Happiness As A Number

A version of this piece was originally posted on tumblr here on October 31, 2013.

I love math.

Just kidding, I actually hate math. (Also I’m terrible at it, which is probably why I hate it.)

But there’s something about attributing numbers to feelings that just makes so much more sense to me. Because you can tell a friend you’re sad, but what does that really mean? I get sad when I have a lot of work to do at school, or my job is weighing me down, or my parents are annoying me. But that is different than the deep sadness you feel when your hopes and dreams explode in front of your face, or you lose the people you love the most.

That’s the kind of sad I am right now, which is also called depression when it lasts for a prolonged period of time.

Sometimes I’m cool with telling people that. Sometimes that is all I need to say, and they understand, because they’ve been where I am. But that is rare. Most people don’t get it, and they especially don’t get it when I explain the reason(s) for my current episode. I tell them the reason and they think they can fix it, with things like this:

“You shouldn’t define your worth by another person!” 

“You just need to get out more!”

“You just need to forget about so and so! They’re not worth your time!”

“Talk to your parents!”

“But think about all the good things you have! And some people have it so much worse!”

And they mean well, which is lovely, and sometimes they’re right. But just hearing something doesn’t make it better.

Sad like this isn’t fixable. Sadness that stems from loss will always be a part of you, but it does fade over time. I say this more as a reminder to myself than anything else.

I don’t want to live with a part of me missing for the rest of my life, but if I have to, I can do that. I can survive. The only question is whether or not I’m interested in that life.

Right now the answer is no.

But I know that one day I might change my mind. In the meantime, I need those around me to understand how I’m feeling in the best way that they can, and I think that numbers are great for this.

Yesterday I attended an event at my university, and at the entrance, they had a whiteboard that asked, “How happy are you today, on a scale from 1-10?” I watched from my table as the board filled up, and I couldn’t see any number lower than a 6. I decided that I was a 2. I would have said 1, but there are still things here and there that bring me some joy, like my friends, family, and cat. Of course, it figures that I would be the saddest person in the room, I thought. But as I was leaving I noticed that someone had written a 2 in the corner in small writing.

And at first I thought, yay, someone like me! And then, that poor person. But things will get better for them. I believe that things will get better for everyone (except for me). And then I started thinking – maybe all those people who were writing numbers like “11,000” had been a 2 once. Maybe last year, or maybe last week. And maybe things got that much better for them. Of course, this may or may not be true, but this was the first time I had ever had a thought like that.

I always assumed that if things ever got better for me it would be mediocre at best, like a comfortable 5. Which doesn’t sound all that appealing when I got pretty used to living at a 9 (on cloud 9, amirite?). But maybe it is possible to get up there again. And somehow it makes me feel better to know that others are suffering just as much as I am. I don’t want anyone to feel the pain that I feel. But maybe they were 100% convinced like I am that they lost the greatest thing that had ever happened to them. And maybe that turned out to be okay for them, for whatever reason. Maybe it will turn out to be okay for me too, someday.

Aside from being thought provoking, however, I realized that I could use a scale with anybody. When they ask me how I’m feeling, I can explain to them that a bad day for most people is like a 5 or a 6, but a bad day for me is a 2 or even lower than that. Numbers that someone without depression wouldn’t even think of. And if they really care, I can use that scale every day to keep track of how I’m doing.

This idea is very similar to “spoon theory”. Spoon theory is a concept that was created by writer Christine Miserandino in which spoons are equated with energy (both physical and mental).

Most people start with the same number of spoons (an infinite number, as Miserandino says), or the same level of energy. But someone with mental illness may start each day with fewer (or in some cases, maybe more). They may start with a different number of spoons every day.

Every task requires energy, as we know. Thus, every task requires a certain number of spoons. Taking a shower might be one spoon; going to a party could be twenty. And if someone with mental illness wakes up and only has twenty spoons to start out with, they are probably not going to that party. It doesn’t make mathematical sense.

Math is called the universal language for a reason. Not everyone can do algebra, but everyone understands numbers at their most basic level. And if you are someone whose brain or body operates differently from most people, I encourage you to use numbers as a tool to help you make the world understand you.

We spend too much time trying to fit into the world. It is time to make the world fit us, or at least, start to make the world see why it needs to change.


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