The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality, and it was vitality that seemed to seep away from me in that moment. — Andrew Solomon
Andrew’s statement resonated with me when I first watched his TED talk about a year ago. Up until then I’d been on a pursuit of happiness for more years than I care to count, trying to fill voids and find meaning to elevate myself to an acceptable baseline of happiness. I stumbled upon Andrew’s talk when I abandoned the fruitless pursuit of happiness and was coming to grips with my depression. My quest turned from finding purpose and happiness to seeking solutions to lift myself from the mental anguish I seemed to have been inflicting, a mental suffering that was wreaking havoc on my physical well-being as well.
The truth of Andrew’s statement allowed me to realize that what I lacked wasn’t happiness but vitality. When I look back on the happier periods of my life, it was my vitality that made them so. Happiness, then, isn’t the pursuit, but rather the result; a result of living with vitality. Happiness sits between depression and vitality as a flatline of contentment.
If I pause to ponder, I’m shown these very patterns in my connection with Nature, in my relationship with the mountains and the sea. Perhaps I’m drawn to them because I can experience the three emotional states mentioned. I experience a happiness baseline when I sit contently on my surf board waiting. As waves roll in I paddle with intent, not knowing the outcome. I either connect and flow upon the water in a state vitality, or I fall, the waves pulling me beneath the sea into darkness and chaos. Similarly, running in the mountains has it’s own peaks of vitality and valleys of depression, along with flat and steady baseline efforts. These are physical analogies for the mental journey that is depression, but if you’ve suffered on the trails or surfaced depths gasping for air perhaps you can understand the similarities.
I put myself in a state of suffering in order to experience vitality. Perhaps I can’t experience vitality without depression, just as good wouldn’t exist without bad as it’s opposite. Our pursuit of the state between is doing nothing more than numbing us of what life is, or what it should be again. To reach mountain peaks we must push through the valleys, to ride the ocean’s waves we should expect to be pulled into it’s depths. Mountain ascents and conquered waves wouldn’t exist without the suffering it took to experience them.
I’m embarking on a divergent quest now, bypassing happiness to recapture vitality. A sustained vitality I’ve experienced a handful of times in my life, recognized by an exuberant physical strength and mental vigor, and a meaningful purposeful existence. I realize now it’s a life long quest that doesn’t end at the top of a mountain, but resumes in the descent. I realize my meaningful existence may be one of a pursuant nature, a constant quest for the vital peaks and depressive dips, only pausing at the baseline of happiness to catch my breath.