Christiane Amanpour of CNN recently interviewed Dr. Laurie Santos, professor at Yale. Santos taught what became the most popular course in the history of Yale, and now people are watching it online from all over the world. The class is about the science of happiness. There is a huge search for happiness, especially among younger people – teenagers to young professionals. Admittedly, Santos is not sure why folks aren’t happy these days. “This question of why that is is a bit of a puzzle,” she states, but Santos explains that when she started living on campus she started seeing these levels of depression and anxiety up close. And the statistics are staggering. Levels of depression among college students have doubled in the last nine years, says Santos, and levels of anxiety and loneliness are significantly on the rise as well.
So what’s wrong? Universities provide a variety of resources in tutoring, mental health, etc. There are clubs and organizations to belong to. The living quarters even – they are nothing like the 10x10 room I would share with a roommate, with communal bathrooms on the floor! They have health clubs and nice lounges, etc. In so much of America, these ‘kids’ have got it pretty good! Heck, many of the parents I know say they would love to come back as their kids because they have it so much better.
Ok, ok, I know. That’s reactive, and I’m making a general statement that certainly isn’t true for everyone. I’m not a young adult myself so what do I know? Besides, I found out my husband signed up for the class, so what does that say about my own home life?
The interview, which I had to watch twice, left me with many questions about our society in general. Why are people searching for happiness so desperately? Is life really getting that intense for all of us? Are we losing our tough American skin, a.k.a. are we getting soft? As parents, are we raising our kids the wrong way? Is there a social movement happening where we’re realizing that all the striving isn’t getting us where we thought it would?
Or maybe we’re just becoming so smart (and maybe lazy) that we’re figuring out we might be able to devise a way to scientifically become happy without any effort. If we can fix other woes with the push of a button or ingesting something, why can’t we make happiness just as easy?
In chapter nine of the book Into the Magic Shop by Dr. James Doty, he discusses extensively the fact so many people are depressed and anxious. Max Strom also raised this – all the way back in a talk I heard two years ago. By 2030, he said, the leading cause of disease will be depression and anxiety. Not diabetes. Not obesity. Not anything else. Depression is making us sick.
Why are we depressed? Doty and Santos both shared that a leading cause of depression and anxiety is loneliness. Despite all the ways we can connect – the civic groups, the Facebook groups, the clubs and organizations – people are lonely. Doty shares that approximately 25% of Americans say they don’t have anyone they could share a problem with. The next time you are on the train or in the store, look around and realize that one in four don’t feel they have anyone to talk to.
In Santos’ course, she shares a scientific study where she split a group of people into three and told them to take the subway. One third of them were to sit in solitude, one third were to do whatever they would normally do and the last third were told to start a conversation with a stranger. The results are fascinating. Surprisingly, those asked to talk to a stranger had better ‘happiness’ results than any other group. Why? They were making a connection with someone else. Doty expands that the brain is wired to connect with others and when we deny that natural state, it makes us sad. Further, Jon Kabat-Zinn explains in his book Full Catastrophe Living that when we respond to stress by internalizing and keeping things in – by isolating ourselves – over the long term this isolation makes us depressed. There are numerous studies that show the power of connection. In their article Connect to Thrive, Psychology Today reported on a study that showed that “a lack of social connection is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure. On the flip side, … Social connection strengthens our immune system, helps us recover from disease faster and may even lengthen our life. People who feel more connected to others have lower rates of anxiety and depression…social connectedness therefore generates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional and physical well-being.”
Human connection is more powerful than we give it credit for. Put it this way: loneliness is making us sick; connection heals us.
I pause and reflect on my own life and the times I have felt lonely. I was raised to be self-sufficient. “No matter what,” my mom would tell me, “make sure you can take care of yourself.” With a single parent often working two jobs, I quickly felt that the best way to help our situation was to get a job and do more on my own. I had to rely on myself I thought, because mom had enough to worry about. In retrospect, I wonder if in my striving for independence, plus the isolation I felt when my dad died and my fear of becoming too close to anyone else, lest I lose them too, may have created an environment ripe for loneliness and depression. Then, as an adult starting my own business, I strived to build it into a success story, working long hours and pushing myself to make it grow and succeed. I was wrapped up in the business, pushing myself to be more, do more. The stresses that came along with it were often overwhelming, and the isolation of owning your own business drove me deeper inward. I communicated with clients all the time but they were clients, not friends, which meant it was a one-way conversation and I would only be on the receiving end. Between the stress and the schedule, any efforts for creating happiness felt like just that – efforts.
“When people feel alienated or excluded from the dominant social institutions and norms, they are likely to explore ways of relieving those feelings of alienation through the most convenient and immediately powerful means available,” explains Kabat-Zinn. It took a harsh vision and a lot of time in yoga to pull me out of feeling isolated and lonely. I realized I was only making things worse for myself. As Kabat-Zinn explains, our default responses to stressors are often not the best for us. We react instead of respond. And when life is crazy, the faster and easier solution is often what we seek. But like eating sugar, it’s good for a little bit, but then we need it again, and again, and then something else that might be a little stronger.
“In the long run, [these quick solutions] don’t make us healthier or happier ... In fact, they ultimately add to and compound the stress and pressure we are under.” In this case, excess sugar makes us gain weight, increases our chances for diabetes, heart problems, etc. Then we have those stressors to deal with too. It becomes a vicious cycle.
Maybe we need to get back to the basics. Maybe we start to mindfully enjoy the simple pleasures of life. Maybe we stop and actually talk to someone – about anything really – just to make a connection. Maybe we contemplate whether all the striving is worth it. What is fulfilling to you? Have you stopped to listen?
A fellow yoga teacher read this quote in class yesterday by William Martin. It is advice to parents of children but can certainly be applied to yourself as well.
“Do not ask your children to strive for extraordinary lives. Such striving may seem admirable, but it is the way of foolishness. Help them instead find the wonder and the marvel of an ordinary life. Show them the joy of tasting tomatoes, apples and pears. Show them how to cry when pets and people die. Show them the infinite pleasure in the touch of a hand and make the ordinary come alive for them. The extraordinary will take care of itself.”