Bipolar Disorder and Happiness: Life's Greatest Challenge

Patient Expert

Sometimes, what I write surprises me. Case in point: This morning I tracked down a piece I wrote here at BipolarConnect nearly two years ago, and came across these two paragraphs from Buddhism: A Practical Psychology:

By now, you realize the object of Buddhist psychology is to achieve happiness. True happiness, not just fleeting pleasure. Happiness from things that matter, not from what others tell us what is supposed to make us happy.But happiness is problematic. Suffering comes naturally. Happiness takes a lot of work. Be happy. It's not a cop-out. It's life's greatest challenge.

The piece reviewed some of the major precepts of Buddhism, such as mindfulness and suffering and detachment. What it boiled down to is we excel at making ourselves miserable. "Received ten compliments recently?" I wrote. "Chances are you are obsessing on the one negative one." Moreover:
We tend to live in an unreal world created by our fantasy thoughts and expectations. I recall going to pieces because a girlfriend broke off our relationship. The reality: we were enjoying a short-term fling. The fantasy: this was the woman I could spend the rest of my life with.Guess which world I was invested in? Guess which basket all my happiness eggs were sitting in? How stupid was that? We do it all the time.

We suffer. That is the Buddha's First Noble Truth. And virtually every minute of our lives we manage to prove the Buddha right.

Today, while running some errands, I stopped in at Barnes and Noble and purchased "The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living" by His Holiness The Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler MD.

"The purpose of our existence is to seek happiness," write the authors. They go on:

It seems like common sense, and Western thinkers from Aristotle to William James have agreed with this idea. But isn't life based on seeking happiness by nature self-centered, even self-indulgent? Not necessarily. In fact, survey after survey has shown it is unhappy people who tend to be most self-focused and are often socially withdrawn, brooding, and even antagonistic. Happy people, in contrast, are generally found to be more sociable, flexible, and creative and are able to tolerate life's daily frustrations more easily than unhappy people. And, most important, they are found to be more loving and forgiving than unhappy people.

It's easy, really. We're unhappy because we excel at all the stupid people tricks. We're attached to our own idiotic desires and fears and anxieties. We can't let go. We become invested in our delusions. We worry about the wrong things and fail to pay attention to the things we are supposed to be paying attention to. But worst of all, we become wrapped up in ourselves.

It's not about yourself. It's about others. Our wise men and women have been preaching this since the beginning of time. Psychiatry and psychology offer an inexhaustible catalogue of the things we do wrong, but the bottom line is universal: We are prisoners of our own thoughts and feelings and perceptions.

A lot of the early - pre-DSM-III - psychiatry got it right, namely that mental illness is a maladaptive response to the things that go wrong around us, such as the stresses of interpersonal relationships. Oversimplified, yes, but of all things the modern brain science is validating this point of view: We get overwhelmed. We get trapped. We respond by flipping out or shutting down.

Those with resilient brains have a much better chance of getting through life's daily challenges. We with vulnerable brains have our work cut out for us. No, we're not doomed. We just have to work harder and smarter, a lot harder and smarter.

The Dalai Lama's message is simple, really. We get over ourselves by paying attention to others. We signal a willingness to put their needs before ours. We cultivate loving kindness. Next thing we're establishing connections and intimacies. Next thing, we're not as absorbed in our own destructive thoughts and feelings. Next thing we're not alone. Next thing, maybe, there are periods in our life where we are experiencing happiness.

Real happiness. Not just fleeting pleasure or superficial gratification.

Much easier said than done, of course. But like I said in the beginning: Happiness is hard work. Very hard work. It's not a cop-out. It's life's greatest challenge.

Much more to come ...