On Joy, Happiness, and Being Bipolar


(photograph by Arthur Sasse)

Two weeks ago, I had a moment of euphoria.  There was no particular reason for it – I was only running errands on a nice early fall day.  But the feeling was notable for its intensity and randomness, and the fact that I hadn’t felt that way in years.  I am bipolar, and once upon a time, euphoria was a sign that I was spinning into mania.  And mania is dangerous – dangerous because it can quickly change into either an angry, uncontrollable mania, or it can switch to the depths of depression.  Either way, the desperation you feel can easily lead to suicide.  Euphoria, as lovely as it can be, is a warning sign to me.  But I didn’t slip into a manic episode.  I am fine – not euphoric – but fine.  Mostly that is thanks to some very expensive drugs that I take – Abilify, Effexor, and Lexopro.  I may curse pharmaceutical companies for their extortion from people badly in need of life-saving medication, but all the same, I am grateful for the drugs I take. They keep me on an even-keel.  They have probably saved my life.

So euphoria, or joy as some may call it, is something I cannot entirely embrace.  I feel that loss, because I remember the good times of mania, when I was crazy-happy, when everything seemed possible, when I thought I was witty and brilliant and full of life.  Now, joy must come more quietly.  It comes in small, manageable bites – whether it’s hearing stories about my three year-old nephew, or a particularly fruitful trip to the public library, or when I successfully help a student at my job.  There is joy in my life, but it’s not the rush that I used to have.

Some people, bipolar or not, may be equally wary of joy in their lives, as Anna North points out in her op-ed piece “Beware of Joy” in the New York Times Opinion Pages (Sept. 29).  “Fear of Happiness” is something normal people experience, she writes.  “Fear of happiness is that creeping feeling that you shouldn’t get too comfortable, because something bad is bound to happen.”  Interestingly, North interviewed researchers and found that “fear of happiness” is more common in less developed countries, where life is more uncertain.  North also poses the question – “Does looking for the sorrow around the corner actually make it easier to handle it when it arrives?”  The short answer is no, it doesn’t help you deal with hard times.  In fact, ” . . .countries where this attitude is common have lower levels of happiness overall.”

North also points out that people with mental disorders may have this fear of happiness more than average people, and that they suppress both positive and negative emotions.  For me, fear of happiness is really fear of TOO MUCH happiness (or euphoria).  It’s not a fear that something bad will inevitably happen.  It’s not a quid pro quo for me – if I get one happiness I get one sadness.  I don’t think like that, but some people may.  And that’s too bad.

A researcher also pointed out that in some cases, you have to be careful with your happiness.  “In a culture where harmony is a supreme value, achieving this ideal has lots of material and psychological benefits.”  North adds, “Seeking one’s own happiness at the expense of harmony of others might cost one those benefits.”  I don’t think America qualifies as a place where harmony is a “supreme value’, though.  I think we’re too individualistic, and we’re supposed to swallow someone else’s happiness (or success) with grace and equanimity.

If you are more naturally a pessimistic person, or suffer from depression, there is some good news.  According to these same researchers, sadness may improve our memory and may help in deducing lies.  An “. . . uninterrupted sense of happiness and positivity may at times come with some costs – unrealistic optimism and diminished sustained effort to achieve long-term goals.”  This jives with me, because when I am maniacally happy, I am ultimately less productive.  I don’t write as much, I can’t focus on any one thing, I am scattered and messy in my head.

The pursuit of happiness – elevated to a right in this country – can be taken to extremes of hedonism, and that may lead to greater unhappiness.  We have a problem with “MORE” in this country – as if the more we have, the happier we will be.  Obviously, this isn’t true.  Personally, I think people should strive for contentedness, not happiness.  Life is full of grief.  The best we can do is to doggedly try to reach the golden mean of “middleness” where we are sane, and just, and can appreciate the foibles and greatness in others.  I don’t think I’ve reached this “middleness”  – life still rattles me.  But at least I’m not swinging from extreme euphoria to the depths of despair, like a monkey in the rain forest.


2 thoughts on “On Joy, Happiness, and Being Bipolar

  1. I recently said to Kit, I am as happy as I have ever been. Life is pretty good. I, fortunately, do not suffer from any mental illness that I know of (I used have occasional panic attacks, but those are under control sans drugs for years now), but I also tend to have an even keel in terms of ambition. I am a much happier person when I don’t think any more about the future than I possibly have to. It doesn’t get any better than the right now for, so I live in the right now as much as possible. I try to always be doing something I like or related to something I like – something satisfying even if it quotidian, like taking out the garbage.

    I am suspicious of ambition and the times I was the unhappiest in my life was when I kept expecting something better to happen. Nothing better ever happens. Or if it does, it is a fleeting thing – a moment’s euphoria – that is is no way better than just being. I don’t fear happiness. I fear the desire for happiness.

  2. Well said. I’m glad you are happy! I didn’t know you once suffered from panic attacks. Sorry for that. I did, too, and man they suck. I try to live in “the now”, although my past haunts me when trying to get to sleep at night. Mostly I am even now, and content. I still strive for things, like getting my book published, but it’s good to have at least one big dream in your life. I suppose that’s an example of ambition, but maybe in small doses ambition is ok. And yes, the fear of desire for happiness is very sound. It’s so easy to become greedy for it, and then we lose our way.

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