It's okay to be sad sometimes.

Blog Mental health

8 October, 2021

This post is not about depression, it's just about being a human being. If you're in New Zealand and you need someone to talk to, you can free call or text 1737 to talk with a trained counsellor, or take a look here for some other options. Please reach out if you think you need help.

It's okay to be sad sometimes. Really, it is. We wouldn't be human if we weren't sad sometimes. The problem is that, over the last few decades, we seemed to have developed a sort of collective amnesia, and completely forgotten this. And it's really, really hard to retrain yourself to be comfortable with it. But we should try to, all the same.

Maybe I should rephrase this: We can't be happy all the time. There are several reasons for this, some obvious, some not so much. I'm usually uncomfortable with arguments that refer back to early humanity as some sort of golden era of health and prosperity (it's natural, hell, it's organic to be short-sighted and have your teeth fall out, right?). But cavemen that were blissfully happy all the time, and weren't stressed about that sabre-tooth tiger around the corner, probably didn't last very long. Then there's the argument that some people have used to justify the existence of evil in this world (and therefore justify the moral existence of their god): Without evil, there can be no good. I think Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov completely destroyed that argument—

"Can you understand that a small creature, who cannot even comprehend what is being done to her, in a vile place, in the dark and the cold, beats herself on her strained little chest with her tiny fist and weeps with her anguished, gentle, meek tears for 'dear God' to protect her—can you understand such nonsense, my friend and my brother, my godly and humble novice, can you understand why this nonsense is needed and created? Without it, they say, man could not even have lived on earth, for he would not have known good and evil. Who wants to know this damned good and evil at such a price? The whole world of knowledge is not worth the tears of that little child to 'dear God.'"

Okay, I digress; what I mean to say is that of course I find the good/evil argument vapid, but perhaps we can apply it to better effect in the context of our mental state. If we were happy all the time, then what would happiness mean? One step further, then. Is it even possible to be happy all the time?

Happiness is hard

There are some interesting offshoots of this idea. I'm sure any psychologist would be able to reference any number of studies showing that humans are incredibly poor at maintaining lasting happiness from things. When we get a shiny new toy we've been coveting, it makes us happy for a while. But pretty soon, it just becomes part of our lives, and we forget how excited we were to have it in the first place. In the personal finance sphere, people often talk about lifestyle creep: the higher consumption and spending that occurs when you advance through your career and start to earn more and more money. It's not clear that this makes us much happier, beyond a baseline threshold where our "needs" are met and we are able to live a comfortable life.

Continuing with the personal finance bit for a moment, the whole point of frugality isn't to be cheap or stingy, but rather to identify the things that make you happy, and prioritise spending your money on those things, while mercilessly cutting expenses in other areas that do not make you happy. This looks different for everyone; perhaps you spend a boatload of money on house plants, but almost never buy new clothes. If house plants make you happy, and new clothes do not, then you've pretty much nailed it. And if you get genuine happiness from buying new clothes, then anyone that judges you for that can get fucked. Of course, it's much easier said than done to figure this stuff out, and the things that make us happy are constantly changing, so it's a moving target.

Having money's not everything, not having it is. But as humans we're exceptionally good at taking things for granted. When something makes us happy, instead of savouring that happiness, we ask ourselves how can we get more of that? When are we next going to feel like that again? This rapid disillusionment can apply to objects, like a new phone or a new car. But it can also apply to less tangible things, I think. Like relationships. Maybe we're hard-wired to do this—again, we can think back to our ancestors and appreciate that we wouldn't be where we are today without that strangely human drive to do more, and better. A bunch of perfectly content people wouldn't bother creating a particle accelerator, or going to the moon, or cutting up little pieces of DNA, shoving some other things in there and seeing what happens. It's arguably a good thing for the human race that we've never been content with what we have. I'm not so sure that it's good for us as individuals, though.

Okay, let's get to the point. For most of human existence, we've lived with unhappiness; or at least with some level of discontent in our lives. It's helped us to grow. It's given us medicine, and music, and border collies. So what's happened in the last few decades? Technology has happened, and it's brought with it a powerful, compelling and limitless source of dopamine. And I think this has really fucked us up.


I'm not a neuroscientist, nor a biologist; in fact, I know virtually nothing about what I'm writing about, but I'm hoping to get away with the vibe of the thing. Oh, I did listen to a really good podcast on Radio New Zealand with Anna Lembke, who wrote a book called Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence, and I watched half a YouTube video on something vaguely related so I'm basically an expert at this point. You're welcome.

Okay, so dopamine is, like, a neurotransmitter or something. Something something brain reward system. Let's horrifically oversimplify an entire field of research and say that basically it's released when we do certain things, like eat tasty food (or maybe just food with a shitload of sodium and fat), have sex with the partner we love (or maybe just spend an hour looking at porn), exercising (or maybe just watching YouTube videos), you get the idea. The problem is that the proliferation of social media, and basically everything to do with the internet—the 24/7 news cycle, infinite scrolling, online shopping, gambling, texting, sexting—has given us unprecedented access to as much dopamine as we can handle (and more). Anna Lembke writes that

"The smartphone is the modern-day hypodermic needle, delivering digital dopamine 24/7 for a wired generation. As such we’ve all become vulnerable to compulsive overconsumption."

Small confession here: I haven't actually read the book. But this instantly resonated with me, and chances are it does with you too. Anyway, the next part of the general vibe of the thing is that dopamine isn't just an unlimited resource. When your brain produces it because of some stimulus, it then begins to downregulate it. It becomes harder to get the same dopamine response from what just happened. And when we are in a constant state of dopamine hyperstimulation, after a while, our brain has had to downregulate it to such an extent that we start to feel pretty bad. Or, maybe we just start to feel numb. Maybe not sad (great!). But maybe not happy.

This becomes more insidious when the things that used to make us happy—our house plants, or David Gilmour's solo on Comfortably Numb, or settling down with a good book—no longer make us as happy as they used to, because we've completely battered our brain's reward pathways. So what do we do? Well, our brains tell us to go back to those things that were giving us that constant rush of dopamine. They're the only things that can do it for us now. We start browsing the internet on our smartphones, we start craving junk food. And this just reinforces the dark pattern that has now become entrenched in our brains. Now we're just self-medicating with dopamine. We're insulating ourselves with neurotransmitters, insulating ourselves from sadness, from introspection, from boredom. And it's just making everything worse.

I'm not trying to be a luddite. Technology has done amazing things for us as a species. But if some parts of it are not working for us as individuals, it's totally fine for us to avoid them.

What recovery might look like

One particularly nefarious symptom of this whole debacle is push notifications on your phone. Every time you get one, you get a little dopamine rush: You are special! Someone said something to you, or about you, or to someone else about something else but hey, look at this anyway! Maybe it makes a nice ding sound, what fun! I sometimes listen to the podcast Afford Anything by Paula Pant, which is ostensibly a personal finance podcast, but her intro (and really, a large proportion of her episodes), which I'll paraphrase here, speaks to similar ideas discussed above:

"You can afford anything but not everything; every choice that you make is a trade-off against something else, and that doesn't just apply to your money, that applies to your time, your focus, your energy, your attention to any limited resource that you need to manage. And that opens up two questions. First, what matters most? Second, how do you make decisions which reflect that which matters most? Answering those two questions is a lifetime practice, and that's what this podcast is here to explore and facilitate."

Now, I'm going to be a Bad Boy and steal someone's ideas without properly referencing them—I think this may have popped up during one of her interviews with Cal Newport, but I'm not really sure. The idea is to be intentional with your actions. One implementation of this is ensuring that the technology that you use is controlled by you, not the other way around. Push notifications are the opposite of intentionality. They demand your attention. They don't care what you're doing, or what your priorities are. They're distracting, and they will ruin your focus. So just turn those fuckers off.

Some people recommend going further, and getting rid of your smartphone entirely. I think this is a reasonable idea for some people (although how then would I plagiarise ideas from podcasts for my blog posts?). I'm not there yet, unfortunately—two-factor authentication apps and messaging apps are pretty central to my personal wellbeing and security at the moment. But hopefully we can take less drastic steps. Maybe remove the internet browser from your phone, uninstall Twitter and Instagram. Turn notifications off. Put it on airplane mode before you go to bed. Leave it in another room while you're in the house; leave it at home when you go for a walk.

That last one has been really important for me. I walk for about an hour every day; previously, I would listen to podcasts or music. But prior to that walk, I would be working: staring at a computer screen for six, eight hours. And afterwards, more often than not I'd be watching TV, or reading a book, or back on the computer working on some personal projects or playing games. This meant that the only time I had with my own thoughts was right when I was trying to go to sleep. And that's really not the best time to be trying to process your life.

Another idea along these lines (which I also got from Cal Newport via Paula Pant) is to make the effort to not look at your phone when you're waiting at the bus stop, or waiting in a... a waiting room, or sitting on the bus. It's okay to be bored! God knows people have been bored for centuries. It's not going to kill us.

To be clear, the point is not be bored. What a depressing blog post that would be. The point is to firstly be comfortable with some level of boredom (or, more bluntly, to be comfortable with a lack of dopamine stimulation); and secondly, to redirect your actions in an intentional way to the things that will make you happy in the long term. Not the fleeting, dopamine-induced happiness, but the real thing. The feeling you get when you've put the finishing touches on a painting, or when your dog tries to burrow into your duvet cover when you wake up, or when you're singing Hey Jude with your family on Christmas, or when you kiss the woman you love in the autumn rain.

I used to know someone who had this all pretty much figured out. She knew that she would get sad if she were alone for too long. But instead of self-medicating with dopamine, she focuses on the things that make her happy, the things that make her who she is: playing cards or board games with friends, going for runs with the dog, dancing, solving crosswords with tea. This is how we can avoid happiness in a healthy way, not by running from it, but simply not letting it creep in. As with any addiction, it's very difficult to just stop—having something else, something positive to focus your energy and attention on, is a key part of recovery. So I hope that you have one of these people in your life, because you can learn a lot from them.

One final strategy. When you have a feeling, or a desire to do something, you don't have to act on it! Acknowledge the feeling or thought. Consider it. My brain is telling me to do this. Is this something that I really want to do? Am I being intentional or reactive? Will this make me happy, or am I really just kicking the can down the road? You don't have to act on everything that comes into your mind. And I think that's quite a powerful lesson to learn.

So train yourself to be okay with your thoughts. This will be hard, as I mentioned above. It'll be really hard. You will get sad. There will be times when you are just over everything. You will want to self-medicate with dopamine. And you will probably do so, time and time again. But every time you resist, you're reforging ancient pathways in your brain that make you human, that make you who you are. If you really want to be happy (or, probably the most anybody can hope for: content), you're going to have to get familiar with sadness, and boredom. You're going to have to get familiar with yourself. And that's okay. It's okay to be sad sometimes.

Thank you

I always intended this website primarily to be a place to publish tech-related posts; thoughts on data science, R, Python, that kind of thing. So this post is a bit of an outlier (ha ha), and is certainly the most personal one I've written to date. It's come on the back of a series of things that have occurred over the last few years, and which have recently culminated in me taking the first proper look at my own mental health—something I've never really done before. Well, it was Mental Health Awareness Week in Aotearoa recently, so the timing is good.

I've been facetious about plagiarising ideas from podcasters and writers, but really, most of the ideas in this post are from a handful of people; close friends and family that I'm incredibly lucky to know. So I just wanted to finish this by saying thank you. You know who you are.

1 comment

M head 9 October, 2021

Clarifies a lot of things, particularly how our happiness, satisfaction,
equilibrium is compromised "because we've completely battered our brain's reward pathways" - very vivid phrase that!

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