I am always amazed by the common perception that traumatic experiences from the past or traumatic experiences in the present should be overcome in a swift movement of “Getting over it” or “Letting it go”. In a way, what people are saying is that OOOps, even though something really bad happened to you, you can’t change it, so you might as well put a smile on your face and get on with your life.
Bless them, they don’t know how to respond to trauma, shock, or grief wether it affects another person or themselves. They rather turn to the next best thing: getting a prescription for an antidepressant (alcohol, food, drugs, or ….). As if it’s an illness that, for example, you have been raped, been given a life-threatening diagnosis, lost a loved one, live in poverty, or your family has been wiped out by war or by a natural disaster.
From a philosophical point of view it might actually be quite harmful to medicate pain away. If a person who lives in depressing life circumstances is given medication to feel better, health professionals interfere with the ‘normal’ warning system. How will people start making changes in their lives when they don’t feel how miserable it is? It’ll be much more effective to give people the support they need and provide them with the tools necessary to change their circumstances.
This is the point where happiness research becomes a very interesting road map for helping people to combat depression and function more effectively in their lives. (A disclaimer might be needed here: don’t wait till they stand on the bridge ready to jump … that’s too late to suggest a more positive outlook on life. Interventions have to happen much, much earlier. Medication might be the only way to get the person ‘on the bridge’ down to some tolerable baseline level.)
So when is it good to be happy? I hope I have shown so far that sometimes being happy can be just plain stupid. You don’t want to be happy when you find yourself in the lion’s den. You need to feel the fear and run to change your situation. You also want to figure out how on earth did you get there? When you are out of danger you can start making changes. You may want to be more engaged in your life; you may want to search for the positive side of things; you may want to follow you passion and get involved in something that gives more meaning to your life; you may want to make an effort to increase your social life! All that will prevent you from falling again into the lion’s den.
Seligman clearly states that positive psychology has not shown so far that it is a useful approach for dealing with traumatic experiences (Martin Seligmann, 2008, The Positive Psychology Leaders Series). Because trauma interferes and alters people’s biology, psychology, and neurology it needs some targeted repair. However, integrating the concepts of positive psychology into the repair work could be a very valid course of action when recovering from trauma.