Well Heath Ledger is dead – another young person gone in their prime. I must admit this loss hit me harder than your average death as Heath hailed from my home city of Perth, was also a father, and apparently battled depression.
Why is it that Heath Ledger and all these other celebrities we see going to rehab – Britney Spears, Lindsey Lohan, etc – are/ were seemingly so unhappy? They have the world at their fingertips, right? Well from my experience there is more to happiness then first meets the eye. The depression I mentioned at the start of the article is now long behind me, and I would like to share what I consider to be 4 key ingredients to a happy life that may help to explain all this unhappiness we see.
The word “celebrity” conjures images of a glamorous and exciting life filled with abundant pleasures. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Well there is no getting around it: experiencing pleasure is one prerequisite for a fulfilling life. But if pleasure was the only prerequisite, then I am sure we would not being seeing all these celebrities with their fame and wealth spiral into black holes of depression and addiction. What’s missing? In my opinion, it comes down to three things: meaning, goals, and relationships.
Heath Ledger always struck me as a guy who chased his dreams and was true to his passion for acting. But did he find meaning in this? I don’t know. It would seem, though, that like me he found much of his purpose once he became a parent:
“You look at death differently. It’s a catch-22. I feel good about dying now, because I feel like I am alive in [Matilda]. But at the same time, you don’t want to die because you want to be around for the rest of her life.” – Heath Ledger, responding to how having a child changed his life.
In fact we hear all the time about stars who want to be known for more than being an actor (Angelina Jolie) or a rock star (Bono). They stand in stark contrast to other celebrities who are out of control and who continually enter and leave rehab like it is a trip to the local supermarket.
The truth is we all have our ups and downs. One key to happiness is to live a meaningful life where we have a self-generated purpose that possesses personal significance, rather than one that is dictated by society’s expectations. This won’t necessarily prevent us from getting down every so often, but it is a fairly good preventative measure to help stop us hitting rock bottom. Another way to put this is that we need something that gives us purpose as we go about our ordinary, day-to-day activities.
Goals are incredibly important for a happy life, but perhaps not in the way you initially think. Conventional wisdom seems to tell us that it is the fulfilment of goals that makes us happy. The truth, though, is that happiness has much more to do with having goals than it does with attaining them. This may help explain why so many celebrities who are on top of the world in terms of the fame and status they hold end up finding themselves “lost”.
A classic example of the over-emphasis placed on attaining goals is the astronaut Buzz Aldrin. In his autobiography, Buzz said that after walking on the moon everything else in life seemed insignificant. Don’t get me wrong here, attaining goals is a wonderful thing. But the high we get from such achievement is normally temporary, compared to the general sense of happiness and purpose that meaningful goals can give us.
In many ways, the quality of our life depends on having rich and satisfying relationships with other people. I’m sure – in fact I know – that Heath Ledger had many many friends. And yet I am left wondering whether the transient lifestyle actors have makes it hard to properly maintain relationships, particularly with a partner. As we know, Heath separated from Michelle Williams and I’m sure this didn’t help his state of mind.
Ultimately it is impossible to know exactly what is driving the actions of another individual. Life, happiness, and depression are all complex and personal things that are experienced on an individual basis. But as Carl Rogers once said, “What is most personal is most general.” I think we can all learn something about ourselves from the lives of these people that, one first glance, seem so different from our own.
Photo by Patrick Emerson