Where does happiness come from? They say it comes from within (who the heck is “they,” anyway?) …and I partially believe that. We need to “stay positive”–see the glass as “half full”–love ourselves–share our love with others–and if we do all of that, we should be happy. Right? Well what if we’re not? What if life has dealt so many blows that we can’t find that happiness anymore? Or that the chemical structure of our brain changes so it becomes almost impossible for us to be happy organically…then what?
I think of our culture today and how mindful we are about exercise, pesticides, brain health…and how advanced modern medicine has become. It’s remarkable to see people living, and living well, into their 80’s, 90’s and 100’s. This shift has led to a few different thought processes that I hear on a pretty regular basis. The first is, “I hope I can live that long!” We see people who are active and enjoying life, and we want that for ourselves. Another group of people may feel slightly ambivalent and will take what comes, not really reaching for it, but not fighting against age, either.
What I hear most often is not either of those two intentions. Most frequently I hear, “I hope I don’t live that long.”
I can only speak about the situations that I have encountered, and this is by no means meant to be a generalization. But if we are to be honest about life at 80, 90 or 100, we have to think about loss. How much has a centenarian lost in their life? Friends, family, independence? Perhaps mobility or the capability of making ones own decisions? These losses can be detrimental to one’s spirit–to their soul. The inability to decide when to eat lunch, or when to shower, can make it or break it for some. And when someone has encountered so much loss, is it fair to wonder why they’re not happy? Or to judge them because of it?
I hope that I am someone who can take life as it comes, and find the lemonade with all the lemons. But even the best of us reach a point where we’d rather just lay down and rest after being knocked down more times than we can handle.
Erik Erickson’s 8th stage of Psychosocial Development is Integrity vs. Despair. It is in this stage in life where Erickson claims someone reevaluates their life…looking back over successes and accomplishments. If they are satisfied with all they have done, they feel integrity. If they are not satisfied…if they feel that they did not leave their mark or accomplish their goals…they feel a sense of despair. I absolutely agree with Erickson, as I have seen this many times. This despair is heart-breaking for family and friends to see, and it is challenging to manage for all involved.
What can we do? How can we help our loved ones struggling with depression or hopelessness? I think it’s about understanding and empathy. It’s about allowing the person to talk about their feelings, and asking them the hard questions. Think about carrying a log up a mountain. You want to do it by yourself–you want to show others that you can. But how relieved are you when someone comes up next to you and carries the other side? By giving someone the opportunity to express their true feelings about life, you’re helping them to carry the burden. By really hearing them when they express that this life is not acceptable to them anymore, as opposed to quickly responding with “Oh don’t say that!”– which tends to be our gut reaction–this empathy opens the pathway for more honest communication. And only then can you truly realize how you can help someone be happy.
I know we’re not always going to make everyone happy, and this type of conversation might not happen overnight. But we need to keep trying, and talking, and remembering that everyone is different and has different needs and wishes. There may be times when nothing we can do can make someone smile…but we should go down trying.