Once more, scientific research has confirmed something that our parents and grandparents already knew; that counting our blessings will make us happier. In fact, practicing this one habit seems to improve our sense of emotional wellbeing more than any other behavior.
In the mid-1990’s, a branch of psychology began to emerge, called “Positive Psychology”. Rather than focusing on emotional illness or difficulties, this group turned their research toward increasing understanding of the factors that made some people exceptionally positive or mentally healthy.
We’ve all known some individuals who seem to handle life’s difficulties with exceptional grace, and just appear more happy, joyful or satisfied. They clearly experience their share of life’s up’s and down’s, but do with more peace and hope than most. The researchers in Positive Psychology studied such individuals to identify those traits, attitudes or habits they shared that allowed them to do this.
First, let’s look at the factors that did not predict happiness. The researchers found that material wealth or standard of living had very little to do with happiness. While the United States has the highest financial standard of living, we are clearly not the happiest people. Many people who have much less than us report that they are much happier.
The research also found that negative life events did not necessarily lower a person’s level of happiness on a long-term basis. Of course, one’s happiness does go down immediately after experiencing a negative life event, but the research found that the person’s level of happiness usually returns to their pre-event level within two years. This was even true when the negative event was extreme, such as spinal cord injury resulting in permanent paralysis. Interestingly, the same was true for positive life events. Immediately after the event, the person’s level of happiness did go up, but usually returned to their pre-event level within about two years.
The studies did find, however, that exceptionally positive people all share an attitude of gratitude. They report that they pay attention to the blessings in their lives. Most of them consciously and deliberately cultivate this feeling of thanksgiving in each day. Most report that, with practice, the attitude becomes more natural and automatic.
We can all learn to be more grateful. Make the decision to cultivate an attitude of gratitude starting today. Count your blessings. Write them down. Before your feet hit the floor each morning, make yourself think of five things you have to be thankful for. Thank those you love. Thank them for the things they do for you, but more, thank them for loving you and sharing your life. Look for opportunities to be thankful today. You just might find yourself feeling happier!
I love this TED Talk by Shane Koyczan. Shane presents a powerful and moving statement on the experience of low self-esteem and being bullied. Don’t miss it!
In the last post, we looked at depression as being similar to a mean, ugly, parasitic troll, which had gotten your body and mind. This destructive troll wants to grow stronger, so it makes you do the very things that feed it. Unfortunately, as it grows stronger, you grow weaker. Such is the course with all parasites.
This troll makes you feel fatigued, weak, heavy, and drained so you decrease your physical activity. When you’re depressed, you just want to sit, or worse, stay in bed. You almost yearn to be still and move as little as possible.
The depression troll makes you decrease your physical activity because this worsens the depression. To fight the depression you must make yourself do as much physical activity as possible. While this can be difficult, and seem impossible, you can do little bits of activity at a time. Then you can gradually increase the amount of activity.
Today, will cover the second do-it-yourself tool to fight depression. While the depression troll works to make you decrease your physical activity, he also works to make you decrease your social activity. He makes you want to withdraw from others. He makes you isolate yourself.
The depression makes you uncomfortable being around other people. You feel that you don’t fit in. You imagine that they are thinking negative things about you. You perceive that they are judging you. You feel more comfortable when you are alone.
Even when you are around others, you don’t talk as much or share as much. You feel a distance, even when others are in the same room as you. You feel disconnected. You may perceive that others are backing away from you, but it’s more likely that they are simply responding to your distance.
Your do-it-yourself tool is to make yourself do the opposite of what the depression troll makes you want to do. You approach others. You identify those in your life that have been the most supportive and positive toward you, and you approach them. You call them on the phone. You write an email. You invite them to lunch or a Saturday shopping trip. You make yourself spend time with others.
Then you try to make yourself connect. You make yourself talk, even when you don’t feel like it. You make yourself talk, even when you don’t think you have anything to say. You force yourself to make and maintain eye contact. You connect.
This will be uncomfortable at first. Every fiber of your being will want to run away, find an excuse to withdraw and go back to bed. That’s normal. Connect anyway.
Even if you don’t enjoy this increase in social contact, it helps significantly in fighting the depression. It starves that parasitic depression troll, until he just decides to leave you. I don’t know why it works, despite the fact that you don’t enjoy it, but it does work.
Do it now. Call that old friend or family member. Send a re-connection email. Just come out of your room and spend time with your family. Look them in the eye. Smile. You’re not alone.
Question: What do you feel contributes most to the depressed person’s tendency to withdraw, even from those who love them?
Are you suffering from depression? Is someone you love suffering with depression? Suffering is the operable term here, because depression is truly painful. People with both chronic physical pain and clinical depression have told me that they would rather have the physical pain than the depression. The pain of clinical depression is hard to describe, but you’ll know it if you get it.
The most effective treatment for depression is a combination of medication and cognitive psychotherapy, but sometimes those treatments are unavailable or may not be working well enough for you. Whether or not you are getting professional treatment, there are several do-it-yourself actions you can take to fight your depression.
Sometimes it helps to have a different way of perceiving depression. Think of your depression as a parasitic, mean, ugly troll that has gotten into your body and mind. This troll wants to grow, and it doesn’t care what it does to you. It is truly a parasite. The depression troll grows by making you do the very things that will feed it. It makes you yearn to do the things that make it grow and become stronger. By resisting these tendencies, you can weaken your depression and starve that mean, ugly, parasitic troll and make him go away.
There are four areas where the depression troll influences your behavior. To fight the depression and starve the troll, you have to do the opposite of what he makes you want to do. In order to give each area proper attention, we’re going to consider the four depression fighters in four consecutive blog posts. This is the depression fighter for today:
DEPRESSION FIGHTER NUMBER ONE:
INCREASE PHYSICAL ACTIVITY
Your depression troll makes you decrease your physical activity. You feel tired all the time. You don’t feel like doing anything. You don’t want to move. You feel heavy and drained of energy. The troll makes you feel this way because it feeds the depression, making it grow. The less you move, the more depressed you become. In contrast, the more you move, the less depressed you become.
Any activity or movement helps. Even getting up from the couch and walking around the house helps some. Any activity that makes your muscles move and speeds up your heart and breathing fights depression. Walking is a very effective depression fighter. A 20-30 minute walk every day would be great, but any amount helps. It seems to help the nervous system’s balance the neurotransmitters (the chemical foundation of depression).
I do realize that getting up off the couch or out of bed can feel like a monumental endeavor. It can feel totally impossible if your depression is severe. You may have to begin with very small increases in physical activity. Take a shower and get dressed. Walk from one room to the next. Step outside for a little while. Try to push yourself, but don’t chastise yourself if you can’t. Just try again later. Keep trying. Persistence is often the key to defeating depression.
You might also recruit a family member or friend to help you increase your physical activity. Tell them to push you, without fussing at you. This can be a fine line, so they will have to be careful, but the benefits of a supportive friend can be enormous.
Next week, we’ll look at the second step in your do-it-yourself guide to fighting depression, but for now try to increase your physical activity as much as you can each day.
Question: Share some actions that have helped you or a loved one fight depression.