What Is the Opposite of Depression? The Answer Will Surprise You
The opposite of depression isn’t a destination, but an ongoing process.
Mainstream psychology, and conventional understanding of the mind, emotions, and thoughts, exist in the context that each individual is separate. That consciousness emerges from the brain. Spiritual practices, however, create a wider context, that consciousness is the essence of the self. Thoughts, emotions, beliefs, ideas, and perceptions can ultimately be transcended and transformed, and exist as part of a wider reality.
Context is crucial when it comes to understanding depression, too. Depression is a phenomenon of consciousness. The more vast the context, the more profound its solutions. For example, seeing depression as an emotion naturally leads to the logical conclusion that its opposite is a positive emotion, such as happiness. But depression is so much more, an ailment on a soul level, the dimming of light, the extinguishing of much of the animating force that makes life worth living.
Calling depression and emotion is like calling the most awe-inspiring symphonies of music ‘sound.’ Yes, emotions make up part of depression, as sound makes up a symphony, but its totality is more significant than its individual parts. In order to explore what the opposite of depression might be, we have to start by appreciating the full context of depression as an experience.
This article is the result of over a decade of personal experience with the Black Dog, in addition to thousands of hours of research from fields such as psychology, philosophy, and spirituality, as well as an obsessive mission of trial and error. The purpose isn’t to give a definitive answer, but to contemplate depression’s opposite, and all the steps required to get there. That contemplation, alone, is one of immense value. Let’s begin.
Depression is complex, appears in many different forms, and surfaces due to lots of different life circumstances or inner experiences. For example, depression due to grief of losing a loved one differs from existential despair. For the sake of this article, we’ll look at chronic, clinical depression; the type of depression that appears to not have one single, direct cause, the type that is difficult to shift. Whilst doing so, we’ll be aware that black-or-white thinking is a slippery slope.
Self-actualization, growth, and flourishing aren’t as simple as the ‘positive’ to the ‘negative’ of depression. Depression, in itself, is often valuable in terms of the lessons it presents, clues from the unconscious, of things that have to change. Often, depression is the precursor to personal transformation and growth, or the impetus someone needs to do the inner work to live a more fulfilled, full, and authentic life.
Answering the question of what is the opposite of depression is philosophical, to some degree, and valuable in as far as it gives a sense of direction. A long time ago, I went down the route of mistakenly believing happiness was the opposite of depression. Pursuing happiness in this way is noble, but can reinforce the resistance to depression, or place undue emphasis on external circumstances.
After realizing the futility of this, starting meditation, and taking spiritual philosophy seriously (particularly Buddhism), I came across the nature of non-attachment, equanimity, and the many paradoxes of ‘chasing’ happiness. That leads to a crucial distinction: because depression is often unrelated to external events, its opposite must be, too.
Anhedonia, Eudaimonia, and Hedonism
When severely depressed, people experience anhedonia, when no pleasure is taken from activities that they used to enjoy. It’s one of the most pervasive and unsettling qualities of depression. Suddenly, there’s an unavoidable realization that your inner state has the power to dictate your enjoyment of life, regardless of what goes on the outside. In order to tip the scales, this can cause people to swing to the other extreme: hedonism, an obsessive and imbalanced seeking of pleasure to make life worth living.
When chasing happiness, people become hedonistic, because happiness is based on external circumstances. It’s a vicious cycle. It places the source of well-being on many unpredictable and volatile factors.
Many spiritual philosophies, and research in psychology, shows that hedonism is ineffective for lasting happiness. Sure, you may get temporary highs, but you’ll be met by lows, too, and the ever-present need to experience the highs again, and again.
Another Greek term, eudaimonia, points to a different context. Aristotle referred to eudaimonia as the highest good. It describes flourishing, optimal happiness, and fulfillment, in a way that is much deeper and more content than fleeting happiness. It is linked with living life aligned with virtue. Eudaimonia is closer to the opposite of depression because it speaks more to the state of the individual, and how they respond to life’s events, not the events themselves.
Equanimity and the Context of Awareness
That leads us to the context of awareness. Self-awareness is the cornerstone of emotional intelligence, spiritual growth, and higher levels of peace and contentment. From a Buddhist perspective, awareness is the consciousness within which all thoughts, emotions, and sensations, arise. Meditation is the practice of familiarizing with awareness, and witnessing the constant, impermanent nature of these phenomena.
In creating what he called the Middle Way, the Buddha emphasized the need for equanimity, the ability to remain balanced toward all inner and outer experiences. For Buddha, this was a path away from suffering. It didn’t mean no pain would ever be experienced, but the pain wouldn’t be amplified by unnecessary resistance or indulgence, habits of the mind that create additional suffering.
This perspective is vital in understanding the opposite of depression because it gives a much wider vantage point. Chasing happiness is another way of being caught up in emotions, craving pleasant emotions, avoiding unpleasant emotions. Waiting for everything in life to be ‘just right’ is disempowering. But if depression is a state of extreme suffering, or numbness, then it stands to reason its opposite is one of balance, inner peace, and aliveness.
Andrew Solomon, best known for his memoir The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, seems to agree. “The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality,” he writes. This highlights how depression is an extinguishing of invisible, inner light, and its opposite is the experience of that fire burning bright. A big source of that comes from having distance between emotions, sensations, and life’s ups and downs, and still being able to feel peace, contentment, even joy.
Fittingly, in various branches of Buddhism, including Mahamudra and Dzogchen, the theory of the luminous mind has a central role. Also translated as ‘brightly shining mind’ or ‘clear light,’ it captures the nature of the highly refined and concentrated mind that can arise from meditation practice, one which is free of distortion, able to perceive clearly, not muddied by being distracted by thoughts or emotions, residing in this wider context.
In Practical Terms
Putting concepts and philosophy aside, what does this mean in practical terms? I first pondered this question over 13 years ago, when imprisoned by a dark depression, not believing or being able to see a way out from the suffering I experienced. Answering that question has been a huge motivation for my journey since then. It’s led me to all sorts of techniques and exercises, from Western psychology to Eastern wisdom, and back again.
In just the same way depression is a byproduct of many things — unresolved grief, a lack of meaning, poor emotional regulation, poor living standards, a lack of hope — its opposite is also a byproduct. In other words, the opposite of depression isn’t something to strive for or to achieve, but something that naturally arises when making the journey of self-discovery and self-actualization.
Words such as joy, fulfillment, peace, hope, and meaning all have value, and all satisfy this question more than happiness alone. If depression has the ability to make life feel meaningless, or hopeless, or despairing, regardless of what’s going on, its opposite must have the ability to make life meaningful, hopeful, delightful, and joyous, even if things aren’t going your way.
When depression is sparked by loss or grief, its opposite isn’t happiness or even joy, but deep acceptance of the way things are. There’s a serenity, and inner peace, that comes from being a willing participant in the full spectrum of human experience, or being with grief in its fullness, without suppressing it or running away from it.
My concluding answer, which may change after I’ve written this article, is that the opposite of depression is self-knowledge. The opposite of depression is a life of curiosity, intrigue, and discovery. The opposite of depression is relating to all emotions, from grief to jealousy to elation, in a balanced way. The opposite of depression is feeling, deep down, that life has an inherent meaning, and you’re an inherent, meaningful part of it.
The opposite of depression is experiencing joy, and not being entirely sure why. The opposite of depression isn’t a destination, a place you arrive at one day, but an ongoing process, driven by the desire to understand what makes life meaningful, not for anyone else, but for you.