Q&A with Chris Butsch: From being diagnosed with depression to giving lessons on happiness

Butsch connects with students at a high school in Sweden. (Courtesy of Chris Butsch)

By Brittany Edelmann
Medill Reports

In 2012, Chris Butsch graduated from Vanderbilt University a semester early, with a degree in general engineering, and became a traveling consultant for a health care information-technology company. But to his dismay, the job was “a very challenging, mentally stressful existence.” Butsch said he felt “numb and in so much pain at the same time.” And he felt guilty about it.  Two years later, he was diagnosed with major depressive disorder. At 24, he fit the profile: The highest percentage of adults with a major depressive episode are 18- to 25-year-olds, according to the most recent figures from the National Institute of Mental Health.

In 2015 he quit his job to travel and ask people one question: What makes you happy?

Butsch asked this question to thousands of people, from CEOs and neuroscientists to monks and locals in over 40 countries. Butsch, now 31, gives talks at colleges to help people under 30 build better lives and shares insights in his book “The Millennial’s Guide to Making Happiness.” The need is there: From August 2020 to February 2021, 18- to 29-year-olds showed the largest increase in symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Butsch wants to prevent others from experiencing the “crippling throes of depression, this constant pervasive dichotomy of wanting to die, but also not caring what happens,” he said.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

 

What have you learned about happiness?

So, I like to tell students my three most interesting answers. My first: I was having dinner with the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. I asked him, “What makes you happy?” And without skipping a beat, he said, “Nothing.” That became a compelling conversation about how wealth influences power, the traditional metrics by which a lot of people are trying to achieve happiness by just climbing a corporate ladder. That brings some people happiness, but in my personal experience anecdotally speaking, it does not bring people the happiness that they seek. That’s part of the equation, but it’s not the be all, end all.

The second most interesting answer was when I was traveling through Bhutan. I asked my new friends there, “What makes you happy?” They turned to each other, and they went, “Yeah, the government, definitely the government.” I must have made a funny face because they said, “What? The government doesn’t make y’all happy?” I was like, “Well, why don’t we focus on you guys for a while?” (They explained that) In 1972, the king of Bhutan said (in effect), I don’t really think that Gross Domestic Product is making people happy — this idea, let’s make as much money as we can and figure out the rest later. I don’t think that’s going to work for Bhutan. Instead, my kingdom is going to focus on happiness. We’re going to create a new metric called Gross National Happiness and base every public policy decision on how much we, as leadership, can increase the happiness, the welfare and the joy of the citizens.

The No. 1 most interesting answer I heard was from my rickshaw driver in India, in Rajasthan, his name was Sati. And I asked, “What makes you happy?” And he said, “Chris, who’s the wealthiest man in the world?” And I said, “I think it’s probably Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos.” And he goes, “No, I’m the wealthiest man in the world.” So cool, do tell. And he said, “This morning, my wife and I had a fight. And at the end of the fight, I was angry, and I stormed out, but I told her that I love her. Chris, if you give me $5, at the end of this rickshaw drive, you’ll have $5 less and I’ll have $5 more. But if you show me love, if I show my wife love, if we show each other love, I get love, and you get love. You get more love than you started with. A lot of people focus too much on money and end up with no love in their life. Then they realize how hard it is to convert money to true love. Why not start with love, first? As long as I can create an infinite amount of love, I’ll be the wealthiest man in the world.”

Chris Butsch sits in front of the Tiger Nest Monastery in Bhutan, China, during his quest to learn more about happiness in 2015. (Courtesy of Chris Butsch)
What would you say to people, with everything going on in the world right now, regarding happiness?

I learned about the power of love. The CEO taught me not to climb corporate ladders, but I can’t just sit in a room and be happier with that information. It’s good, very high-level stuff. But what’s something I can do in the next five minutes, or even five seconds, to be happier? And that’s what inspired me to design MESH.

MESH stands for meditation, exercise, sleep, hydration. So, when I find myself in this funk, I ask myself, “What aspect of MESH have I not done today?” Most of the time, it’s hydration. If you don’t have water in your system, serotonin, oxytocin, all those great neurochemicals that make up happiness can’t pass through certain membranes of the brain. You literally cannot create happiness without water. And meditation, like five minutes every couple days. Anything is better than nothing applies to all of MESH. MESH doesn’t cure depression or anxiety overnight, but it erects mental defenses against those things, and creates a much softer cushion for your happiness to land on.

(See his TEDx talk on MESH here):

What makes you happy?

Spending time with people I care about. Taking care of myself with MESH. My age-old metric of, “How can I make other people happy?” I often think about what Santi told me. He said, “When you show other people love, you receive love in return.” And I feel the same way with happiness. If I can help other people build happy lives, then I feel happier.

 

This article has been updated with the most recent title of Butsch’s book and for additional clarity.

Brittany Edelmann is a registered nurse and health, science and environment reporter at Medill. Follow her on Twitter @brittedelmann

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