that was your question to begin with.) But what I am trying to say is, it's yours, enjoy it in any way that occurs to you, and if nothing occurs to you, what the hell, you're happy anyway. You don't have to do anything, just relax and enjoy it.

And if it stops, you'll have it to look back on as an example of what life can be like, if you're lucky. It's all luck, sweetie, take it without questioning it for as long as you can.

Or what tackypink said.
posted by carping demon at 9:22 PM on October 6, 2015

Funny, I almost posted a similar question recently. I remember from the 90's touching on the burden of happiness.

So glad you posted this, and glad for the great answers. I put a lot of pressure on myself to enjoy things while they're good. It's ridiculous. One thing that helps is to tell myself that I will get used to things going well and I will take it for granted that the earth is not always on the verge of swallowing me up. Adjusting to happiness is a change like any other, and it takes time, so don't pressure yourself.

When I feel good, I make it a point to check in with friends who've been there when I felt bad. They're happy to see me in better spirits, and they are also glad that they can spill their troubles without getting me down.

One thing that can be nice is to keep a record (diary, photos, note on your phone) of things that are beautiful/fun/etc or that you're grateful for. Congratulations on the work you did that helped you get to a better-feeling place, and I hope you start maximizing all that good.
posted by mermaidcafe at 9:24 PM on October 6, 2015

While it's great to cultivate gratitude and mindfulness, I would caution you not to work too hard at being "happy." When you have depression, sometimes you're going to feel "meh" or worse about everything. This is not a moral failing, it's just brain chemistry. And it can be counterproductive to feel like something's wrong with you because your life is so great and yet you're not appreciating it enough.

I think the most helpful thing to shake off those gray feelings is self-care. Specifically:

- Allow yourself to just feel and accept your feelings without analyzing them. Acknowledge that your feelings are both temporary and cyclical. Don't beat yourself up for not feeling the way you think you should; strive not to have a "should" at all.

- Get lots of sleep, daily exercise, be out in the sunlight, reach out to loved ones, try to make your downtime productive or restorative. I find that the happiness and gratitude comes when I'm doing all these things, when I am relaxed and healthy and connected enough to be able to appreciate it, not when I'm explicitly trying to find happiness and gratitude.
posted by chickenmagazine at 9:06 AM on October 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

i'm reading an interesting book - one that was recommended in this askme answer - and while i'm only on the introduction it raised an interesting issue that reminded me of this thread (and myself, to some extent). if i understand it correctly (and i may not - it's pretty dense) then it's discussing the idea that we may not learn, as children, to correctly identify all out emotions. in which case it may be that it's not so much that you are not happy, but that you don't realise it.

which may have been what you were asking about, i guess.

anyway, if you feel like toiling through the huge book, it's in the link above. or maybe google the authors names for interviews or something.

since i've only read the intro, i may be completely wrong, but my impression is that the basic idea is that when we say to a (happy) child, "who's a happy little baby? you are! you are!" (and smiling) the baby is actually picking up on that as a mirror of itself, and learning that what it is feeling (happy) is the face that it is seeing (happy). and so, extrapolating to adult therapy, presumably you need to stop, in moments when you presumably are happy, and think NOT "why am i not happy now?" but rather "huh, so this is what being happy is".

anyway, i should read the rest of the book.
posted by andrewcooke at 1:55 PM on October 9, 2015

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