Am I Allowed to Be Happy? Even When My Spouse is Depressed?

Are you allowed to be happy when your partner is not?

Anna writes a beautiful post about how to take control of our own happiness even when the world is hurting around us. One thing we see over and over again with our clients is the guilt one spouse has when they are trying to be happy and their spouse is depressed. What to do? How do you overcome the feeling like you’re leaving them behind? What about “in sickness and in health?”. We’ll continue to touch on this subject, but we’re happy to share some tips that apply to ANYONE struggling with allowing themselves to feel joy amidst whatever sadness, hurt, pain, suffering around them.

From the dreadful limbo state of “I can’t get myself to work but I feel like I should be working so I can’t do anything truly fun instead”...

To the debilitating “Another horrifying news article just came out so how could I possibly go and have a good time right now,”...

I’m finding myself asking the question “Am I allowed to be happy, to feel joy?”

And if I am, then why can’t I put down my work, disconnect, experience something joyful and come back refreshed? Why do I feel guilty if I take my eyes off of world problems to play, laugh and have fun?

For me, it can feel as if it’s all or nothing - either I devote all of my time, thoughts and energy to world problems and my work, never again being “distracted” by joy and happiness, Orrrrr I experience delight in great joy and the pleasure of fun thus letting my work and the world collapse into doom in those moments. Huh. Pretty extreme choices… In this black and white framework, it doesn’t exactly feel like I’m allowed to feel joy without also feeling like a bad person. And the more I give into this thinking and resist the experience of joy, the less I’m able to pick up on the good stuff around me. My world begins to be colored in darkness.

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So I call hogwash.

Fun/joy and work/world problems are not on opposing teams. In fact, fun and joy support work and world problems. As Adrienne Maree Brown, an American author, doula, women's rights activist, says in the Truth Be Told podcast “Joy - Episode 1”:

“Your laughter is important. Your joy is important. It’s not a guilty pleasure...It’s a strategic move towards the future that we all need…”

It makes sense to me that happy people are more successful and are able to solve problems more effectively. It also makes sense to me that when we take time to restore ourselves, to experience joy, to laugh and play, our ability to positively impact the world increases exponentially. Yet another benefit of treating joy as a necessity rather than a luxury, is that by healing and restoring ourselves, we can offer something healed to those around us, to those in the past and in the future.

But understanding something intellectually is not the same as living the idea.

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I know I can’t just will myself to stop feeling guilty for experiencing joy when I “could” be working or thinking about hard problems. I need to retrain my brain and body to be sensitive to the good stuff the same way that it is sensitive to the bad stuff, to more deeply savor the good, and for this to be my norm. It’s not about ignoring or dismissing the bad. While it’s been a perception for a long time that positive people wear rose-colored glasses, new studies suggest that positive people are actually able to see both the good and the bad, and savor the good.

So how do I retrain my brain?

One approach described by Adrienne Maree Brown is called “attention liberation, attention reparations.” She gives an example in the aforementioned podcast of how when someone is sharing a negative news story with her, she refocuses her attention on all the amazing, smart, thoughtful people who are working on the problem instead. This type of refocusing can prevent our brains from pigeonholing itself on the negative. We are not denying the news, but we are looking at it from a different perspective. One that is more freeing and spacious. Read more about her approach here.

Another approach is by practicing mindfulness exercises. My favorite one is called Three Good Things, by the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley University. I love it because it is simple. You take a moment to write down three good things that have happened to you today up until that moment (it can be as simple as “my coffee was delicious”). Then describe the event in great detail, write about how it made you feel and how/why you think it came to pass. Writing it down is an important part of the exercise but if you can’t find the energy, I feel that you can also do this exercise in your head. Full instructions here.

With these exercises, we can “re-sensitize” our brains to good things thus making the experience of joy a norm in our lives rather than a guilty pleasure or luxury.

Let’s take a minute to do the exercise:

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Till next time.

Wishing you joy, safety and ease.


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Anna is a blog contributor, meditation leader and teacher, and photographer. You can follow her on Instagram @skillsforwellness and find her blogging away at reset brain + body. reset brain + body is a mental wellness practice where traditional talk therapy is elevated through the integration of meditation, nutrition, yoga and mindfulness. Connect with reset brain + body on Instagram & Facebook, check out the class schedule, or contact us to book an appointment.