Depression Is Not Sadness and Mania Is Not Happiness

4 min read

In my first acquaintance with the clinical description of mood disorders, particularly bipolar disorder, I found myself somewhat troubled. I wondered if treatments for depression might distract someone from what their sadness might mean. Further, I thought, if mania were the opposite of depression, by intervening, were clinicians trying to ‘help’ people feel less happy?

I reflected on this in my early interactions with clients diagnosed with these conditions. In the lows of depression, whether bipolar or major, those diagnosed seemed willing to do anything to feel better. In the highs, not so much. Sometimes, someone in recovery would even express missing their manias. I could understand why. Mania can be fun. Dangerous, but fun.

As I met more people living with bipolar disorder, I recognized how limited my understanding of mania had been. Everyone’s experience is distinct, yet I saw the ways that mania could rip through a person’s life and relationships. The “good” mood would often be accompanied by stark personality changes and irritability. It didn’t reflect the joy a person experiences when living to their values, the sparkle that comes from being in the moment, or the shared connection. Even hypomania, the low-level variety, tends to leave a person racing without giving time to enjoy the things that matter to them. It might feel good in a sense, but it is deceptive.

As it dissipates, mania has a habit of tossing a person into depression. It’s important to note here, as well, that depression is not sadness. Just as happiness reflects our reactions to what matters to us, sadness does the same. It is an emotion with a clear purpose. Clinical depression may or may not link up with an external trigger. It is life-sucking. Energy and drive flea.

Sadness brings our attention to what may need to be grieved or changed. Depression, on the other hand, can feel like meaningless suffering.

The intense moods of major depression and bipolar disorder can give rise to a greater understanding of our emotions. Indeed, many of the world’s most vibrant pieces of art and music are created by people with these diagnoses. As well, many of the most compassionate and self-aware people I have met live with mood disorders. Yet, there is a difference between moods and emotions.

Too often, I have heard accounts of or observed the true emotional experiences of individuals with mood disorders discounted. There are things in life that spark deep sadness, anger, and even elation in anyone. It should go without saying that a person with a mental health condition’s emotions go beyond their moods. Happiness is more than mania, and sadness is more than depression. A person can experience a range of all four. Emotions are always valid regardless of a person’s mood state, and providing support to those experiencing mania is just as important as intervening in cases of depression.

A recent study invited individuals living with bipolar disorder to create their own questions by which to monitor their wellness. It found participants were less interested in tracking their mood than they were on the quality of their relationships (Gordon-Smith et al., 2021). A positive mood is nice. Still, the things we find meaningful tend to extend further. There is space for all emotions, both pleasant and unpleasant ones, according to circumstances. Conversely, the episodes associated with mood disorders have the potential to get in the way of what we find meaningful and how we treat the people closest to us.

Mania and depression are not emotions like happiness or sadness. These are changes to our moods and experiences of life. Once in recovery, the memory of the extreme experiences of mania and depression can give a person greater insight into their emotions, but the condition and its emotional symptoms are distinct.

Recovery from mood disorders is not about feeling stable or muting our emotions but about moving beyond the impact of these major moods so that we can feel what we naturally will and move toward our valued goals.

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