Happiness is the right drug – or so I said in church yesterday

James Ensor

I was Sunday service leader for our Unitarian Universalist congregation yesterday. The sermon topic was “Psychology of Happiness,” and since I’ve lived relatively happily with bipolar disorder for many years now, it’s a subject on which I consider myself an expert.

Here was the Reverend Sam Trumbore’s preview of the service as it appeared in our church newsletter: “Psychologists often focus on the pathologies of the mind. Much of the work of psychology and pschologists deals with mental problems and how to address them effectively. New research has taken a different tack, studying healthy minds and what factors encourage good mental health. Barbara Fredrickson is one such researcher who studies the psychology of happiness.”

Great topic. Here’s how I approached it in my opening words. In the following passage, my lines are in green, my husband’s in magenta:

As a novelist, I love writing dialogue, and happiness is a subject close to my heart, so I jumped at the chance to be service leader today. Here’s a little dialogue I whipped up last night – I’d like to invite my husband up here to help me out. 

(Julie sings to the tune of “Happiness is a warm gun” from the Beatles’ White Album)

Happiness is the right drug, Happiness is the right drug. When I feel the pills start working . . .

Hey wait a minute! What drug are we talking about? What are you doing, advocating drug use on a Sunday morning at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany?

I’m talking legal drugs, prescription drugs. For some people, they’re the only way to conquer serious depression and achieve happiness.

Prescription drugs – yeah, right. That’s what killed Heath Ledger and Michael Jackson. Legal or not, drugs are bad news. Anyone can achieve happiness, if they work hard enough at it. I’ll bet that’s what Sam’s sermon is going to be about.

Who does Sam think he is, talking about happiness? He’s a Buddhist! Don’t they believe all life is suffering? But come to think of it, I’ve talked about happiness with Sam before, when I was so depressed I was practically suicidal. He believes it’s all in your mind.

Well, duh – of course it is! We all have the potential to achieve true happiness. Cognitive psychologists have all kinds of techniques anyone can use to feel better.

I know, I’ve read the books. David Burns, Martin Seligman -

Wait a minute – David Byrne? Wasn’t he the leader of the Talking Heads? His songs are full of gloom and doom. Remember Psycho Killer?

Not THAT David Byrne. This one’s Burns, with an S. He wrote Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. Marty Seligman’s another one – he was on public TV just last week, and I get his newsletters online. He wrote Learned Optimism. He believes we all have a set point for happiness. Just as our weight tends to stay around a certain set point, so does our degree of optimism or pessimism. But with training and experience, we can change our own set points for the better -

Seems like you know a lot about all this cognitive stuff. So why are you pushing pills instead?

Because I believe happiness and unhappiness are biochemical to a large extent. Not everybody needs medication to be happy, but some of us do. Of course, a lot depends on our life experiences, too, and the choices we make.

So it’s the old nature versus nurture debate all over again?

Good point! But the two approaches aren’t mutually exclusive. They work well in combination, too. In fact, we could all learn to -

Julie, maybe you’ve said enough for now. After all, this is Sam’s sermon, not yours. Maybe I shouldn’t say it up here in front of the whole congregation, but you can be kind of a show-off.

I know, I admit it. I love being the center of attention – it’s one of the things that makes me HAPPY!

We got a gratifying round of applaluse for our performance, but more importantly, we put across an important message. We all have our own ways of overcoming depression and finding happiness. There are lots of paths to joy – the trick is finding which combination works best for you.

Personally, even though my current medication regimen is minimal, I probably couldn’t live happily without it. How about you? I’d love to hear your comments.

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