Happiness, depression and coping in general.

How many times have you heard a variation of this?

  • Happiness is a choice.
  • Having an “attitude of gratitude” is something we can foster.
  • You make your reality
  • We can influence the way we [ think | act | feel ]
  • You choose to be positive.

If you are a natural cynic, a sufferer of depression or otherwise jaded with the world then your immediate attitude and response to being told to “choose to be happy” may very well have been the same as mine, namely “go fuck yourself” or some form of derivative invective thereof.

There is, admittedly, a fair amount of research done on this topic. Numerous studies in the field of “positive psychology” have emerged showing that there are things that we [can] do that influences the way our brains react, to work more optimistically, more successfully and thus perceive the world from a positive scanning perception filter.

Exercise stimulates our circulatory system, increasing oxygen to the brain and releasing dopamine – and it doesn’t have to be strenuous – a casual walk is enough – but it teaches your brain that your behaviour matters.

Meditation gives us a way to quieten our minds and focus on a simple goal. It helps relieve us of the constant barrage of stimuli and information that are vying for our attention and requiring us to be a multitasking master trying to keep track of a seemingly endless amount of simultaneous tasks and actions.

For some, these are enough to bring about a positive result. Yoga’s popularity over the last few decades is greatly due to the combination of these two factors.

As a depressive, cynical pessimist though, I was in no mood to force myself to try and exercise, let alone let my mind settle down long enough to get lost in the void that was deep in there that I was trying to avoid.

A few years ago, I underwent aa depressive psychosis – what in the old days we would call a “nervous breakdown” – and I pretty well just stopped functioning. Telling me to “think positive” was as useful as installing a screen door on a submarine.

My psychologist introduced me to Cognitive Behaviour Therapy during my breakdown – and journalling was a large aspect of that therapy. At first, it offers a way to externalise the the void, mental or emotional conflicts, the pain, or whatever it was that needed to be “voiced” and “worked through”. It forces your brain to  describe it, in turn allowing it to relive, explore, dissect, and, eventually, resolve the issue.

Turns out, that whilst we have known that writing therapy as an approach had a favourable outcome on psychological therapy as way to work through problems and gain self-knowledge since the 70’s (Philips, E.L.  (1977).  On time-limited writing therapy.  Psychological Reports, 41, 707-712)  reinforced through re-study (Cameron, L.D., & Nicholls, G. (1998).  Expression of stressful experiences through writing: Effects of a self-regulation manipulation for pessimists and optimists.  Health Psychology, 17, 84-92 andLepore, S.J., & Smyth, J.M. (2002).  The writing cure: How expressive writing promotes health and well-being.  Washington DC: APA) it wasn’t till last decade that someone considered utilising it to evoke positive reinforcement in the psyche (Slatcher, R.B., & Pennebaker, J.W.  (2006).  How do I love thee?  Let me count the words.  Psychological Science, 17, 660-665).

So, it turns out that journaling about one positive experience you’ve had over the past 24 hours allows your brain to relive it, and just like exercise and meditation, it teaches your brain that your behaviour matters and to seek out those positive experiences more often.

Now, as I said before, I wasn’t going to be convinced by someone telling me to “think more positive” or to “be grateful”, and even when I first saw one of the better known speakers on the topic of ‘positive psychology’, Shawn Achor, speak on the subject at TED, or one of his many other videos posted on youtube on one of his great many speaking tours on the subject – it was very much met with cynicism and resistance.

That said, it did sink in to a small degree.

I often did not see positivity in my life. I often felt the stress of my job, the crushing oppression of unfulfilled dreams, the unfairness of activity x or situation y occurring to me … in short, finding myself grateful for anything was a difficult mountain to climb.

Instead, I took a new approach – one that seems counter intuitive but seemed to work for me – I started think “well this is fucked … how could it be worse!? Then upon a suitable list was compiled, I reversed it and considered myself lucky that I only had to deal with “this” and not that list I had concocted. I then actively sought ways to utilise the situation as either a learning or to springboard something that could be a positive outcome.

It really is a lot easier said than done. Old habits do die hard and not without a fight.

Shawn Archor prescribes an action plan that takes into consideration a simple to-do list that takes a full three minutes to complete:

  1. Take one minute to write down three new things for which you’re grateful
  2. Take two minutes each day to praise or thank a person you know in writing

As habits are formed in the process of repetition, and the lucky number is meant to be 21 – then committing to doing these tasks for an entire month covers the 21 repetition cycle and helps form a new habit.

My way to cope, worked for me, and whilst it may have been the “long way”, it has helped me to deal with my depression, to deal with my view of the world and to sort out my head at different times.

I’d like to add that my experience with the wake up project’s kindness cards and promoting the idea of ‘paying it forward’ with random acts of anonymous kindness, demonstrates that these become conscious acts of kindness and it helps the giver by offering to view the world in a better way. Whilst doing a kind act and being praised for it is nice, there is a reward in knowing you did a good thing for someone who will never know of your deed that truly is difficult to describe.

In the end, it’s not about them – it is about you and how you wish to deal – and I finally, truly, understand the meaning and intent behind all those words that this entry started with.

This article was my journal entry of my process. If it helps you, then I am doubly thankful for having completed it.

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3 thoughts on “Happiness, depression and coping in general.”

  1. Thanks for the read – Would be interesting in adding the dimension of how Chronic Pain impacts and alters various methods/treatments available to be used. Especially on finding options that allow for a reducuction or elimination, for as much as reasonable, the use of medications – even if it’s only for short periods of time to let the brain ‘rest’ without overload/overuse of other external chemical products (Pain Killers especially are not great for me as an example, and the body seems to build up some resistance over time, so getting a 3 to 4 week break and ‘putting up’ with additional impacts for this time, seems to provide a period of ‘improvement’ when re-taking some of the pain medications).

    1. Chronic Pain is a whole new world of complications. However, I would argue that the view of choosing your attitude over the impact of the “disease” is still important. The way you “deal” with your situation over the resignation of the fact that you are “no longer whole”. I have seen the difference in a friend who used to be positive in his outlook on life, but upon a recent complication on a longstanding injury that has caused him to undergo three more operations to re-adjust things back to where they were before the complication, has had him spiral into a mental despondency that while understandable, has potentially extended the healing time and his ability to continue to motivate himself back on the road to recovery.

      I’m not saying that you can magically “think yourself well” but you can affect the effect that your attitude and emotional health has on your physical health.

      In the case of pain meds, there may be alternatives – a combination of physio, meditation, acupuncture – may relieve only 20% of the pain, which may very wll be enough to reduce the medication. Certain injuries can leave permanent pain and technological “noise reduction” units (i.e. modified pacemakers that mute pain signals) are being utilised far more often these days. Though, sometimes the removal of pain does not remove the fatigue or other health issues related to the original problem.

      I guess what I am saying is that you need to split the two sides of it and deal with each separately – deal with the pain and the physicality of the issue as one problem, and then deal with your mental (and emotional) health as another. They do affect each other, but you can be diligent about it and manage the interaction.

      Finally, whilst “writing therapy” works for me – some people need different forms of “externalisation”. This may be speaking, video gaming, running, quiet time, heck it may even be going into a forest and spending twenty minutes releasing a primal scream – whatever works for you is the right answer. My only warning is to not choose something that is potentially more destructive than the underlying issue – smoking, alcohol, head-butting angry bulls.

      Hope this helps.

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