A few months ago, I was walking back from an off-campus party with a close friend who I had flown out to see. We were debating Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus and, as the conversation grew darker, I made an offhand remark about how he was a solemn drunk -- that is, a drastic contrast from the goofy, happy-go-lucky boy I'd grown up with. "No, this is who I really am. It's just that nobody wants to talk to a depressed person," he responded pragmatically. I instantly took offense. "I would want to hear it," I said. And I meant it. This was far from a surface level friendship. This was a relationship I treasured, partially because of its openness and lack of judgment. A couple years prior to this, he was one of the first people I'd opened up to about the panic attacks I'd experienced as a child and how anxious I was they would resurface in high school -- or worse, at high school. Not only that, I considered myself to be the objective, albeit sometimes motherly "care-taker"of the friend group, the one who went out of her way to listen and who didn't turn away from people when things got dark, if for no other reason than because I'd once been there myself.
I pressed him further, hoping the things he'd said were a guise from having too much to drink. He described how lonely he felt, how paralyzed he was by the feeling that life had no tangible meaning. These are words I've grappled with before, phrases I thought I'd grown immune to, but hearing it then, and from him, felt like a shot to the heart. How hadn't I noticed? Was I not paying attention? Why is it so universally difficult for us to talk about being depressed, even to the people we are closest to?
Being "positive people" has become so hard-wired into our American DNA that we now use happiness as a measure of our economy's success, constituting GDP. And yet, when we rank our happiness and well-being relative to other countries, our findings indicate we are not very happy people at all (Americans constitute over two-thirds of the globe's market for anti-depressants). This suggests that happiness in this country is not so much a state as it is an ideology, and one that requires constant effort to upkeep.
Optimism is a double edged sword. At its best, it's a cognitive trick we can play to undermine some unhealthy thought cycles. But at its worst, it is a $3.7 trillion industry of books, classes, supplements, weight loss, beauty and various wellness, along with an accompanying promise that there is a acquirable "secret" to happiness. Positive thinking has become a business in its own right, while strengthening pre-existing mental health stigmas like "You're depressed because you aren't trying hard enough to stay positive."
This is not to say there is no place for self-care, wellness, or positive thinking. I love the joys they bring me, from the Rhonda Byrne books and Ayurveda classes to the mushroom tea elixirs that claim to "hack stress." But as these industries continue to grow, we must remain increasingly aware that depression isn't something anyone can buy their way out of. There is no trick, secret, or simple solution. There is no wishing or levitating our way out of sadness. All we can do is have the bravery to speak up and begin to brace ourselves for some tough conversations surrounding mental health.