I live in the default emotion of Happy. You’ll notice it is not the more low-key happy, but neither is it the super hyper HAPPY. I can get to HAPPY. Similarly, I can get to happy, and maybe angry or sad. (Rarely ANGRY or SAD, though.) Generally, though, I am a Happy person. So when I start feeling unhappy, it really freaks me out. Because if I’m unhappy, well, the world is obviously coming to an end. No other plausible explanation exists. (Usually I know I’m being melodramatic.)
But I’ve been learning lately that even if I am being melodramatic, I need to be careful with the words I use, even to myself. It is far too easy to say ‘I am depressed’ when what I really mean is, ‘I am unhappy.’ And that is a dangerous correlation. The words you tell yourself become how you think about yourself.
Law school is hard and often makes me unhappy. But if I keep telling myself ‘law school makes me depressed’ I place myself (1) in a category I don’t belong and (2) in a dangerous mental place. Unhappy changes with the flicker of my mood. Depressed easily becomes an identity.
Maybe it is our society, maybe it is the nature of being human, but we live in a world where people expect you to be happy. We don’t deal well with sadness or anger or melancholy. We don’t know how to react to it. So if you feel those emotions, you automatically label them ‘bad’ and try to move on. Now in saying this, I don’t want to belittle true depression. Nor do I want to imply that trying to move on is bad. What I mean to say is that in my own life, whenever my mood shifts from Happy to Literally Anything Else, I feel like something wrong happened and I obsess until it changes.
But life is not always good. Stress is not always healthy. ‘Happy’ is not everybody’s default. And even if it is your default, that doesn’t mean you don’t experience other emotions. Sometimes, I think it is okay to just be…unhappy.
Unhappy may equal unhealthy. But if every time I feel melancholic I jump to, ‘Oh no, I’m in a really unhealthy mental state!’ I fail to appreciate the power of melancholy. Or sadness. Or happy. Or unhappy.
Emotions play an important role in shaping who we are and how we view our surroundings. But our surroundings are not always happy, and it is okay to acknowledge that and live in unhappy for a time. Unhappy may become depressed, but in my life it hasn’t, and if I keep telling myself it has, I lose the power to appreciate unhappy. Or respect true depression. When I think only ‘Happy’ with occasional ‘happy’ is okay, I lose the wealth of nuance and emotion that comes with being human and having emotions.
God gave us emotions for a reason. He experiences emotion. When Jesus was on earth, he wept. He grieved. He got angry. He rejoiced. He did not remain happy all the time but embraced a range of feelings. If Jesus embraced his emotions, why do I feel like I cannot?
It is not that I like being unhappy. It feels heavy and empty. But unhappy will change. My identity is not unhappy. Neither is my identity Happy. My identity is human created in the image of God. Which is easy to say but hard to live.
Law school often makes me unhappy. And sometimes it makes me Happy. Even, upon occasion, I’ve reached HAPPY. But law school is not me. The emotions are not me. This is what I want to tell myself when I’m sitting in my messy apartment staring at the paper that seemed so brilliant yesterday and makes no sense today. This is what I tell myself when I realize I forgot to send that follow up e-mail, thank you card, or reimbursement request. Or you know, do the reading for class in an hour.
This is stressful. This is frustrating. This is growth. But stress and frustration and growth all exist apart from my happy or unhappy response to them. So what I really need to do is pour myself another cup of coffee, re-write that paper, and do the reading for my next class. Not wallow in misery because I’m not reacting to the stress with my usual Happy.
To summarize: Amy, be unhappy and get stuff done because eventually you’ll be happy and have stuff done. Don’t focus on unhappy because then you are simply unhappy. And don’t tell yourself you’re depressed because you’re not. You’re just not Happy and there is a powerful difference.