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Trying to Be Happy Might Be Making Us Depressed

02/07/2015 09:24 am ET | Updated Apr 09, 2015

You don't have look farther than your Facebook wall or a news site these days to get a face full of "5 Easy Ways To Be Happy." As a society, we have no shortage of advice on how to improve your mood or tackle symptoms of depression. With lures like "simple" or "fast" dressing our headlines, readers have every reason to believe that with the knowledge and the motivation, there is no limit to their happiness. Right?

If everything about mental health were as easy as we claim in titles, therapists like myself wouldn't be the neurotic (yet obviously endearing) creatures that we are. As difficult as it is to admit, focusing on happiness has about as much to do with being happy as staring at a broken leg helps to heal it.

I love it when a good psychology text spins our way of thinking about mental illness into a different orbit. Jonathan Rottenberg's The Depths changed how I think about my own self-improvement schemes and how I talk about happiness with my own clients. While self-help gurus may have the best intentions, Rottenberg warns that our extreme focus on good mood as the goal actually does us a disservice. "Setting a goal to become happier is like putting yourself on a treadmill that goes faster the harder you run," he writes.

The war against depression still rages because we know very little about how and why people emerge from the depths. Why does therapy work for one person and not another? The same goes for medication. Thanks to the research of Rottenberg and others, however, we are beginning to discover that many of our previous assumptions about depression are dead wrong. Here's what we're learning.

We shouldn't overcommit to goals that aren't working.

So often we portray the depressed as someone who just doesn't have the will to roll out of bed in the morning or email his resume the 3,000th time. But researchers have found that it's not a lack of persistence that prevents a solution, but rather the opposite. We're so sure that we won't be happy if we don't get what we want that we prolong the struggle. If you're skeptical, think of all the people lining up to be on reality shows, determined they will become famous no matter what.

In nature, animals that are able to stop a tactic when it isn't working are more likely to survive. People with depression have a harder time disengaging, however, as they tend to overcommit themselves to goals. This is why perfectionists are at higher risk for mental illness than people who can separate and change course when they need to do so. It makes sense when you think about it. The more stubborn I am about getting up at 6 a.m. to do yoga, the worse I feel about hitting the snooze button over and over. Whoops.

Bad mood is not a character flaw.

The reality is that we wouldn't have such a spectrum of moods if the lower end didn't serve some sort of purpose. We hunker down when things get rough, so it's only natural our bodies would try and conserve energy when we're depressed. Our evolutionary heritage built us to think and react to a decreased mood, but what helped us survive on the savannah doesn't necessarily keeping us whistling to the radio on our commute to work.

By treating negative feelings like they are just symptoms to be cured or ghosts to be busted, we may actually be feeding them like stray cats. People are at lower risk for depression when they are able to accept negative feelings when they happen, rather than beat themselves up about not being able to change their mood. In other words, they don't feel bad about feeling bad. Self-blame about mood is a distinctly human phenomenon. Your dog doesn't feel bad about being pouty, does he? He just owns it.

We should take wellness seriously, and be creative.

We spend a lot of time gathering ingredients for happiness, but we don't take mental health as seriously as we should. By fixating on treating depression with the medical model rather than a wellness model, we miss an important piece of the puzzle. In short, we lack the flexibility and creativity needed to live the best life.

So rather than aiming for sheer bliss seven days a week, or even a static chipper mood, science hints that a better goal for yourself is adaptability. This means being willing to change course and pivot when a strategy isn't working. And above all, practicing self-compassion when you can't lift yourself out of the depths and need to ask for help.

In the grand scheme of things we are destined to skate back and forth across the spectrum of emotions. A world of perpetually happy people is a world without plot, a world without Shakespeare or another Shonda Rhimes pilot. So we might as well stop pretending that there are "5 Easy Ways" to stop what defines our humanness. There's nothing simple about us, and that's what makes us such a great story.