Sunday, January 27, 2013

Happiness and Depression

And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?  Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents.

So I had the wonderful opportunity today to attend my parents' ward, the ward I grew up in--and the even more wonderful opportunity to attend actual classes that weren't aimed at 3-year-olds.  I didn't realize until today how much I actually missed those classes.

The EQ lesson was on being happy.  Things were going well, and then someone noticed a bit of a problem--Abraham Lincoln was by most accounts a great guy, and yet he wasn't often very happy.  I should have brought up George Albert Smith's apparent depression and anxiety disorders at this point--the poor man spent literal years in bed suffering from it, and it affected him quite tremendously when doing missionary work.  Of course, he then went on to be the prophet, although I imagine he probably still struggled with his mental health issues.

Prior to that point, the lesson had been on how to be happy--it's a choice, and our choice in how to behave (be productive, choose the right, etc.) combined with a decision to be happy leads to happiness.

I'm fine with that, as a general idea.  But once Lincoln was brought up, I thought it essential to bring up depression (the mental illness, not the phase).  Essentially, I stated that happiness is difficult for some not because of sin or other issues like that, but because of genetics--mental illnesses are just as real as physical illnesses, and they can affect happiness.

I was disappointed by the response, to say the least.  Basically, it was this: people who are depressed can get out of it and become happy by turning their lives around and by stopping their sinful ways.

I was a lone voice.  And a visitor.  When I was EQ President that idea would've died a quick death--I would have killed it quickly and firmly--but I wasn't in a position to deal with it like that here.

I think there are three things that determine how happy we are.  First, our choices.  Second, our genes.  And third, our environment.  We have full control over our choices, no control over our genes, and no control over the part of our environment that's not controllable by our choices (and much of our environment we have no control over).

Mental illness, whether depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, or whatever, is largely hereditary.  Anxiety and probably other disorders run on my mother's side of the family, and many of us have varying degrees of these illnesses.  I should also mention that those with these illnesses often seem to suffer from higher IQs.  Genes largely control this (although the genes may be triggered by environmental factors).  Someone with untreated depression--not just the phase, but the mental illness--is going to have an extremely difficult time being happy, regardless of how righteous they are.  I'm not going to say it's always impossible, but often it may be.  And if you have the mental illness, it's not like alcoholism (which some well-meaning soul brought up in the class to try to prove that we always have a choice, even if we're depressed).  With alcoholism, there's no huge desire for it unless you actually become addicted to it, and you don't become addicted to it if you never try it.  How is that at all comparable to a mental illness?  If you have a mental illness and you're ever conscious, you're going to suffer from that mental illness.  Not at all like alcoholism.

Our environment also makes a huge difference.  I take that word from my biology background, but I could also call it our situation and surroundings.  I've been unemployed and very worried about ever finding work, and I've been self-employed and very worried about making enough money to pay the bills.  Being unemployed was the worse of the two, but both are very difficult places to be at.  And, at least for me, it's a lot more difficult for me to be happy in those situations.  Last month I wasn't getting business and I was very worried about paying the bills.  This month I've gotten three new clients and I'm not so worried anymore, although continuing to get new business is always a concern.  Am I happier this month?  Oh yeah.  Because it looks like my family's basic needs will be taken care of, and so a huge amount of stress has largely disappeared.  I'm not any more righteous now than I was last month--I'm just having better luck with how the business is going.

I think many church members who aren't unhappy like to attribute any happiness they have to their personal righteousness, and any unhappiness others have to those individuals' wickedness.  And here enters pride, in one of its many forms.
The blind man wasn't to blame for his blindness, and unhappy people are often not to blame for their unhappiness.  Happiness has never been a marker of righteousness, at least not in this life.


Jenni said...

There was a FABULOUS podcast dealing with this. The bishop of the ward in question actually had a member of the ward (who is a mental health professional) do a presentation for the EQ/RS combined meeting.
Then someone in the ward was so impressed that they took it to the podcast and had him do it there.

It's here

Aaron Jorgensen said...

I think that, in general, people are too quick to downplay any problem that they're not familiar with, whether that be sins and temptations, or other difficulty in lives. I think President Uchtdorf's statement, "Don't judge me because I sin differently than you." can be extended to all sorts of life situations, not just sin. It's easy to dismiss pain that we're not familiar with.

Tim said...

Definitely easier to dismiss this kind of thing when you're entirely ignorant of it. A lot of people suffer from mental illness, but most of them keep it under wraps, which unfortunately creates the illusion that such illnesses don't exist. There's also a stigma attached to these illnesses, especially within the church. That needs to change.

I also love that Uchtdorf used that quote.