Movies That Get Depression Right

“In thinking about depressing movies, many people don’t realize that all bad movies are depressing, and no good movies are.”–Roger Ebert

Movies in a Minor Key

In the year 2000 I experienced the blahs when it came to the movies. I couldn’t put my finger on what was missing. Were the comedies not funny enough? The action films not active enough? Then I saw The House of Mirth, a period piece about Lily Bart, an attractive New York socialite who starts drawing the wrong kind of attention. Her social standing takes a downward spiral as a result.

I came away from that movie feeling refreshed. It wasn’t that I disliked the character and felt that she got what she deserved. It was that I’d seen a film acknowledge that sometimes despite our best efforts things just don’t go our way. Instead of envying the protagonist’s triumph against all odds or wishing my life could be like hers, I felt compassion for Lily’s misfortune and gratitude that my day-to-day problems seemed more manageable by comparison.     

Movies That Get Depression Right

While escapist action and comedies can lift our mood when we’re having a bad day, when those days start to string together and there’s no end in sight, it’s surprisingly reassuring to spend time with others who have been there. At the very least, we feel less alone.

My favorite episodes of John Moe’s The Hilarious World of Depression feature listener recommendations of songs, books, and now movies that get depression right. The 45-minute episode brought back a flood of fond movie memories for me, and you can listen to it here. But, if you only have ten minutes to choose your evening’s entertainment. Here goes. 

Holy Wedlock! 

The pitch-black comedy-drama Melancholia starts with Earth getting obliterated by a slow-motion collision with the title planet, then flashes back to the fairy tale wedding reception and sibling squabbles that preceded our collective demise. “Even though the planet is about to be completely destroyed, Justine’s sister Claire is still telling her that she has to eat, and she has to take a bath, and things like that, and that’s ridiculous.”

In the ensemble comedy Bridesmaids, Annie’s life is falling apart. But when she finds out her lifetime best friend Lillian has gotten engaged, she’s determined to do whatever it takes to be the perfect maid of honor. “Annie has lost her bakery, her income, and her self esteem. Seeing the success of her best friend’s wedding and her new friend, the replacement friend, shows her another way she’s losing at life.”

The Writing Life

World’s Greatest Dad, Lance Clayton, dreamed of being a rich and famous writer but has only managed to make it as a high school poetry teacher. His only son Kyle is an insufferable jackass whose death in a freak accident offers him the greatest opportunity of his life. “He is not valued by anyone in his life around him, from his students to the girlfriend who seems to be drifting away, to his son. And then he finally gets recognition, and it’s even lonelier, even more isolating than it was before.” A dark comedy with a truly twisted premise.

The very funny odd couple road picture Sideways tags along with two old friends on a pre-wedding tour of wine country. Jack is a has-been actor and groom to be. His best man Miles is a never-was writer. “Miles suffers from nagging doubts and circular thoughts that keep him from really being present in the moment, anger with himself, and disgust mixed with envy toward Jack. He feels that maybe things would be so much easier if he could live a life like Jack where he just doesn’t care.”

The Hours tells the story of three women from different times and places linked by their yearnings, fears, and  search for more potent, meaningful lives. “It’s an extraordinarily accurate portrayal of being in such acute all-encompassing pain that the only thing you think can end that pain is death.”

Girls, Interrupted

Horse Girl is Sarah, a socially isolated arts and crafts store employee whose strangely surreal dreams challenge her ability to distinguish her visions from reality. “Alison Brie nails the secretive disorientation of psychotic depression perfectly.”

Girl, Interrupted is Susanna Kaysen’s account of her 18-month stay at a mental hospital in the 1960s. “The girls often feel like no one gets them, and even though they’re fighting with each other, they know that the only real people who understand what they’re going through are their fellow patients.”

The title character in Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a loving mom compelled to reconnect with her creative passions after years of sacrificing herself for her family. “It’s really hard to find movies that show people with depression who still have to get through each day like everything is fine. It isn’t all crying in a corner and fifteen minutes later everything is fixed.”

Wherever You Go, There You Are

Sam Bell is living on the far side of the Moon completing a three-year contract with Lunar Industries to mine Earth’s primary source of energy, Helium-3. It is a lonely job, and though his time on the moon is almost over, his physical and mental health are deteriorating. “At one point he drives away from the moon base and you see and hear him from a distance just break down and weep at his total alienation from the world and the apparent impossibility of escape from that prison of his deceptive mind.”

Aniara, one of the many spaceships transporting Earth’s fleeing population to their new home–planet Mars–collides with space junk and is thrown off her course. “One of the most fascinating and insightful explorations of hopelessness and despair that I’ve ever seen.”

Lost in Translation in Tokyo, and suffering from insomnia, Bob, a middle-aged American actor cashing in on his fame by making TV commercials for the Japanese market, and Charlotte, a neglected young American wife, cross paths one night in a luxury hotel bar and form an unusual friendship. “The main characters are functional depressives who arrive at similar emotional states from different directions and find common ground.”

Animated Alienation

Anomalisa is the stop-motion animation tale of Michael Stone, an author of customer service books, to whom everyone looks and sounds the same. One night, while on a routine business trip, he meets Lisa, a stranger with a unique voice. “It’s such a good representation of someone feeling numb to the world while also being a jerk.”

Inside Out is how adolescent Riley feels her life has been turned when her father takes a job in San Francisco and she’s uprooted from her Midwestern world. Pixar animation brings to life the emotions Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness, who live in the control center of Riley’s mind. It’s “The movie that depicts depression the best because the character sadness fits it.”


Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind‘s Joel is stunned to discover that his girlfriend Clementine has had her memories of their tumultuous relationship erased and seeks to do the same. “It spoke to the part of me that just doesn’t want to feel anymore, the desire to erase what’s in my brain and replace it with something that allows me to just be a normal happy person.”

Groundhog Day never ends for TV weatherman Phil Connors who is sent to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to cover the annual Groundhog Day festivities, gets caught in a giant blizzard that he failed to predict, and finds himself reliving the same day over and over again. “It is another day like many before and many after that you wake up into and feel the same daunting inadequacies.”

Fantasy Figures

Lord of the Rings – Return of the King reveals the ultimate fate of Middle Earth in the final film of Tolkien’s fantasy trilogy. “The ring has such a powerful hold on Frodo, as did my depression, that he struggles with parting from it. But its release, of course, is the only way to save Frodo’s world.”

The Babadook is the sinister titular figure of a disturbing pop-up storybook that shows up on Amelia’s doorstep six years after the violent death of her husband. Her efforts to get rid of the nasty book prove every bit as challenging as the out of control behavior of her six-year-old son. “It’s a very creepy movie, but it is equally creepy about the possible supernatural explanations and maybe the psychological ones.”

Finding Strength in Numbers

Stand by Me, based on the Stephen King novella “The Body,” is the semi-autobiographical story of an overnight hike by four adolescent Oregon boys who seek the body of a boy who had been struck by a train. “The kids in that movie were all processing some kind of trauma in ways that any middle school kid would immediately recognize.”

The Station Agent is a film about three people with nothing in common, except their shared solitude, until chance brings their lives together. “I just love how it speaks to the reality, without exaggerating it or making it larger than life, that we can be in pain with other people but still not be on the same page of pain.”

How to HEAL

Healing connection

The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones. That shades “implicit memory” – your underlying expectations, beliefs, action strategies, and mood – in an increasingly negative direction.

And that’s just not fair since probably most of the facts in your life are positive or neutral.Rick Hanson, Ph.D.

What Went Wrong

Last night when I was doing a somatic listening cuddle session with my partner, the main feeling that came up for me was sadness.

I had invited a friend to meet at a safe physical distance in a local park. She replied with a long, tortured, self-contradictory email about why she didn’t feel safe doing it, even though we’d met in the same park a few weeks ago.

It wasn’t her “no” that made me sad, it was feeling cut off from the opportunity to comfort her about what was making her feel unsafe. I started ruminating about other things I felt cut off from:  

• Writing a post about the negative mental health effects of news consumption.

• Keeping up with my reading schedule on Tiny Habits.

• Getting my second meditation session in yesterday.

• Posting to Instagram.

• Creating a successful Patreon page.

• Learning only one new thing from the first few weeks of Yale’s The Science of Well-Being course.

When seen through the lens of a single rejected invitation, I was processing my entire day as a failure.

What Went Right

On the other hand…

• I fell behind on my news consumption post because I was writing about my meditation group’s experience with Rick Hanson’s H.E.A.L. exercise.

• I set up a Zoom meeting to talk with a life coach about her business model.

• I called my father’s second wife for a catch-up chat.

• I got an email from a neighbor I knew when we were teenagers.  

• I got 10,143 steps in by visiting two lovely parks. 

• I got to hang out in a virtual game night over Zoom with the same friend who had declined my park invitation.

Oh, and now I get a chance to apply the one new thing I learned from The Science of Well-Being.

The GI Joe Fallacy

Laurie Santos, who created the well-being course, talked about a lie foisted upon children of the 1980s by the GI Joe cartoon show. At the end of each episode, GI Joe would share a public service announcement with an animated child. The child would thank him, and he would say, “Knowing is half the battle.”

G.I. Joe Lied To Us—Knowing Is Not Half The Battle | Hacker Noon

As I demonstrated above, knowing about the brain’s negativity bias doesn’t stop me from getting caught up in it.

If Rick Hanson had a cartoon show in the ’80s, he might have concluded his PSAs with “Habituating positive neuroplasticity is half the battle.”

Here’s how Hanson’s framework helps us H.E.A.L.

Ten Minute (or Ten Second) Exercise

H.E.A.L. is an acronym for: 

Have an experience of safety, satisfaction, or connection.

Enrich the experience.

Absorb the experience. 

Link the experience to a minor worry.

1. Have the experience.

Looking at yesterday, I could choose to notice something that happened (like receiving the email from my old neighbor) or something that I initiated (a phone call to my dad’s second wife). Either one contributes to the positive mental and emotional state of feeling connected. The key is to practice noticing when I’m having positive experiences.

2. Enrich the experience by taking it in for at least ten seconds. The corny phrase stop and smell the roses comes to mind. Notice what’s new and fresh about the moment. What makes it unique? Where in your body are you feeling the pleasant sensations? Notice what a moment of safety, satisfaction, or connection feels like.

3. Absorb the memory of this experience with the kind of intention that precedes taking a photograph. Practice nurturing that feeling. Focus on what’s rewarding about it.

4. Link the experience to a minor worry. I can heal the wound of the rejected park invitation by balancing it with the catch-up phone call, the neighbor’s email, or any of the other things that went right.

The other half of the battle is always going to be the things that don’t go our way, but practicing learning to H.E.A.L. can add to our sense of psychological safety.

And, although I haven’t read it yet, I’ll bet Rick Hanson’s new book NeuroDharma will offer many more tools as well. Stay tuned.

Extra Credit

Check out Rick Hanson’s take on H.E.A.L. from Sounds True’s Loving, Knowing, Growing.  

Photo by Christina Morillo from Pexels

Do the Next Right Thing

“Alison had an argument once with one of the people from Parkinson’s U.K. about whether you talk about Parkinson’s as a disease or as a condition. Now, in order for her to live a good life on a day-to-day level, she says to herself, ‘I’m not ill. I have a condition, and I’m not ill.'”–Alix Spiegel, Invisibilia

An Unlikely Super Power

The Invisibilia podcast is about the “unseeable forces” that “control human behavior and shape our ideas, beliefs, and assumptions.”

Invisibilia is not about depression or anxiety, but embedded within the tale of “An Unlikely Superpower,” an olfactory sense so sharp that it can actually smell disease, we’re introduced to a woman with a simple, effective strategy for addressing depression, anxiety, or almost any other condition. 

Here’s a lightly edited version of her story.      

Diagnosis and Denial  

Ten years ago, when Alison Williams was 63, she went on a walk with her husband in the snow. His footprints were clear, and her footprints each had a scuff mark behind them. She put it down to her boots not fitting.

But then she noticed that her speech was getting softer. And on one occasion, she became very confused about where she was. She went to the doctor who said it was Parkinson’s. 

Alison said, “I want a second opinion.”  

Then she found a large bucket of sand to stick her head in. For more than a year after the appointment, she refused to engage with her Parkinson’s. She took the medication her neurologist gave her but otherwise didn’t speak of the disease and tried to avoid people who did.

“I Am the Story I Tell Myself About Myself 

She didn’t really want to know what her future might hold. She firmly believes that words cast spells, that “I am the story I tell myself about myself.” So she’s very careful about what story she tells. 

Alison worried that if she focused too much on what was coming, her life would inevitably take on the shape of her worst fears. 

Alison’s mother had rheumatoid arthritis. She had a small, electric buggy that she drove around the streets in because she couldn’t walk properly. And emotionally and mentally, when Alison got her diagnosis, she put herself into that little electric buggy and emotionally and mentally drove herself around in it.

As time passed, everything about Alison got slower and less fluid.

An Actionable Goal

She realized that if she pinned her hopes to a cure, she would just be waiting. And it wouldn’t come, and she would get resentful and disappointed and depressed and be much more likely to fall off her perch quicker. So she pinned her hopes to living a life as well as she could as good as she could every day from one day to the next. She decided she’d had enough of driving around in her metaphorical buggy. She was going to really live her life.

She started taking a whole bunch of classes. Mature Latin Movers was both physically and cognitively demanding. Every week they had to remember a routine. She added another dance class, then leaned more heavily into her practice of tai chi with weapons. She got a personal trainer and took up taiko drumming.

And instead of her symptoms getting worse, she experienced steady improvement.

Focus on Process Instead of Outcome

Alison’s practical advice about living with conditions (whether those conditions are Parkinson’s or climate change or the potential death of democracy, whatever your particular flavor of terror happens to be) is not to focus so much on the outcome, but instead concentrate on the process. The question to ask was not, where will this end, but what is the next right thing to do? What time tonight does Mature Latin Movers start? Can I go to taiko drumming on Monday?

An Unknowable Future

“Do The Next Right Thing” feels like the kind of slogan that would look good embroidered on a tea cozy or T-shirt, but does it rise to the challenge of the actual world we seem to be living in, where every time you turn on the news, there are ten different stories that make you feel like there really is nothing you can do?

Alison wouldn’t accept this. Her bad future had already arrived, but she still managed to move forward without letting the outcome of her disease define her everyday life. She wasn’t saying it was easy. She was just saying it was a viable strategy.

Doing the next right thing might make a difference. It might not make a difference. The answer to that is in the future, and the future is impossible to know.

Ten Minute Exercise

In the spirit of this story, I’m going to conduct a ten minute experiment that might or might not ease anxiety by producing a greater sense of agency.

  1. Choose a circumstance beyond your control that you’re describing to yourself in negative language.
    Examples: I have a disease.
    I am quarantined.
  2. Change the description of the circumstance to neutralize the language.
    Examples: I am living with a condition.
    I am practicing physical distancing.
  3. Choose an actionable goal that you can achieve under the current circumstance.
    Examples: I am going to participate in physical activities that exercise motor function.
    I am going to participate in social interactions that do not require physical proximity.
  4. Focus on the action instead of outcome.
    Action Focus: I signed up for a six-week taiko drumming class.
    Outcome Focus: I will conduct six weeks of research choosing a form of physical activity optimal for exercising motor skills.
    Action Focus: I’m trying new Zoom group meetups this week.
    Outcome Focus: I will study the effects of online interaction proven to help one feel connected.
  5. Review and repeat.
    What new information did I gain from the action?
    What’s the next right circumstance to reinterpret?
    What’s the next right goal I can act on?
    What’s the next right action to try?

Four Tendencies Toward COVID-19

“Knowing our Tendency can help us set up situations in the ways that make it more likely that we’ll achieve our aims. We can make better decisions, meet deadlines, meet our promises to ourselves, suffer less stress, and engage more deeply with others.” – Gretchen Rubin

COVID-19 Anxiety

Since we’re living in the midst of a global pandemic, there was never a question whether I would write about COVID-19 anxiety, but how I would write about it.

The answer: with a little help from Gretchen Rubin, who is “known for her ability to distill and convey complex ideas with humor and clarity in a way that’s accessible to a wide audience.”

I laughed more while reading her book The Four Tendencies than at any comedy series I’ve seen in recent years. Its insights into human nature are so spot on.  

She writes, “We all face two kinds of expectations—outer expectations (meet work deadlines, answer a request from a friend) and inner expectations (keep a New Year’s resolution, start meditating). Our response to expectations determines our “Tendency”—that is, whether we fit into the category of Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel.”

In this time of worldwide uncertainty, let’s see if we can use it to “suffer less stress, and engage more deeply with others.”

If you’re not certain of your tendency, click here to take the quiz

Obligers Need Outer Accountability 

Obligers meet outer expectations (work deadlines, answering a request from a friend) but are challenged by inner expectations (keeping a New Year’s resolution, starting a meditation practice).

They are likely to do well with all of the outer expectations recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The challenge obligers most likely face is the inner expectation of managing anxiety and stress.

I spoke to an obliger friend on the phone yesterday. We were scheduled to meet in a city park where we could enjoy some Vitamin D producing sunshine, get some exercise, and have a conversation while maintaining the appropriate social distancing. He was too anxious to leave his apartment.  

I disclosed that I’m a member of the high-risk group because I have asthma, but I feel it’s more important than ever to remain physically and emotionally healthy. Outdoor exercise is ideal for that. 

We laughed a lot during the phone conversation, also good for boosting the immune system, and agreed to touch base next week.

Fellow Obligers, Upholders, Questioners and Rebels can all be accountability partners to help Obligers manage stress.

Upholders Need to Know the Rules

Upholders meet both outer expectations and inner expectations. To the extent that they have clear rules about what to do, (like the CDC instructions above) they’ll follow them. 

The challenge upholders most likely face is disruption to routine.

On Monday, March 16, my partner and I had tickets for an Oregon Symphony concert. On Thursday, March 12, I learned that all March Oregon Symphony concerts had been canceled.

As a writer, I’m used to scrapping my first idea when it doesn’t pan out, so I found a live performance of the piece by the featured artists from the canceled symphony concert on YouTube. We heard the same music, by the same performers, in concert, via video. 

Upholders sometimes have trouble thinking outside the box when schedules change, but Obligers, Questioners, and Rebels, who are more used to changing plans, can offer alternate solutions.  

Questioners Need Reasons

Questioners meet inner expectations and outer expectations only if they make sense. I am a Questioner.

Before I read Mark Manson’s article “Things Are Not As They Seem,” I wasn’t sure whether the COVID-19 scare was as big a deal as the media made it out to be or just a really bad flu.

His blog post explained that it was both. 

On a personal level, I should be extra vigilant and follow guidelines so as not to get or spread infection. On a societal level, the pandemic could overwhelm the healthcare system and create a worldwide economic depression.  

Since the media tends to focus on the sensational, they are exacerbating the problem by fueling the exact anxiety and stress that weakens our immune system. 

It made sense for me to follow social distancing recommendations, wash my hands, avoid touching my face, and continue exercising, meditating and other healthy practices, but not to dwell on the larger societal issues I could not control.

The information I’d share with my fellow Questioners is that our individual risk is low if we follow the guidelines, but our social risks are high if we don’t.

Rebels Need Freedom to Choose

Rebels don’t meet inner or outer expectations.

While out walking, I happened upon a Rebel who was speaking to a neighbor about how this whole face touching thing was nonsense. He demonstrated his lack of fear by rubbing his hands over his face. The neighbor, whose wife was in a high risk group, looked horrified.

I spoke to the Rebel from a safe social distance, but didn’t mention that the reason for not touching your face with unwashed hands is that it’s easiest for coronavirus to enter the respiratory system through the eyes, nose, or mouth. That would have worked for a fellow Questioner, but not for a Rebel.

Gretchen Rubin suggests the way to persuade a rebel is to appeal to their values of freedom and self identity and to offer information, consequences, and choice.

To appeal to freedom, I might have tried:  

“You know, if we don’t social distance, wash our hands, and avoid touching our faces, the next step is likely to be martial law. How might we avoid that?”

Rebels also hate being told what they can’t do. “I’ll bet that you can’t avoid touching your face without washing your hands or remember to cover your coughs for 24 hours, let alone fifteen days.”

Rebels also love choice. “The only three ways I can think of to deal with possibly contaminated surfaces are hand sanitizer, hand washing, and using disposable tissues or towels to touch things with. Can you think of other ways to tackle that problem?”

Twenty Second Exercise

The Ten Percent Happier with Dan Harris podcast posted an episode entitled “How to Handle Coronavirus Anxiety.” 

Two 20-second practices mentioned on that episode, can help us stay safer. 

Washing Our Hands for Twenty Seconds:

To time your hand washing, try reciting these friendly sentences based on the World Health Organization’s definition of mental health: 

May we be well in body, thoughts, and feelings.

May we face and cope with life’s inevitable stresses.

May we work productively to benefit ourselves and others. 

May our actions contribute to our community.

Reason it works: Upholders will follow the rule. Obligers will do it for others. Questioners might appreciate that studies have shown metta (friendliness) practice makes us less anxious. Rebels: give it a try or come up with your own twenty-second habit-forming tool.

Twenty-Second Mindfulness of Facial Sensations

Notice how often you put your hand to your face. Bring awareness to the sensation that immediately precedes it.

When you notice an itch, turn your attention to the sensation for 20 seconds, or as long as it lasts, with genuine curiosity.

Use the time to reflect on whether you’ve washed your hands since last touching a possibly contagious surface. 

Reason it works: Upholders will follow the rule. Obligers will take care of themselves in order to protect their loved ones. Questioners will appreciate the reason for the pause. Rebels might enjoy the freedom this exercise gives them from a life long habit.

Bonus Materials:

How to Do Social Distancing Correctly (8 minutes)

How to Protect Yourself Against COVID-19 (1 minute)