On the Road from Suicide to Happiness: Please Send Directions!


Buddhists often say that life is suffering. Some days, for many of us, that feels about right.

But on other days, the inverse also rings true. Life is joy. Joy is the dialectical sunshine that intermittently breaks through clouds of suffering to interrupt our melancholy.

Don’t worry. Even though there’s currently a September Winter Storm Warning happening in Montana, I’m not going all weather on you. Besides, there’s not much I love more than clouds, rain, and winter storms. Also, to be fair, Buddha and the Buddhists recognized long ago that there’s a road we can take to get away from storms of suffering.

Maybe it’s my penchant for bad weather that’s drawn me, for the past two years, deeply into the professional monsoon of clinical depression, suicide assessment, and suicide interventions. What’s odd about that is that I don’t believe that depression or suicidality should be as pathologized as they have been. I’m a proponent of the right to die. I also find light and hope in the existential perspective that encourages us to embrace and integrate our darker, depressive sides, so we can emerge more whole and, as the existentialist Kirk Schneider likes to say, experience a Rediscovery of Awe.

For the past two years, focusing on suicide has felt very important. Our society isn’t very good at discussing suicide in an open and balanced way. All too often, suicide gets inaccurately conflated with illness or shame or moral weakness. These inaccuracies have inspired me to talk openly about suicide whenever given the opportunity.

But, to be honest, talking and writing about suicide—even from a professional perspective—isn’t all that fun. Those who know me know how much I like to tell funny stories. For years, I’ve had an untreated addiction to showing Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes cartoons during presentations. You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to find suicide cartoons that are workshop-worthy. When I show my cartoon with the white rat in the cage hanging itself and the lab scientist saying, “Looks like discouraging data on the antidepressant” if there’s any laughter it’s a painful and strained laughter, at best.

I do have one amazing depression cartoon; it’s a Gary Larson Far Side scene of a sad looking man on a bed in a messy room with the caption, “The bluebird of happiness long absent from his life, Ned is visited by the Chicken of Depression.”

But let me get out of my addiction and to the point. In my work on suicide prevention and intervention, I’ve slowly realized that we need to paddle upstream. I won’t stop talking about depression and suicide, but I want to more explicitly acknowledge that disabling depression and tragic suicides are often the inverse of well-being or happiness turned upside down. To address this effort at integration, I’m preparing materials to teach and present on the science of happiness. This is where I need your help. Yes, please send more suicide and depression cartoons, but even more importantly, send me happiness cartoons! I’m expanding my focus, and getting ready to spend more time talking about how we can all live happier and more meaningful lives. One way I’m doing this is by teaching a new “Happiness” course this spring at the University of Montana.

As background, I should let you know that I’m familiar with the Yale Happiness Class, the Penn Positive Psychology Center, and other popular resources. Although I’ll use this mainstream material, I want to do something different.

Here’s how you can help.

I’m looking for lecture material and happiness lab activities. Examples include,

Lecture content

  • Video clips
  • Songs with meaning
  • Demonstration activities
  • Quirky/meaningful stories

Lab activities

  • 30-60 minute specific experiential activities that can deepen student learning
  • Evidence-based experiential activities that demonstrate how to counter depression or embrace meaning

Because I’ll be delivering the course to undergraduates, as you contemplate sending me a map with directions to happiness, please put on your 19-year-old hat and help me find destinations with academic substance, but that will still appeal to the college-age generation.

As always, thanks for reading. I wish you a weekend (and life) filled (at least intermittently) with the sort of happiness and joy that’s palpable enough to sustain you until the next bluebird of happiness lands on your shoulder. And if you live in Montana, be sure to stay warm in the winter storm.

John S-F

10 thoughts on “On the Road from Suicide to Happiness: Please Send Directions!”

  1. As you know John, I am not sn academic so cannot assist. However, as a bereaved by suicide Mar, I loved your jokes. I couldn’t help using humour in those dark days in the months after my son died. Even when I spoke at his funeral I couldn’t resist…he would have been tittering himself.
    I am also unashamed to say I found the horrified looks on peoples faces highly amusing too! Perhaps I thought….well if I am going through this and can find a smile…you can surely crack your face. I’m not sure what this says about me 🙃

    1. Hi Carol,

      Thanks very much for sharing this story. As you can probably tell from a distance, I’m a big fan of respectful irreverence. I think the fact that you could retain some humor during a time of painful loss is a gift. Thanks again for your open sharing. Very cool! JSF

  2. Dear Dr. Sommers-Flanagan, My name is Michelle Peavy, and I’m a former UM grad student (clinical psych). I really enjoy your blog, Thank you. I’m affiliated with an Opioid Treatment Program in Seattle, and my colleagues recently asked me to review a suicide assessment that we are to include in our electronic health record. I didn’t really like what they gave me and I was wondering if you have a go-to set of standardized questions around which a suicide assessment can be conducted. I will really appreciate your input. Thank you, Michelle ________________________________

    1. Hi Michelle. Sorry for the delayed response. Sometimes I get messages from so many different apps that I’m not always great at keeping up. Most of my work in the suicide assessment area doesn’t focus on standardized questions or protocols. My reasoning is twofold. First, I think standard protocols can get in the way of the relationship and second, I don’t believe any protocols exist that help much with prediction. However, I use a mood rating scale and often formulate questions to assess eight dimensions of suicidality. If you email me, I can send you some materials. My email is john.sf@mso.umt.edu. Thanks for reaching out . . . and I definitely remember you from a few years back. Best, John SF

  3. Hi John — Keep up your good work with students. I’m a college textbook editor and I like to think that I/we help to provide good tools to help students learn and to live.
    I’ve worked on a couple of books that may interest you for your course:
    1) “Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Health” by Ed Diener and Robert Biswas Diener (Wiley, 2008)
    2) “Pursuing Human Strengths” by Martin Bolt and Dana Dunn (Macmillan, 2016). It’s a hands on book that includes elf-assessment exercises throughout to help students gauge their progress in recognizing and building positive characteristics in themselves.
    3) I just finished reading Ben Tal Shahar’s book,
    “Short Cuts to Happiness: Lessons from my barber” This book has very short chapters, each with a lot of take away lessons, and research based. The author cites various researchers throughout. It’s an easy and engaging read. As you probably know, Tal Shahar taught that hugely popular happiness course at Harvard.
    I wish you great success in your course and with your students.
    – Chris

  4. Hi John, I noticed that you’re giving a talk on Advances in Suicide Assessment & Treatment Planning in Billings on November 8, 2019. Is that program only available in person,or will that also be featured as a webinar? Thanks, Liz

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