Suicides of student athletes should make us ask how society is contributing

There are many individual reasons for the suicides of student athletes that we are witnessing. But we need to raise the question of how society might also be contributing to these tragedies. There’s no doubt that our culture is letting down young people, and one important dimension to that failure is our insistence on promoting happiness as the measure for living a successful life. Ironically, the pursuit of happiness is often more stressful than fulfilling. 

Focusing on happiness can lead to perfectionistic tendencies as people try to sustain what is actually a brief and elusive emotion instead of approaching life in a way that engenders resilience across the inevitable ups and downs. As the poet Robert Frost famously said, “Happiness makes up in height for what it lacks in length.” The pressure to present only our “best” selves to the world can also inhibit us from connecting with others, who might see our flaws if we let them get close. Being judged or, even worse, alienated for presenting anything less than a happy, put-together self to the world creates a fragile foundation for self-esteem.

Unlike happiness, a state of contentment is long-lasting and provides a strong base for mental health. Discovering what makes us feel content and pursuing that helps protect us from stress.

Yet we are bombarded with advertisements and social media posts that suggest happiness is within our reach; in fact, it’s just one one click away. We are told we can change our living room furniture and therefore our state of mind in an instant. This supposed solution makes our appetite for quick fixes grow ever stronger, while the failure we experience when the quick fix doesn’t work is perceived as a personal flaw since it’s supposed to be so easy to obtain.

The pressure people feel to be happy — or at least look happy — can also be corrosive to establishing a strong sense of self. Reducing happiness to something performative shortchanges our ability to express a full range of emotions, which exacerbates stress as we bottle up parts of ourselves. We live in a Hallmark card world where every event seems reducible to a single emotion (all birthdays should be happy!), so people learn to hide their inner turmoil rather than express it. This can easily set a downward spiral in motion and increase the chance of depression and anxiety.

A patient of mine recently lost 75 pounds. Everyone who sees her congratulates her and expects her to be happy about this accomplishment when, in fact, happiness is just one of the many complicated feelings stirred up by her weight loss. Rather than being supported by all these compliments, she feels tremendous pressure to present a happy face to the outside world. This only makes it harder for her to stay on track to keep the weight off. How gratifying it would be for her if people would ask, “How do you feel?” rather than start with, “You must be so happy.”      

Instead of promoting happiness as the elixir for life, our society needs to deepen the conversation and explore how people can find contentment. In psychology, the state of contentment usually refers to being at peace with oneself. It doesn’t carry the stigma of settling for less, as the word is commonly used. To be content in the psychological sense is to be in alignment with oneself. Unlike happiness, a state of contentment is long-lasting and provides a strong base for mental health. Discovering what makes us feel content and pursuing that helps protect us from stress in its many manifestations.         

When I ask my patients, “Do you ever feel content?,” the thread running through the answers of those who do is connection. Those who feel connected to some purpose, passion or other person have an enhanced sense of well-being. This is a more enduring state of mind than mere moments of happiness. Establishing a deep connection to something or someone reinforces self-esteem. This is the seed of grit, which can help someone choose to get out of bed in the morning even when they are feeling blue. For those who don’t experience contentment, their longing makes them vulnerable to quick fixes and despair, to being in constant pursuit of the next hit of happiness. 

Promoting contentment rather than happiness as the goal for measuring a satisfying life needs to start early. When parents are asked what they want for their child, they often reply that they just want their child to “be happy.” But, in my experience, when they define what that would look like, it’s usually a list of accomplishments rather than a state of mind, i.e., going to college or making money rather than finding a sense of purpose. Many of my patients struggle under the burden of having disappointed their parents by not finding the “happiness” their parents wanted for them.

The misguided notion that the antidote to distress is happiness also reinforces the misperception that it is exclusively the individual’s failure to cope that leads to mental illness. Social messages prescribe what happiness looks like from certain body types to six-figure salaries. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, economic and social forces continue to sell the dangerous myth that individual change as opposed to social change is the solution to unhappiness.  

There are more feelings in the world than happy and sad. As a society, we need to encourage and support people in expressing a wider and more nuanced array of feelings than the current social contract allows. There can be no headway in overcoming the mental health crisis if it is solely up to individuals to adapt rather than advocating for society to change. 

A big step in this direction is to get off the happiness train and start promoting the value of being content. Of course, I want my patients to experience happiness and I celebrate with them when those moments in their life occur. But beyond happiness, I yearn for them to know the satisfaction that comes from living a life measured by contentment in a community that wants to know them fully, not just when they are happy. 

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