I’ve discovered the secret to happiness, and it’s HORRIBLE

Close up of a little girl's legs and feet, in leggings and ballet shoes. Her feet are turned out, and a caption (blue on light grey) says "TURN. IT. OUT."Turn it out. That’s it. It’s as simple and as awful as that. This isn’t advice (more of a note to self) but if my experience of depression has taught me anything about happiness it’s that one way to cultivate more of it might be to STOP THINKING ABOUT YOURSELF ALL THE DAMN TIME, DIANE.

Ever since I dropped out of university to be ill, I’ve found birthdays a little rough. That first year, my mum and I went to see Practical Magic then had dinner at Burger King, neither which were great. As the parameters of my life have shrunk, I’ve seen an ever-decreasing pile of birthday cards, which — here goes my unrepentant optimism again! — I tend to take as a reminder that there aren’t that many people in the world who care about me. So I’ve devoted some time during every birthday of the last ten years to having a little cryfest.

Look: I’ve felt sorry for myself a lot in my life. I’m not proud of that, but it’s the truth. (Whereas the fact that I framed it as past tense might not be.)

I care about the world around me. I do. I want to be compassionate and useful and have a life that actually means something. But sometimes I forget. I find having a bunch of chronic health problems so overwhelming that it’s hard to see beyond my own navel. It feels like I’ll never get better if I stop obsessing about how I feel and focus on something else, even though the opposite is probably true.

In a piece Roger Ebert wrote about religion, death and the meaning of life, he said: “We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try.”

It’s easy for me to get into a funk where I start ruminating over how few birthday cards I have, or that only a few people read a particular blog post, or how it feels like no one likes me boo hoo hoo. But one day, an embarrassingly short time ago, it hit me: Can I honestly say I’ve repaid every kindness that people have shown to me?


Even when it comes to something as insignificant as Twitter*, have I retweeted more times than I’ve been retweeted? Have I recommended other people’s blog posts and articles as often as I’ve hoped for mine to be shared? Nope. Do I apparently want to take and take without giving anything back? Yep. ‘Cos life is hard and I feel ill, poor me.

People have been kind to me in a lot of different ways during the course of my life. Not  always the people I wanted to be nice to me and not always in the ways I would have liked. But was I grateful for the intention behind their actions? You bet I wasn’t.

I didn’t know that I wasn’t owed anything, or that the best way to feel content is to not expect anything from anyone. (I’m not saying that’s easy, but I do think it’s true.) There’s nothing more guaranteed to pull you out of self-pity than to do something, however tiny, for someone else. But there are few things that feel more challenging.

The trouble is, your motivation can’t be desperation or quid pro quo. You have to get to a place (if only temporarily) where you’re genuinely happy for someone else’s success or want to help out with something even if you don’t get any credit.

I’m not talking about self-flagellation or being a martyr, and I’m definitely not recommending staying in an abusive situation, even if you think it would make someone else happy. What I am saying is that feeling loved is something we generate within ourselves, it’s not dependent on what other people do for us. And ironically, one way to feel more love is to give it away.

Of course, this may all be second nature to you. You might never be selfish and instead be constantly thinking about other people. But depression and chronic illness have made me self-absorbed, and I already had a tendency to be oblivious. I need reminders.

And I need to start spending birthdays being grateful for what I have, instead of weeping over what I haven’t.

Image: Morgue File, which sounds morbid but really isn’t. (+ Photoshop) (OK, Photoshop Elements). 

*I’m sorry Twitter I love you.

After words:: (A link to something tangentially related to the post, which no one pays/asks me to recommend.) This week? Ballet pic, ballet programme: David Weigel wrote about why Bunheads is the best show on TV. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I agree that it’s underrated and my life feels bereft without it. For me, though, the best bits are the banter between Michelle and Fanny, especially in the second half of the season. (Haha, Fanny.)

  • For me the problem is quite the opposite. I’ve spent most of my adult life helping and supporting others, both in my “free time” and as my job (author/medical writer). And it often feels like I’m only giving to others (who do appreciate it, there’s no doubt about that), but there’s no one to support or help me. I always thought I had many friends, but it’s been devastating to learn that most of them (and my partner and my family) couldn’t care less about me having several acutely life-threatening conditions.

    My only way to fight this really horrible feeling is to try not to think about it too much.

    • I kind of feel like we’re talking about the same experience. People I thought were my friends when I got ill didn’t understand or sometimes seem to care at all, and we mostly lost touch. Even people who stuck around didn’t always react the way I wanted them to, or help me in the ways I would have liked. But a big part of the problem was my having expectations, when no one was obligated to do anything for me at all! That was a painful realisation, but also a freeing one, because now life can become a game of “What can I give without wanting anything back?” instead of “Why doesn’t anyone like meeeee?” (Which is how I spent my first 34 years.)

  • Erin H

    I like this change of heart you’re having. 🙂 (I want to say more, but my brain isn’t producing the idea very coherently, so don’t be surprised if I’m back with more in a day or two!) xx

  • Vicki

    Well Diane as per Roger Ebert you do contribute to the joy of the world with your ourstanding and accomplished writing, your witty tweets and your interesting blog of course. No doubt you contribute in many other ways I’m unaware of !
    It is the hardest thing though to look outside yourself and that implies of course that one isn’t at ease with one-self..To find that inner peace is indeed a challenge.
    Yes to think of others of course in our daily lives but I doubt we’re all “Mother Teresa” altruists! However that time honoured expression “it took me out of myself” is very apposite. Simple things like immersing oneself in an enjoyable book, film or other occupation,
    Also we all strive for happiness and feel as though we’re not on the right track if we’re not 100% happy. I honestly don’t believe we come here for that. We come here to cope with much less than 100% happiness and we should be happy that we cope.
    Sorry this is all a bit disjointed but call it “stream of consciousness” !!

    • Thanks Vicki, you’re very kind. (I SWEAR I wasn’t fishing for compliments, but I’ll take ’em.) It’s not that I don’t think I’ve done nice things for others, or that I’m aiming to be Mother Teresa. It’s just that turning out instead of in is something that works for me as a coping technique — my energy picks up and I feel better about life in general if I can start to feel more grateful for what I have and think about ways to share that.