I was five years old when my uncle drove me to the mental hospital. I was confused and afraid.
“Why do I have to go?” I asked Uncle Harry.
He turned his head towards me and smiled. “Your father needs you.”
“What’s the matter with him?” I was beginning to cry, but I clamped my throat shut to stop the tears.
He began to hum a tune that was popular at the time, Sweet and Lovely. Harry Tobias was a well-known song writer and I knew he had written that song along with other standards of the time like It’s a Lonesome Old Town and Miss You.
To me the songs reminded me of a father I would long for all my life. Only later did I learn he had taken an overdose of sleeping pills because he had become increasingly irritable, angry, and depressed because he couldn’t make a living to support his family. I grew up wondering what happened to my father, whether it would happen to me, and how I could keep it from happening to other families like mine.
I had already been to college, gotten my master’s degree and PhD, when I discovered one of my father’s journals that he had kept in the years prior to his “nervous breakdown.” I still get tears when I read it and think about his mounting pain and despair and how many other men and their families suffer.
Your flesh crawls, your scalp wrinkles when you look around and see good writers, established writers, writers with credits a block long, unable to sell, unable to find work, Yes, it’s enough to make anyone, blanch, turn pale and sicken.
Faster, faster, faster, I walk. I plug away looking for work, anything to support my family. I try, try, try, try, try. I always try and never stop. I bash my fist against the wall as my despair turns into rage. Why can’t I support my family? What’s the matter with me?
A hundred failures, an endless number of failures, until now, my confidence, my hope, my belief in myself, has run completely out. Middle aged, I stand and gaze ahead, numb, confused, and desperately worried. All around me I see the young in spirit, the young in heart, with ten times my confidence, twice my youth, ten times my fervor, twice my education.
I see them all, a whole army of them, battering at the same doors I’m battering, trying in the same field I’m trying. Yes, on a Sunday morning in early November, my hope and my life stream are both running desperately low, so low, so stagnant, that I hold my breath in fear, believing that the dark, blank curtain is about to descend.”
Six days after his November 8th entry, my father took the sleeping pills. Though he didn’t die, our lives were never the same. It is probably not surprising that I have specialized in gender medicine and written sixteen books, on various aspects of men’s health, including Surviving Male Menopause and The Irritable Male Syndrome: Understanding and Managing the 4 Key Causes of Depression and Aggression.
In The Irritable Male Syndrome I describe the way our current economic system is causing increasing stress on all men. I quoted Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and author Susan Faludi. In her book, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man she concludes that male stress, shame, anger, and depression are not just a problem of individual men but a product of the economic and social betrayal so many men are feeling. She quotes a man she interviewed named Don Motta, who could have been expressing the pain of my own father and so many other men I see in my counseling practice.
“There is no way you can feel like a man,” Motta told her. “You can’t. It’s the fact that I’m not capable of supporting my family…When you’ve been very successful in buying a house, a car, and could pay for your daughter to go to college, though she didn’t want to, you have a sense of success and people see it. I haven’t been able to support my daughter. I haven’t been able to support my wife.”
“I’ll be very frank with you,” Motta concluded, speaking very slowly and placing each word down as if each were an increasingly heavy weight. “I…feel…I’ve…been…castrated.”
Motta expresses the feelings I suspect my father felt, as do so many other males today. They don’t recognize that our social system is broken. They blame themselves. They believe that a man who can’t work and support his family is a man without balls—not really a man at all.
In my counseling practice I see an increasing number of men like my father who become depressed when they can’t make a living. They are just the tip of an iceberg of those who are unemployed or concerned about losing their jobs.
“Men frequently have much of their self-worth tied up in their work. That makes times of high unemployment, when a new job is much harder to come by, particularly hard on their psychological well-being,”
says Yavar Moghimi, M.D., a psychiatrist at The George Washington School of Medicine and Health Services.
“Additionally, too often men consider talking about and seeking help for depression to be a sign of weakness. Combine these, and it is clear why depression in men should be taken seriously.”
There is another group of men whose depression often goes unrecognized because they are employed and very successful at what they do. In his book, Lonely at the Top: The High Cost of Men’s Success, Thomas Joiner, Ph.D. says,
“Men appear to enjoy many advantages in society-on average they make more money, have more power, and enjoy a greater degree of social freedom than women. But many men pay a high price for the pursuit of success and power.”
One such man was Mo Gawdat. He enjoyed a thirty-year career in the tech industry culminating as the Chief Business Officer at Google X, their “moonshot factory” of innovation. However, thought things looked good from the outside, Mo was suffering on the inside.
“Since the day I started working, I have enjoyed a great deal of success, wealth, and recognition,” says Gawdat. “Yet through it all, I was constantly unhappy. This wasn’t just because life had become complicated—you know, like that rap song from the 90s, ‘Mo Money Mo Problems.’ The issue was that, despite the rewards both financial and intellectual, I was not able to find any joy in my life. Even my greatest blessing, my family didn’t give me the joy they might have because I didn’t know how to receive it.”
Finally, Mo hit bottom.
“I missed the happy, optimistic young man I’d always been, and I was tired of trudging along in this tired, miserable, aggressive-looking guy’s shoes. I decided to take on my unhappiness as a challenge. I would apply my geek’s approach to self-study, along with my engineer’s analytical mind, to digging my may out.”
The results of his efforts are described in his book, Solve for Happy: Engineer Your Path to Joy. Although Mo’s insights and understandings can be helpful to everyone, I believe his approach resonates particularly well with men.
He began by writing a Happy List (you can do it yourself. It’s fun). Jot down some of the things that make you happy. “The list,” says Mo, “can be nothing more than a string of short, declarative sentences that get right to the point and complete the phrase:
“I feel happy when _______________.”
My own list includes: My son calls just to say hello, I watch a good basketball game, I hear birds singing, I admire the trees in my back yard, my wife smiles, my grandson does his happy dance.
Mo then wanted to see what all the things he listed had in common and came up with this simple happiness equation (Remember Mo is an engineer by training):
Which means that if you perceive the events as equal to or greater than your expectations, you’re happy—or at least not unhappy. Like many things in life, the formula is simple, but not easy to practice and live by. Mo reminds us that
“It’s not the event that make us unhappy; it’s the way we think about it.”
If I expect my wife to always think I’m wonderful, I will be unhappy when she gets upset with me. If I expect the pandemic to end so life can go back to normal, I will be unhappy when it continues to impact our lives. If I expect our elected officials to work together for the betterment of the country, I will be unhappy when they keep bickering.
I work a lot with people who are angry and depressed. Without exception the underlying issue comes down to the unhappiness that occurs when the events don’t meet our expectations.
Throughout Solve for Happy Mo offers simple summaries that act as mantras to remember. Here are a few:
- Happiness is the absence of unhappiness. This reminds me that I don’t have to search for happiness. I just have to eliminate the things that make me unhappy.
- Happiness is your default state. I can relax. Happiness is already mine.
- Success is not an essential prerequisite to happiness. I can get off the treadmill of chasing the next venture that I hope will bring me ultimate success.
- While success doesn’t lead to happiness, happiness does contribute to success. In other words if I “solve for happy,” success comes as a side-effect.
You can learn more about Mo’s work here.
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