How to Be Happy When the World Makes You Depressed

Hold on to your handbasket! Every day, the headlines push our buttons of alarm, despair, and fury all at once. What’s a thinking, feeling human to do, besides invest in a Hunger Games-style bow and arrow? This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen offers 4 tips to be happy in a world that can feel like a "Mad Max" chase through the headlines. 

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
4-minute read
Episode #228

Listener Lynne wrote in and asked “how to find happiness—or at least comfort—in a world that is fundamentally broken in so many ways.” She writes, “I cannot help but be sad to think about things like plastics in the ocean, wildfires in the west, caravans of refugees about to be met with military force, and the extermination of the Rohinga. I have frequent reminders to be thankful for all I have...Nonetheless, I am often unhappy because of the many ways that humans are unkind to each other and to our planet.”

Lynne’s problem isn’t unique. When the headlines start to blend suspiciously with The Handmaid’s Tale or bring to mind visions of Wall-E sorting through post-apocalyptic garbage, it’s easy to feel sad and hopeless. 

Now, much like the climate change episode from a few weeks ago, I can’t promise to fix the world in 15 minutes or less. But before you move off-grid and start brewing your own zombie repellent, let’s cover four ways to be happy when the world makes you depressed.

Tip #1: Feel what you feel, and let it spur you to action.

One of the few negative side effects of the happiness movement is the mistakenly sky-high expectation that we feel happy most, if not all of the time. But set those expectations against a backdrop where, according to a Gallup Poll, 87% of people worldwide don’t like their jobs, according to the CDC, around 40% of marriages end in divorce, and according to anyone not living under a rock, the headlines pummel us with bad news 24/7. The result? Major dissonance.

So instead of fake-smiling through the negativity, lean in to all your feelings. We’re wired for a wide range of emotions, from the peanut-butter-and-jelly of sadness, anger, and fear, to the more nuanced emotions like envy, contempt, or apprehension.

Rather than seeing emotions other than happiness as bad or wrong, mine them for their own unique powers.

Let’s take anger, for example. Anger spurs you to act. It’s like the classic bumper sticker: If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention. Anger drives people to call their representatives, head to the voting booth, and otherwise bridge the gap between doing nothing and Doing Something.

Sadness, too, has its uses. Sadness is the most clear-headed emotion. It doesn’t cloud judgment or create knee-jerk reactions like anger. Instead, it’s been found to confer generosity, reduce judgmental errors, and make us more polite, three humane things in a world that needs all the help it can get.

Tip #2: Search out good news. 

Journalism faces a unique challenge. For news organizations to survive, they have to generate clicks and views they can use to attract advertisers. And in an attention economy, what makes us click more than conflict, divisiveness, and tragedy? Everybody loves a good train wreck. 

But as cognitive psychologist Stephen Pinker points out in his TED talk, no newspaper ever reported, “137,000 people escaped from extreme poverty yesterday.” No news analyst ever reported live from city where there was no terrorist attack.

Pinker goes on to make the case that the world is getting better on metrics as diverse as violence, literacy, poverty, and even probability of being killed by a lightning strike.

Good news doesn’t give us the same cheap thrill as bad news, but in times like these, subscribe to a good news site or two—there are dozens—to restore your faith in humanity.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.