Happiness, Depression and Anxiety

The word 'happiness' is often used in two ways: one in the popular language and one in the language of science. In popular language, happiness is often used to describe pleasure and a positive mood contingent on circumstances. In that sense happiness is fleeting, a passing phase that one strives to repeat as often as possible. Scientific investigations, however, define happiness differently. The research on what really makes people happy suggests that happiness is not a fleeting state conditional on present circumstances but a much deeper concept that includes some key principles: control of one's destiny, meaningful activities and relationships, a sense of purpose. What factors are related to achieving that goal?

The 2017 World Happiness Report looks at happiness in different countries and researches the associated variables. The authors report:

"Key factors include economic factors (such as income and employment), social factors (such as education and family life), and health (mental and physical)."

Most people believe that money is a key to happiness and the findings here are that, while money doesn't ensure or provide happiness, the lack of money can be a severe obstacle to achieving it. Money is one of the more important factors in people's estimate of their happiness but per capita income accounts for very little of the individual variation in happiness ratings, accounting for less than 2% of that variation in the 2017 World Happiness Report. 

So, money is not a requisite of happiness but lack of it can lead to misery. According to Nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman  who says: 

"Below an income of $60,000 a year, people are unhappy and they get progressively unhappier the poorer they get. Above that we get an absolutely flat line... Money does not buy you experiential happiness, but lack of money certainly buys you misery."

If happiness is an ideal state, what other factors prevent people from getting there?

The World Happiness Report has some answers. They present data that shows...

"How much misery could in principle be eliminated by eliminating either poverty, low education, unemployment, living alone, physical illness or mental illness? In all countries the most powerful effect would come from the elimination of depression and anxiety disorders, which are the main form of mental illness." Later the report states that, "mental health explains more of the variance of happiness in Western countries than income does."

Are anxiety and depression byproducts of not being happy, or does anxiety and depression prevent people from being happy? Or maybe it's a combination of both?

Whatever, it appears that stressors like loneliness, physical illness, financial issues are associated with anxiety and depression and obstruct the path to happiness.

The treatment for anxiety and depression comes mostly in the form of medications that target the brain. 

Clinically, depression is a low energy state and antidepressant medications are designed to stimulate the brain and increase its energy level. One of the limitations of this approach is that it bypasses many other ways to recharge the brain, and drives the system harder. In looking upstream in the process, we can consider various conditions that drain the brain of its energy: inflammation, chronic infections, poor diet, stress and lack of exercise. Now, we can make an effort to remove these negative conditions instead of compensating for them at the tail end of the process. This "functional" approach to treatment tends to be more efficient and effective. Health, good diet and activity have antidepressant effects. Accordingly, antidepressants medications have their place in the tools use for treating depression. But, they are no substitute for a healthy, happy life. And, they alone cannot yield happiness.

So alternative and complementary approaches to medication for psychiatric disorders, especially depression and anxiety, include a functional medicine approach that assesses and treats various sources of inflammation and gut health, spiritual approaches that focus on mindfulness and self-awareness, lifestyle changes that stress healthy behaviors, and behavioral approaches that actually teach people how to effectively manage stress. 

Life today is complex and often overwhelming. Our brains and bodies, in many ways, were made for simpler times.  It is difficult in such circumstances to focus on the important aspects of life; relationships, meaning, purpose and joy that define happiness. The best way to help people find happiness is to restore, or create, their ability to manage their energy and direct their focus on the important things in life.


Clark, E., Fleche, S, Layard, R., Powdthavee, N & Ward, G. (2017) World Happiness Report. Chapter 5.

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