Perfectly happy and still depressed

Perfectly happy and still depressed

The Swedish word ‘lagom‘ isn’t easily translated into English but it means something along the lines of being perfect, totally balanced or just right. A place, situation, conversation, house, person, or a feeling can all be ‘lagom’  in Sweden. There is even a brand of margarine called ‘lãtt och lagom’ which kinda suggests that it’s even better than butter. Just perfect in fact. Actually it is! It’s yum. That’s the life-goal in Sweden – to make everything in your life lagom or just perfect. Slippers on. Job done.

The path to perfect happiness?

Perhaps then it doesn’t come as a total surprise to learn that Sweden and the Nordic countries are consistently voted the happiest countries in the world. This year, Finland was voted the happiest country in the world. There is however a slight problem here. Most Finns laugh at the title because they actually feel pretty miserable. And, in fact, so do most Scandinavians.

A report published by the Nordic Council in 2019 ‘in the shadow of happiness – Nordic ‘ reveals some rather conflicting and startling insights. It suggests that whilst there is a high level of happiness associated with factors such as standard of living, health care, education, environment, purchasing power, employment in the Nordics, there is also a strong, worrying and growing trend for depression across all ages and in young people in particular. In the 18–23 age group, 14 % are struggling or suffering in the Nordic countries! A higher proportion is found in only one other age group, namely those over 80 years of age.

“the boulevard of broken dreams.I walk alone, I walk alone…my shadow’s the only one that walks beside me.”

Green Day

On a global scale, The World Health Organisation has in fact called out the rise of depression as a pandemic. 20 million people in the US alone and an estimated 300 million people globally are currently feeling depressed and only 10% are being treated.

So what’s happening? How can we be in a state of general happiness and still be depressed? To find some answers, I went back to my study, dusted off a few books and consulted my guru Lama Marut, who has openly talked about depression before he became a monk.

Whilst the original cause for depression is still a mystery and the triggers are highly individual, for Marut, depression is always linked to a state of extreme self-absorption and obsession with the self. Further, once you’re in a depressed state it’s also extremely difficult to shake it off because a depressed person is almost always only thinking about him/herself and this creates an endless loop of depression that can go on for years if not a lifetime. Karma plays a nasty unforgiving game.

Marut further observes that the rise of depression over the past 60 years is ( in his opinion ) intricately linked to fundamental changes and trends in western society : materialism, consumerism, self absorption, narcissum, continual dissatisfaction, the cult of celebrity status, fame and the over-riding need to be someone special and be noticed.

For sixty years we’ve been dutifully buying consumer goods on a ‘bait and switch’ retail therapy marketing machine bandwagon only to be continuously satisfied then dissatisfied, unhappy and wanting to buy more. We can never get enough. ‘Buying happiness’ has now extended to our entertainment, restaurant, holiday and leisure experiences. And that still hasn’t made us happy. Harry Braverman called it ‘the universal marketplace’ in the 1970’s. Globally we consume 6 hours of TV a day and spend 2 hours a day on social media. We’re literally amusing ourselves to death. Wanting to be noticed, we carefully manage our Insta and FB profiles to create a desired image that we want the world to see (someone special ) and we actually end up believing it ourselves. That desired image is not of course reality. Maintaining it often breeds jealousy, discontent, and dissatisfaction with what you already have and what you haven’t got, leading to yet further depression. It also takes a tremendous amount of effort to maintain that sense of being special on a daily basis.

What if… Nobody is watching – what a depressing thought!

Our sense of self-esteem, value and self worth is measured by our likes and views and followers. This, for Marut, is a state of self-absorption and narcissism unparalleled in world history. He comments in ‘Be Nobody’ …

“When it comes to achieving happiness in life, obsession with the self has traditionally been seen by every religion as the problem not the solution”

Conclusion : the path to real happiness is thinking less about yourself and doing more for others. It’s really that simple folks!

So, could part of the solution for depression be Yoga and mindfulness? Well, yes and no. There is an ever-widening divide between secular and spiritual forms of yoga/mindfulness that were traditionally always rooted in dharma and philosophy and part of an overall system. Movement or asana on its own was never yoga. Mindfulness, for example,  is now often practiced in its secular form as an emptying of the mind or a way to achieve goals and increase performance at work. But, in its traditional form, mindfulness meant ‘to remember’ or ‘remind yourself’ of your dharma and your ethics. As for yoga, any quick skim through your insta and fb yoga feed will quickly reveal that much of the highly visible communication and imagery often mirrors the trends in consumerism that Marut believes causes or maintains depression : ego, showing off, materialism, narcissum, consumerism, self absorption, dissatisfaction, desire for celebrity status and attention, affirmation, fame, addictive posting once a day and the over-riding need to be someone special. That’s not really the motivation of yoga as it was originally intended and I’d argue that it has limitations in terms of benefit for fixing the bigger issues like depression. It addresses the symptom but it doesn’t fix the underlying cause. Like eating candy instead of a nutritious meal when you’re hungry. Of course there’s a place for candy too. Teaching ‘yogalates’ for example is great fun, energising and loaded with feel good and a natural high. But to go a little deeper and get something lasting, you have to put the work in. So, maybe it’s ‘horses for courses’ if anyone understands what that means? Not even sure I do…

My personal view is that a better path to tackle depression and cultivate happiness can be found by working with meditation, pranayama, inner practices and asana linked to some ethical and philosophical system and/or bhakti, chanting or devotional music or even a hobby that you’re totally absorbed in. This works because when you’re ‘lost’ and totally immersed in something you love you actually lose that sense of individual self for a short while. These forms are however less commercially viable and therefore less visible. And maybe that’s a good thing.

Find your tribe. Find your hobby and passion. It’s actually impossible for me to be unhappy when I sing and dance and dive into chanting and bhakti.

I teach my own form of Tibetan Heart Yoga that combines all of these elements. And I’m pleased to say that in almost every class or workshop there is at least one student who achieves some kind of break-through or transformation. That’s my reward and it makes me extremely happy if I feel I’ve helped someone.

If this has been of interest, here, below, are a few recommendations and options to nurture real lasting happiness in the coming months. See if it works for you. Do consider joining my summer retreat in the Finnish archipelago in July. There’s options available for all budgets ( including camping ) and a range of yoga, philosophy, bhakti with Vijay Krsna, sauna culture and Finnish natural healing and a group of wonderful people.

In closing, we all want to be perfectly happy and have a good life. That IS achievable now if we look for happiness in the right places. Let’s try to become less self absorbed, more content and live a life with good ethics and principles and find ways to help others – a friend, a relative, a parent, a stranger, an orphan, a disadvantaged person or a cat or dog. Now that’s really lagom if you ask me…

Love melts fear!

Hugs Sanna

PS. All credit for anything sensible or profound in the text to my beloved Lama Marut and thank you for your wisdom, teachings and compassion. I’m just passing it on…

Photo credits : Soeren Funk, Robert Sturman, Andrew Lim, Barbara Pura Vida, G White