Is happiness a choice? Let’s talk about mental health

Is happiness a choice? Let’s talk about mental health

My latest Life Lines column, From Darkness into Light, has brought in a flurry of emails and comments from readers. It seems this topic really struck a chord. People have been thanking me for being willing to talk about depression, mental health, and especially about medication as it relates to the two. I’m grateful the column was helpful and I’m so glad people are reaching out, but I find it sad and frustrating that the topic of mental health still has such a stigma attached to it. Mental health is health. You don’t just snap out of depression any more than you snap out of diabetes. In the newest episode of the Life Lines podcast, I dive deeper into this topic and talk about the tools that have helped me move from a place of regular darkness to a place of mostly light. This one is a little longer, coming in at 20 minutes, so get some coffee or tea and settle in. Thanks for joining me!

Moving from darkness into light

Moving from darkness into light

I recently did a search of my past Life Lines columns to find something I wrote here six years ago: “Sometimes happiness isn’t a choice.” I remembered how deep and dark that feeling had been when I penned those lines, and I wanted to see what I was thinking. My search was prompted by a book I had just finished on Audible, The Untethered Soul: The Journey beyond Yourself, by Michael A. Singer. In that book, the author says again and again that happiness is, in fact, a choice. Our choice. Every day.

Although there were times throughout the book when I talked back to the narrator, disagreeing with this or that, I was surprised to see how much of it resonated with me and how much had changed since 2016 when I referred to myself (and others like me) as “darkness-dwellers” who drain the life out of everything, like the soul-sucking “dementors” from the Harry Potter series. That was some serious darkness. It’s not hard for me to tap into where I was, but to be honest, that definition of myself feels somewhat foreign — and more than a little sad and frightening.

When I found the column, I found something else: a long comment left by Jack, a complete stranger who had the guts to disagree with me and remind me that “the stuff about ‘darkness-dwellers’ and being soul/energy sucking vampires has nothing do with God or the Divine, but with ‘something else’ that is not so nice.”

“It is a choice of happiness, of going down the spiritual path where the roadside is littered with baggage, garbage, and tears…and to keep moving forward to God’s Love and Light,” he wrote. I smiled as I read those words six years later and marveled at where I am now and how far away that unhappy place seems.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m still not all sunshine and roses every day, but there is a difference. The darkness which arrives on my doorstep — as it does for each one of us in different measures — does not cling to me anymore, at least not for long. The light is always there, edging its way in and reminding me that, while I may not be happy all the time, I can know joy in my heart no matter what.

Happiness and joy are two different things. We say we want to be happy, but what we really want is a pervading joy that stays with us, even when times are downright disastrous. Will we be happy in those painful moments? Probably not, no matter how far down the spiritual path we have gone. But can we know the abiding joy that lives within us because we are called, chosen, saved, and beloved by God? Yes.

What changed for me over the past few years that could transform a darkness dweller into a joy seeker? A lot. No one thing made all the difference, but I can look at the choices I made that allowed me to loosen my own vise grip on my heart so that it could open enough to let God do what God wanted to do for and with me.

My path has included talk therapy, medication (which changed and possibly saved my life), meditation and yoga, regular retreats, a daily gratitude practice (which also changed and possibly saved my life as much as anti-depressants), and a growing wisdom that has come with the last third of life and has made me realize how precious every day is. We do not have time to waste. We know not the day nor the hour.

If you are in darkness, if you feel like you cannot “choose” happiness, reach out to those who can guide you out of that place. You deserve joy. You deserve light. You are called, chosen, saved, and beloved. Own it. Live it.

This column originally appeared in the May 5, 2022, editions of Catholic New York and The Evangelist.

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