What even is “mental health?”

And what do “happiness” and “depression” even look like?


This article isn’t about serious mental health disorders, diagnosed or otherwise. It’s not about conditions that are well-established, medicated, or treated. It’s not about those who suffer through living day to day. It’s not about suicidal tendencies.

This article is about — and for — all the rest of us just outside that.

“Sane” as measured by “status quo”

We do this. And it’s weird that we do, because many, many people within the status quo are sad and broken as fuck. (In fact, one could even argue that the status quo in the US is depression.)

And yet we continue to look to others for markers of normalcy, judging anyone outside of it as “mentally unhealthy.”

There’s a cognitive bias for accepting what’s “common” as “correct.”

What’s “right?” What’s “mentally healthy?” Whatever everyone’s doing.

This bias is similar to “bandwagon effect” — the tendency to do and believe what other people do or believe, somewhat like “groupthink” and “herd behavior.”

It’s similar to “status quo bias” — the desire for things to stay the same — but it takes even one step further.

And in this context, it’s even similar to “system justification” — the theory that people’s needs can be met by the status quo; the need for “order and stability,” for example, can make the status quo seem “good, legitimate, and even desirable.”

But is the status quo sane? Is “normal” also “mentally healthy?”

Status-chasing, markers, and misery

They say people who spend a lot of time on social media are depressed, and I believe it. Whether it’s causation or correlation, and regardless of which may be causing which, I can totally believe that spending that much time with superficial markers will fuck with our head.

But it’s not a social media thing. People who try to “keep up with the Joneses” are always miserable, regardless of how and where they do the comparing.

And people who talk incessantly about happiness and being happy are, in my experience, almost always over-compensating for lacking it.

“Ignorance is bliss”

And — I say this with love — this is why so many people believe they are “happy.” Or, in any case, where they believe they can find happiness — until awareness is pressed upon them. Because, they tell themselves, if we don’t try, we can’t fail. It we don’t ask questions, we won’t get bad answers. If we don’t leave our lane, we can’t be sideswiped by a semi. But the reality is: we still can, and do.

Too many people live like this — they follow along the prescribed path, never asking questions or pausing or exploring or pushing back.

And when they wake up one day and realize that they’re unhappy, they shrug off blame, as though to say, “it’s not my fault — I did everything I was supposed to.” And hunker back down into escapism and distractions.

And I ask of you: is that a better measure of “mentally healthy?”

Critical thinking and challenge is… not bliss?

People think calling things into question is “cynicism.” They think teasing out other possible answers is “depression.” I know this because they message and email me about it all the time.

They think it’s something serious to address; something far more serious than living lives of quiet desperation. The rattling of a cage — the sweat on one’s temple; the furrowed brow — makes them far more uncomfortable. They think questioning the status quo means a mental health problem.

But worse, they also think this is an insult.

But I think thinking that way is worse.

“The unexamined life is not worth living”

It was Socrates who said that.

I happen to agree. Pushed to choose, I’d rather be jaded than faded. I’d rather be questioning shit at the risk of bliss or normalcy than take either of the latter at the cost of questions.

And maybe that’s just me. But that’s part of the point.

“Happiness” isn’t the end goal

And to the extent that “happiness” is synonymous with “mentally healthy,” then I guess that’s not the end goal, either, but I’m still not sure why mental health has to be called into question either way. Especially since, as we established, “normal” isn’t a good measure when so many “normal” people, subservient to the status quo, are quietly broken.

Happiness is, in the very least, something infinitely more complex than hedonism, escapism, or ignorant bliss.

When a mental health disorder is debilitating, that’s one thing. But when it’s a matter of subjectivity and some of that subjective shit is ugly on the inside, I leave this to the individual in question and not others who invite themselves in and impose.

The end goal is subjective

Sometimes “happiness” is in challenging things. It is in asking questions. Some people are far “happier,” if we must put it that way, questioning romance and conventional love and even calling it like it is — bullshit — than they ever were sitting on a beach sipping mai tais or churning away on “what everyone wants.”

And the solution isn’t in medicating enough to “just be happy.” The solution is in finding better answers. And part of those answers include understanding that the objective isn’t necessarily “normalcy,” especially if normalcy is poorly defined.

It’s far “healthier” to look your life in the eye and decide things for yourself — to risk being battered at the hand of the universe, coming out a little weathered on the other side — than sit idly inside and accept what’s delivered to your doorstep with a smile that barely hides that perpetual sinking feeling.

It’s “healthier” to actually live; to admit to and abandon what doesn’t work, to risk scars and loss and hurt, to talk about things like a realist in order to live in a higher reality.

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