Successful, but not happy

Originally Published: December 16, 2011
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Dear Alice,

I'm not in college anymore, but students could benefit from this question, too. I'm single with a 'great' job (pays well, insurance, pension, etc.), a decent place to live, no debt...in short, life could be much worse. But the only thing lately that makes me happy is doing kind things anonymously for people. I'm rather wealthy but don't want a big TV or a fancy car. I'd rather spend a vacation at a local monastery meditating and performing service. I'd be committing economic suicide to quit my job, and so many are worse off, but 'success through hard work' doesn't make me happy. I'm sure a number of students must have these feelings already. What are your feelings about this, Alice?

Dear Reader,

It is normal to feel ups and downs in mood and sense of satisfaction. In fact, most people experience these swings at different times in their lives. It is important to recognize what it is that makes you happy, and incorporate these things into your everyday life. While some people prefer to buy fancy cars or go on vacation, others may perform acts of kindness, or simply pats themselves on the back. However, should your feelings of dissatisfaction with your hard work persist, it is important that you check in on your emotional wellness, and get the help you need.

It is great that you have found enjoyment in anonymous acts of kindness. Some studies show that altruism, or performing acts of kindness for others, are connected to improved morale, self-esteem, and mental health. Altruistic acts may also help you steer away from feelings of anger, resentment, and fear. If you enjoy these helping behaviors, go for it! Just remember, it is important to allow yourself to explore your feelings to get to the root of the problem. There may be an underlying issue contributing to your unhappiness. 

Would you say that you feel sad, blue, unhappy, miserable, or down in the dumps? Most people feel this way at one time or another for short periods. Dysthymia is a milder form of depression that can last for years if not treated. One symptom of depression is a loss of pleasure in usual activities. Although it may seem difficult at first, reaching out to your health care provider or someone you trust is a good first step in clarifying your feelings and finding ways to feel better. They may be able to recommend a mental health professional, such as a therapist or psychologist. S/he may be able to help you figure out what has got you singing the blues. Columbia students can speak with a professional counselor at Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS).

In addition to counseling and other treatments, many people find certain lifestyle changes can help manage depression symptoms. It may be helpful to ask yourself a few reflective questions. For example, am I satisfied with my job? What do I need to do to sustain a happy life and still work at my job? Am I suffering from mild depression? These questions may help you consider what sorts of activities could make you happier. The following tips may help brighten your mood:

  • Engage in mild activity or exercise.
  • Socialize and participate in activities that make you happy.
  • Spend time with family and friends, rather than isolating yourself.
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs — substances that alter your mood may setback your progress in beating depression.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Follow a healthy, nutritious diet.
  • Spend time with family and friends.
  • If you are a religious or spiritual person, talk to a clergy member or spiritual advisor.
  • Consider yoga, meditation, tai chi, or other relaxation methods.

It is important to be reflective throughout this process. Don't be too hard on yourself — it is more likely that your mood will improve gradually, rather than immediately. Wherever you begin, remember that positive thinking and self-care are two important ingredients to the recipe for happiness.

Alice