Tuesday, February 20, 2018

When all hope is gone

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."  With that opener, Leo Tolstoy set us on Anna Karenina's unhappy life. (Spoiler alert: She commits suicide.)

Students and colleagues who do not know me might think that I am unhappy camper. A curmudgeon.  But, General Malaise is by and large a happy fella.  I have been extraordinarily lucky that other than a few down phases in life, I have not known what unhappiness is.  The older I get, the more I understand and appreciate what an awesome lottery prize this is!

When talking with a student, I asked about her parents.  Her father is a veterinarian. "I bet he has quite some stories, like ..."  I blanked out on the author's name.  "The British guy who wrote those series of books ... like All Creatures Great And Small."  I couldn't recall the name. Old age :(

After she left, I googled.. James Herriot.  Of course!

Google also told me more about him. He (James Alfred Wight, in real life) suffered from depression. "Melancholy," is how he described it, and once had a complete nervous breakdown.  I would never have guessed that even as a possibility from his cheerful and upbeat books.  It turns out that depression and suicide are way above average when it comes to vets.  I had no idea that animal doctors are an unhappy  family, and unhappy  in their own way :(

It was a day of reading about unhappiness, it seemed. A review of Johann Hari's book popped up in my newsfeed.
Johann Hari took his first antidepressants at age 18, and the experience, he says, was like a “chemical kiss.” The burden was lifted immediately from his whirring brain. He kept on taking the pills for 13 years, at higher and higher doses–until, at one point, the drugs didn’t work anymore. He was still depressed.
In his early 30s, Hari, a journalist, started to question the prevailing wisdom about depression. Was his desperation and anxiety really connected, as he had been told by a succession of doctors, to a chemical imbalance in the brain? Was it genetic, as other scientists claimed? Or were the reasons why so many people are depressed these days really more social? Is the depression epidemic connected to how we’ve chosen to construct the world around us?
What the hell is going on?  

No wonder that the most popular course in Yale's long history is about happinestaught by Laurie SantosThere are too many stressed out and unhappy young people.
Dr. Santos speculated that Yale students are interested in the class because, in high school, they had to deprioritize their happiness to gain admission to the school, adopting harmful life habits that have led to what she called “the mental health crises we’re seeing at places like Yale.” A 2013 report by the Yale College Council found that more than half of undergraduates sought mental health care from the university during their time there.
“In reality, a lot of us are anxious, stressed, unhappy, numb,” said Alannah Maynez, 19, a freshman taking the course. “The fact that a class like this has such large interest speaks to how tired students are of numbing their emotions — both positive and negative — so they can focus on their work, the next step, the next accomplishment.”
Seriously, is it worth getting into that kind of a stress when one is sixteen or seventeen, and be unhappy to an extent that it becomes a mental health crisis?  There is incredibly more to life than an Ivy diploma!

In addition to the randomness in the universe that messes up our lives, we too do whatever we can to add to our miseries.  I wish we would take up Bhutan's idea of indexing happiness and working towards maximizing that, instead of worshiping the Dow Jones and other indices as a measure of how great we are again!


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