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.

14 thoughts on “Happiness is the right drug – or so I said in church yesterday

  1. I came here to tell you I left a comment for you at Patricia’s book giveaway post, not realizing I’d find you to be a published author.

    And I also did not realize I’d find such an interesting post! What is my regimen to happiness? I can’t say I have figured that out yet. My children make me happy and stressed at the same time. My husband is my best friend, but I find myself too dependent at times. Yoga makes me happy and I wish I could do it all the time. All the time. Coffee makes me happy, but makes my tummy grumble. Hmmm…I guess I had better think on this some more!


    • Thanks so much for stopping by, Michele. I hope you’ll visit again. Coffee wakes me up, but I wouldn’t say it makes me happy, and yoga doesn’t do it for me anymore, but I love Nia and Zumba!

  2. Hi Julie – you continue to provoke stimulating conversations! My bouts of depression and so few and so fleeting I wonder if that’s normal! I come from a large and mainly happy family. I wonder how much a happy family affects your nature? I’ve decided I’m just a happy little idiot, and that’s all there is to it. Marilyn aka; M. E. Kemp

  3. Hi Marilyn. You’re fortunate indeed to come from a happy family. Both nature and nurture are definitely involved. For example, my grandparents immigrated to northern Wisconsin from Norway and Sweden, and we’ve all heard about the depressive tendencies of Scandinavians – and their love of alcohol as well!

    That’s stereotyping, in a way, but I do have depression and alcoholism in my family tree. It’s passed on genetically as well as behaviorally. But thanks to modern medication, it’s eminently changeable! Why do you think the home care agency owner in my mystery ELDERCIDE named her cats Zoloft and Lunesta?! (Actually, my female tabby is named Lunesta, but the male is named Beep – my husband named him because he walked on the computer keys and made it beep the day we got him.)

  4. I would’ve applauded that performance as well. I take pain meds for my severe arthritis. Without it, I’m in so much pain it’s hard to have much joy as I go through my day. People want to be happy, it’s normal, and people aren’t very happy when they don’t feel good. So, while I believe in eating healthy, exercising and staying away from bad habits is the best prescription for good health and happy happy feeling, if someone needs extra help in the form of prescription medication to be relieved of enough pain to have more happiness in their day, sure … just don’t abuse it, overdoing it to get “high” – and I’m down with it.

    The Old Silly

    • Hi Marvin, thanks for checking in. I agree with your point of view.

      BTW, antidepressants don’t make you “high” in the hippie sense – if you don’t really have a biochemical imbalance, they don’t do anything for you. They also have lots of side effects – weight gain and retention being the nastiest for me – so they’re not something to take frivolously.

      Today I’m going to go get high by taking off for Jiminy Peak, marvelling at the beauty of the Berkshires and getting in a few hours of skiing before the holiday hordes descend on the place. All the recent snows missed most of our area, but their snow making and grooming is great. And they power it with their own wind turbine – the first ski area in the country to do so, I believe. But I digress . . .

  5. I’m one who’s touchy about drugs and try to avoid their use. However, there is a place for everything and yes, some people have chemical imbalances that no amount of positive thinking is going to undo.

    For instance, I have SAD and this horribly long and grey winter is getting to me. I first cope without any meds, using good nutrition and exercise and daylight bulbs around the house and keeping window shades open so any sun we actually have can come in. At times, that’s not enough. I use St. John’s Wort for those times, temporarily, and carefully since it can have negative interactions with other things.

    The happiness set point makes sense, and I am a big believer in A. Lincoln’s quote: “Most people are about as happy as they decide to be.”

    • Hi, LK. Thanks for your comments, but I disagree with Lincoln – deciding to be happy doesn’t work for some people. He was one of them – he suffered from severe bouts of clinical depression, and some people theorize that he was bipolar. Maybe that’s why he said “most people” instead of “everybody.”

    • Great comment, Lesley. I’m following this DSM V discussion with interest as well. I even wrote a poem about my diagnosis and DSM IV – I’ll post it soon.

      I’ll comment more later – but right now, I’ve got to get up to that mountaintop. As the Indigo girls sing, “I went to the doctor, I went to the mountain . . . the closer I am to fine!”

      • Julie, I imagine that’s why he said most, not all. Still, it’s a recognition that even with depression, you can fight your way through if you will, as he did.

  6. Hi Julie, lovely dialogue! I can just picture you and Robb doing it!
    Ok, weighing in. As you know, I have personal and family experience that say medications are a huge help at times, and for some people essential to non-destructive living. I certainly am in sympathy with the person who needs medication for arthritis pain. And I agree that there are a great many non-medication ways to improve happiness as well. For some people, or at some times, however, meds may be what’s needed to effectively use the other approaches.
    I am disturbed, however, not by anything on your blog, but because I just read about changes in the upcoming DSM V (the psychiatrists diagnostic manual, for those not familiar), that would identify a great many more childrens’ behaviors as “diagnoses.” To me, this is pathologizing childhood! Someone in the article seemed to have that concern also; a quote essentially said they’d be diagnosing “children with behaviors other people don’t like.” And while something in the article talked of using approaches other than medication, I’m very leery of the tendency in our society to take the “easy route,” and what I think is already over-medication of children, especially for ADHD. I have a family member who in adulthood definitely does need medication for bi-polar disorder, but as I look back on her teens, I don’t think it would have helped her to have been medicated sooner, and it might have been damaging to her wild and feisty spirit.
    A friend who is taking some shaman training told me they aren’t allowed to practice what she’s learning (ways of clearing and empowering energies) on children under 18 because children are considered to be still “full of God”, and in formation, and it is not healthy to disrupt whatever their developmental process is. For adults, as one who’s experiencing them, her techniques are wonderful enhancers of happiness, however!
    There are probably some children who really are better off with meds. But there’s a huge tendency in our society to try to suppress the things in kids that don’t conform with the rather rigid and suppressed culture we are only (hopefully) starting to find our way out of.
    Ok, enough of that soapbox. Many thanks for starting this conversation.

  7. Interesting topic, Julie. I’m fortunately one of those people who find it easier to be happy than sad and find myself happy most of the time. However, I know friends and families who are dealing with depressed or bipolar loved ones and have seen the wonders of “proper” medication. My philosophy is to go with whatever works for you. One of the themes in my first novel is that no one should accept unhappiness as a way of life because I strongly believe that’s a true statement – life is too short for that.

    • Well said, Jane! And your comment really makes me want to read your novel. We should trade and review each other!

      I’m fortunate to have an excellent psychiatrist who’s expert in the subtleties of medication and sensitive to the need to tweak them. Sometimes it takes a long time to find the “proper” drug(s) and dosage. A lot of this stuff is still trial and error, because different individuals react so differently to the same drugs.

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