Depression: “I’m Happy for You” When You Can’t Feel Happy

A few years ago a good friend of mind got married. She was a beautiful bride. I thought she looked like she just walked out of a bridal magazine. And she was an extremely happy bride too. I think it couldn’t have been a better day and situation for her.

I was one of her bridesmaids. This was extremely hard on me as, at the time, I was in a major depression and I couldn’t feel happiness. I was anhedonic. I couldn’t feel positive emotions of any sort. And to see my radiant friend be deliriously happy and get married to a wonderful man was just too much for me. It made my depression so much worse. I just couldn’t feel happy for her because I couldn’t feel happy at all. All I felt was incredibly upset for me.

Feeling Happy When You’re Depressed

Not everyone is anhedonic when depressed, but I sure get that way so it’s just not possible for me to feel happy – ever. No matter what good might happen in my life, I just can’t feel it. People don’t understand this. People think it’s impossible. Regular, feeling people don’t understand how you can have a positive-feeling-ectomy. But you can. It’s anhedonia and it’s absolutely real.

Feeling More Depressed about Not Feeling Happy

When great things happen to friends, I want to feel happy for them but when depressed, I can't feel happy for myself, let alone others.And, at the time of the wedding, I was alone. I didn’t have a partner to lean on and I didn’t have any love in my life that was like what my friend was experiencing, so seeing all her happiness just made me feel bad about my own life. I wanted, desperately, to feel happy for her as she’s a wonderful human being and her and her then fiancé deserve all the happiness they can possibly wring out of life. I believe that.

Not feeling happy for her made me feel even worse. I knew I should feel happy. I knew it was horrible for me not to. But I couldn’t I just, physically, couldn’t.

And honestly, at the time I self-harmed because it was the only way I could make it through all the wedding events. I had to self-harm just to prop myself up enough to go to the rehearsals and the wedding itself.

What I’ve Learn about Not Being Happy for Others

What I didn’t realize then, though, was that there was nothing inherently wrong with me for not being happy. I had an illness and it was preventing me from, physically, feeling what a normal person would feel – that doesn’t mean there was anything wrong with me, it meant there was something wrong with my brain. What I’ve learned since then is that while it’s incredibly painful to not feel happy for others, I have to go easy on myself and not beat myself for not being able to feel what I simply can’t, physically, feel. I know that my friend would have never wanted me to feel even more depressed because of her happiness. I know she never would have wanted to make me worse. So, given that, there is no need, in any way, for me to make myself worse and if I can avoid it, it is to everyone’s benefit.

So go easy if you can’t feel happy for someone else. It sucks, and it’s normal for it to make you feel more depressed, but by not beating yourself up, you can mitigate it, at least to some degree. Recognize the problem for what it is – a symptom of an illness and not something wrong with you.

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  1. Tom I feel like an imposter has replaced me too. I used to be a lot more vibrant before a bipolar diagnosis and meds sucked the life energy force right out of me. Recently I was invited out with friends and family to celebrate my birthday. Even my coworkers surprised me with cake and a jubilant chorus of happy birthday but I felt no joy whatsoever. I didn’t want to make them feel bad so I had to pretend I was enjoying myself. Lately it’s like I’ve been going through the motions of life without really fully participating.

    Phil I also agree that it’s, at least in part, a spiritual condition not just a mental issue. I need to spend more time again focusing on my spiritual life

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  3. I have experienced this a few times this summer. It is incredibly sad and frustrating, as you want to react to their happiness -as you may have in the past. I was diagnosed bipolar in July after a lexapro sent me into some heavy cycling and depression. I am hoping the lingering and somewhat lighter anhedonia is a temporary effect, and as the meds stabilize there will be less and less of it. I am/was a vibrant and outgoing person, and want to be one again. I feel like some im-poster replaced me.

  4. I’ve had the same kind of responses to hearing that my friends got married. God bless you for getting through a wedding when you were in such a state.

    I nominated you for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award. I have been checking out your blog for a few months now, and I find it quite educational and insightful. If you would like to accept this nomination, you can stop by my blog to read the rules and such. Thank you for your contributions to the world.

  5. Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC creates a chemical involuntary
    feeling of well being for most people. You don’t have to feel crappy,
    you can be happy. Like all alternative drugs there are side effects.
    As of this date pot is still illegal in many states. How badly do
    you want to feel good?

  6. I have been in this situation many times. I just smile and say, “Congratulations, I’m happy for you.” It is a white lie, but I know I would be happy if I weren’t depressed. I have learned from experience that depressions will lift. It is easiest for me to deal with depression if I just go through the motions of life even though I don’t feel good. I try to stick with my routines and go places and be with friends even though I feel like isolating. I used to take time off work for depression, but now I just keep going. I have learned that it’s better to be less productive than to stop going to work entirely and be very behind when I get back. Most of the time people at work don’t even know that I’ve been depressed and don’t notice that I’m not as productive as usual.

  7. I honestly did not know there was a name/condition for not feeling happy. I have not felt true happiness in such a long time, I avoid going out to have any “fun” at all. That does not mean I do not have snippets of laughter or feel proud of my son. I will be 50 next month, and I have always wondered how much longer I could continue to live like this – bipolar and in a deep depression, not enjoying anything in life. Two months ago, I tried ECT to see if I would get any relief from my many issues. For the first time in probably 25 years, I do not think about suicide on a daily basis, 20x’s a day. That has helped immensely. I may not be the happiest person out there, but getting past the suicidal thoughts and finding the ECT has helped with cravings to make sobriety easier, makes the day better. Now if only I could clean the house.

  8. When my mother was dying in 1993, I got religion for about 6 months(manic?) I would pray or meditate, take your pick.
    I prayed for wisdom and her but I also prayed for ‘enemies’ or people I was envious of.
    I wished all good things for them. The end result, when I would hear that one was doing especially well? I was truly happy for them. Of course I was, I came to want that for them. Maybe I helped. It doesn’t matter because it changed my feelings when nothing else would.
    I still do it because a pill can’t. It’s a spiritual issue. Not just a mental condition.

  9. Agreed on all points and has happened to me very often!!! Still happens but when I am not depressed I am more able to believe that it won’t be this way forever. And that my time will come.

  10. Thanks for sharing this. It IS so hard to be happy for others, if not impossible. It’s nice to have someone say that it’s Ok if you can’t do it. My struggle is being happy for friends/coworkers who are pregnant. I want to be happy for them but just end up feeling miserable and angry for myself instead. I just do the best I can to pretend to look happy.

    I too am sad to hear about Robin Williams but totally understand how you can be at that place where suicide is a realistic option. I’ll bet all the media pundits will talk and talk but never comment on the thousands of people who struggle with severe depression, bipolar or otherwise and how freaking common it is for so many of us to struggle.

  11. “And, at the time of the wedding, I was alone. I didn’t have a partner to lean on and I didn’t have any love in my life that was like what my friend was experiencing, so seeing all her happiness just made me feel bad about my own life. I wanted, desperately, to feel happy for her as she’s a wonderful human being and her and her then fiance deserve all the happiness they can possibly wring out of life. I believe that.”

    – this is why you could not FEEL happy, at the time. While you were genuinely happy for your friend, you were only seeing what you lacked in your life. The wedding and festivities made it all too real in your mind’s eyes. You said it, right there, in that paragraph.

    The reason for your deepening depression, at that time, was that you could not NOT take your mind off your own personal life… the focus was on you, not your friend and NO, you need not beat yourself up over this… it’s actually somewhat normal for a person with depression raging in their mind. The depression takes the focus off others and rests solely on self and the thoughts and voices that rage are of all the failings and mess ups and screw ups and burdens we place on others, etc..

    Nonetheless, not every literal reaction, response, impulse, thought, feeling or emotion is Bipolar. Much of the underlying emotion is controlled by the illness, but not every literal thing.

    As much as many would scream to the heavens denying it – Some of it, truly is, us.

    As far as Robin Williams goes: I was a huge fan of Mork & Mindy and everything from that point onward. The drugs and alcohol became his silent friends, much as Bipolar and Schizophrenia and Major Depression becomes many of our silent friends. Many of us, I included, have self-medicated to make the pain of the illness we do struggle with, disappear.

    He commented, in an article once and has been repeated here in these hours… that crack slowed his mind down so that he could become silent, thoughtful, and quiet. Others became hyper and manic, he became quiet and withdrawn.

    If he did indeed commit suicide by asphyxia and it was noted he had been struggling with a horrendous depression for some time, here recently… it really is something most of us can relate to and that we can understand.

  12. Natasha,

    I am extremely saddened this evening by the death of Robin Williams, your essay and worse yet Joyce’s worsening condition.

    Joyce’s situation from a mental health standpoint is 180 degrees opposite of what you described here today. As you know from our years of past correspondence Joyce has achieved and maintained a depression free state. What is incredible in her circumstances is that her more recent Parkinson’s type illness is robbing her of her ability to ambulate, to write, to verbally communicate, to remember etc. and yet she remains happy when others with her illness who have never experienced depression become severely depressed.

    So as crazy as this may sound to those reading my message Joyce should have every reason to be depressed and yet she is not. It is I who feels the sadness and depression as I see my bride of 51 years deteriorating before me and her illness progressing as we celebrated our Anniversary this past Sunday and there is nothing that I can do.

    There is nothing we can do to halt Joyce’s decline but on the other hand I wish to continue to implore and encourage you and your readers to not give up on trying and/or experimenting helping rid yourselves of these horrible brain disorders and malfunctioning.

    So I very much understand your message “I have to go easy on myself and not beat myself for not being able to feel what I simply can’t, physically, feel” just as Joyce doesn’t beat herself mentally for what is happening to her physically and neurologically.

    As always, I wish you and all those who are challenged wellness and all the good you’d wish for yourselves.


  13. I understand what you’re saying, and there have been many times or periods, I haven’t felt happiness (or anything for that matter) but for me, I always PUT myself in the ”happy persons” place. I want to BE them so I get the euphoria feeling b/c someone won something, got married, bought a new car, had a child etc.
    I get ‘over the top” happy.
    But–the same thing w/ sadness. Tonight when I heard that Robin Williams died and they kept saying he suffered from ”depression” carefully skirting the bipolar word, I just cried, assuming he’d killed himself–b/c I knew those wretched moments– just not to that suicidal depth –YET.
    IF he did kill himself, most of US know why.
    I said to my hus I understand, IF he did. I understood why. I even understood the drugs.
    When he did drugs, imo –it was anything to MAKE HIMSELF FEEL ”UP”. I tell my p-doc that if heroin or crack were legal, I’d do it daily. I want that ”happy” feeling –Always. I can’t STAND the sadness.
    I loved Robin Williams, and will always treasure the movies, happiness he left behind. I’m so sad tonight b/c of this. Too sad.
    When people I care about or love, die, I’m a crier. I want that ”happy” feeling but tonight my brain says no. Absolutely not. Tonight’s a crying night.