Brighter Outlooks for Pessimists

Pessimist

I’m sharing my experience with a ten minute daily habit that’s been shown to reduce depressive symptoms in pessimists. 

Predicting a Brighter Future

As James Clear writes in Atomic Habits, “Life feels reactive, but it is actually predictive. All day long, you are making your best guess of how to act given what you’ve just seen and what has worked for you in the past. You are endlessly predicting what will happen in the next moment. Our behavior is heavily dependent on these predictions. Put another way, our behavior is heavily dependent on how we interpret the events that happen to us, not necessarily the objective reality of the events themselves.”

It would be depressing if our well-being were dependent on what happens to us, which often is beyond our control. But, with practice, we can get better at controlling how we interpret what happens. This exercise from Greater Good in Action shows us how.

List Five Good Things

To start, list five things that make you feel like your life is enjoyable, enriching, and/or worthwhile at this moment. These things can be as general as “being in good health” or as specific as “drinking a delicious cup of coffee this morning.” The purpose of this first step is to help you shift into a positive state of mind about your life in general.

Here are five things I find enjoyable, enriching, and or worthwhile about this exercise. 

1. I find that listing things that are going well helps me appreciate them again in the moment. 

“Enjoyed dropping in on the Day of the Dead art exhibit at Guardino Gallery.”

2. It primes me to look for and recognize the good in things I might otherwise take for granted.

“Washed new underwear and socks. Look forward to wearing them!”

3. It prompts me to pursue the good when opportunities arise. 

“Signed up for a Social Gathering Meetup on Saturday.”

4. What is enjoyable, enriching, and/or worthwhile in the moment is relative, and highly scalable.

“Not feeling well because of debilitating allergies. Scrambled eggs and English muffins was comforting breakfast.”

5. Through repetition and neuroplasticity, repeating these instructions changes the brain.

“I’m noticing that this exercise is helping me recognize and reframe frustrating situations more quickly.” 

Describe the Situation

Next, think about the most recent time when something didn’t go your way, or when you felt frustrated, irritated, or upset.

In a few sentences, briefly describe the situation in writing.

Focusing on the “most recent” event brings attention to fresh circumstances instead of rehashing old ones. Writing the event down translates it from feelings and negative self talk (which I seldom question) into words (which I constantly question). The ten minute time limit and brief description prevent me from going on a rant.

“I was frustrated that none of the friends who said they were interested in joining me for Paranormal Pub at the Kennedy School showed up. I kept looking at the door to see if they’d arrive. It made it difficult for me to relax.”

List Three Positives

Then, list three things that can help you see the bright side of this situation. For example, perhaps you missed your bus this morning. Three ways to look on the bright side of this situation might be:

1. Even though you missed the bus, you got some good exercise when you were running to catch it.

2. You’re fortunate to live in a city where there was another bus just 10 minutes later, or where buses run reliably at all.

3. Ten years from now, you likely won’t remember what happened this morning.

Three things I like about these examples:

1. The running to catch the bus example encourages creative thinking and having a sense of humor about oneself.

“I can be autonomous in choosing something I want to do and let others choose for themselves.”

2. The recognition that there’ll be another bus acknowledges how we benefit from each others’ contributions.  

“It’s nice that Kennedy School puts these programs on as an opportunity for community.”

3. Taking the “ten year” view works with larger setbacks. It’s unlikely we’ll remember small ones even one week from now.     

There will be another opportunity to get together.”

Ten Minute Exercise

Finding Silver Linings

Ten minutes daily for three weeks

1. To start, list five things that make you feel like your life is enjoyable, enriching, and/or worthwhile at this moment. These things can be as general as “being in good health” or as specific as “drinking a delicious cup of coffee this morning.” The purpose of this first step is to help you shift into a positive state of mind about your life in general.

2. Next, think about the most recent time when something didn’t go your way, or when you felt frustrated, irritated, or upset.

3. In a few sentences, briefly describe the situation in writing.

4. Then, list three things that can help you see the bright side of this situation. For example, perhaps you missed your bus this morning. Three ways to look on the bright side of this situation might be:

a. Even though you missed the bus, you got some good exercise when you were running to catch it.

b. You’re fortunate to live in a city where there was another bus just 10 minutes later, or where buses run reliably at all.

c. Ten years from now, you likely won’t remember what happened this morning.

Bonus Track

Listen to the “How to Find Your Silver Linings” episode from the Science of Happiness podcast.

Depression Books That Read Your Mind

The Hilarious World of Depression podcast recently asked listeners to recommend books that get depression right. The results were far from depressing.

 

Depression Books
I Didn’t Know I was Depressed

When I picked up a copy of Peter D. Kramer’s Listening to Prozac, depression was the last thing on my mind. The reviews focused on the sexier ethical and societal implications of changing one’s true personality through drug use.

I was working in advertising and writing plays at the time. Writing a Pygmalion-like social satire about a designer drug that could create a six- or seven-figure income personality seemed worthwhile.

A peculiar side-effect of reading the book was my first exposure to depression screening questions. I had always chalked up my moods and variable stamina to artistic temperament and allergies. Here, I learned that my collection of lifelong symptoms went by another name: clinical depression.

Prozac wasn’t the answer. But before picking up a book about the history of depression and its treatment, it never occurred to me that there was a question.

How Reading These Books Can Help

The novels, memoirs, and non-fiction works below helped The Hilarious World of Depression listeners (affectionately known as THWoD-balls) practice self love and get serious about treatment. They also offered hope, helped readers process their childhood, teenage years, motherhood, understand what loved ones with depression were going through, and gave them language to describe their experience.

Ten Minute Exercise

The podcast episode “Jenny Lawson and Books That Get Depression Right” runs 35 minutes, and includes the names and locations of the listeners (which I won’t attempt here due to the hazards of phonetic misspelling). I categorized and condensed their recommendations for an episode summary that can be read in less than ten minutes. 

1. Use these thumbnail recommendations to find a book that speaks to your situation or that of a loved one.

2. Put a hold on that book at your local library or order a copy if you prefer to own books.

3. See if the book offers any helpful ideas or insights.

Spoiler Alert: I’m going with The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time by Alex Korb 

Anxious Childhood

Little Panic: Dispatches from an Anxious Life by Amanda Stern and First, We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Journey Through Anxiety by Sarah Wilson

“Both of these books talk about the authors’ experiences as highly anxious children, and reading them helped me connect events from my childhood to my anxiety, rather than how it felt and how I viewed it for so many years, which is that I wasn’t brave enough, or strong enough, or capable enough, or whatever it is that I wasn’t ______ enough to go through them on my own.” 

Struggles of Young Adulthood

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

“One of the quotes from the book reads, ‘So this is my life, and I want you to know that I’m both happy and sad, and I’m still trying to figure out how that can be.'”

What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen by Kate Fagan

“Fagan’s book can help us talk more realistically about the pressures that affect an eighteen-year-old’s mental health, and maybe help concerned adults spot problems sooner.”

Empty by K. M. Walton

“The book really portrays a young adult’s mind going through multiple things. Dell the main character has to deal with anxiety, depression, an abusive mother, bullying at school, suicidal thoughts, and her constant battle with her body weight and image.”

Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America by Elizabeth Wurtzel

“I read it first when I was in high school and my sister was experiencing depression, and I wanted to try to understand what she was going through… A few years later, I started experiencing depression, and I went back to Prozac Nation. And as I re-read it, I kept thinking, how does she know what’s going on in my mind?” 

Motherhood Blues

She Got Up Off the Couch: And Other Heroic Acts from Mooreland, Indiana by Haven Kimmel

“I love that it addresses a huge misconception about depression, which is that depression equals a bad parent whose children grow up to ultimately resent them. This book shows a child who grows up to adore their parent and to write a book about their happy and perfect childhood, and how proud they are of their parent.”

Where’d You Go, Bernadette: A Novel by Maria Semple

“As a new mom it’s easy to feel overwhelmed or like the life that you thought it was going to be isn’t exactly what you turned out to have, and that desperation to get it back can lead to some pretty severe depression.”

Case Histories and Science

Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide by Kay Redfield Jamison

“Most of this book is an academic study of suicide from cultural, neurological, and other perspectives, but what made it resonate with me was Jamison’s inclusion of personal narratives, including her own struggle with bipolar disorder and suicidality. On top of being an established academic, Jamison is a terrific writer, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading what she had to say.”

The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time by Alex Korb 

“The recommendations suggested in the book are nothing you haven’t heard before, but it actually tells you how they work, which will most likely inspire you to persevere.”

The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon

“One passage sticks out to me that I think about a lot. He talks to a woman who says, ‘You don’t think in depression that you’ve put on a gray veil and are seeing the world through the haze of a bad mood. You think that the veil has been taken away, the veil of happiness and that now you’re seeing truly.'” 

An Illustrated Favorite

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened by Allie Brosh

“One of the first times when I felt so seen that I almost thought she had been living with me and had been documenting my life.”

Adventures in Depression and Depression Part Two Online

Biblical

The Bible (The Psalms of David)

“God called David a man after his own heart, which helped me to no end when I thought about the struggles that David faced, and the fact that God still loved and cherished him, and saw him, and accepted him as flawed, and still the man that David was supposed to be. And perhaps that God in his wisdom and love and struggles looking at his own creation might go through the same.”

Finding the Right Words

Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

“Something about this book nails exactly what it’s like to live with these unwelcome little guests of anxiety and depression in your mind day to day. If I wasn’t nodding in agreement along with the way that Matt explains things, I was grabbing a highlighter to mark them because he explained them in a way that I had never thought of.”

Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig

“Intended as a kind of antidote to modern life and the way that that can contribute to making us all unhappy.”

“Depression isn’t funny, but we are. Jenny reminds us that humor can be found in difficult times… Finding real talk like hers helps to empower self love and strengthens us to stand up for folks with brain illnesses… We find common ground in her writings, and that creates dialogue. Jenny Lawson brings the monsters out from under our beds.”

“You do a good job of rinsing your sorrow out with joy.”

Welcome to My Planet by Shannon Olson

“She totally nails how there doesn’t have to be anything exactly wrong in order to suffer from depression. The main character, also called Shannon, has decent people in her life, good things around her, but those people and those things can’t fix everything.”

Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron

“One thing that resonated with me was Styron’s complaint about the word depression to describe depression… ‘Brainstorm… has unfortunately been preempted to describe intellectual inspiration, but something along these lines is needed. Told that someone’s mood disorder has evolved into a storm, a veritable howling tempest in the brain, which is indeed what a clinical depression resembles like nothing else, even the uninformed layman might display sympathy rather than the standard reaction.'”

Stumbling Toward Post Traumatic Growth

I often run into the phrase Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But, I hadn’t heard of its flipside, Post Traumatic Growth, until I stumbled into experiencing it myself!

Growth
The Adversity of Breaking Up

A close colleague recently met with me to sever our relationship.

It wasn’t out of the blue. It came after a flurry of emotionally charged emails that I did my best (unsuccessfully) to answer.

I accepted their decision without any animosity. Although the reasons were legitimate, we’d known each other for a few years, and we’d been friends, so the separation still stung.

Body Trouble

I’m used to letting people go. Co-workers I’ve befriended leave for other jobs, neighbors move to other cities, people join and leave groups I belong to. I’ve left jobs, neighborhoods, and groups, too.

A few hours after our parting, I was with my partner enjoying a screening of The Haunting, a favorite slow-burn supernatural thriller that I’ve loved since childhood. I was mostly absorbed in the movie. But, that enjoyment was occasionally hijacked by distress signals my body demanded I address.

Apparently, I hadn’t fully processed the event. It had lodged in my body as a wound. A fancy Greek word for wound is trauma.

The Lessons of Trauma

Shawn Achor’s book, The Happiness Advantage, explains how, if we’re not careful, what we learn from trauma can negatively impact all aspects of our life.

When people feel helpless in one area of life, they not only give up in that one area; they often “overlearn” the lesson and apply it to other situations. They become convinced that one dead-end path must be proof that all possible paths are dead ends. A setback at work might lead to despondency about one’s relationship, or a rift with a friend might discourage us from trying to form bonds with our colleagues, and so on.

Post Traumatic Growth

Fortunately, the same book introduced me to the term Post Traumatic Growth, a phenomenon that Richard Tedeschi and his colleagues at UNC Charlotte have been studying for a couple of decades. What kind of growth comes from a brush with adversity?

Mr. Achor writes:

Increases in spirituality, compassion for others, openness, and even, eventually, overall life satisfaction. After trauma, people also report enhanced personal strength and self-confidence, as well as a heightened appreciation for, and a greater intimacy in, their social relationships.

ABCDs of Growth

To help us stack the deck for growth, Mr. Achor discusses the ABCD approach. It stands for:

Adversity.

Belief.

Consequences.

Disputation.

The acronym might have been new to me, but the wisdom behind it, is older than Shakespeare’s Hamlet. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Adversity

The adversity part in this model is an event that we cannot change.

My colleague’s decision to discontinue our relationship would be an example.

There’s a certain subjectivity even to labeling an event as adverse, so it might be useful to think of it as an event that we experience as a wound.

Belief

According to Mr. Achor:

Belief is our reaction to the event; why we thought it happened and what we think it means for the future. Is it a problem that is only temporary and local in nature or do we think it is permanent and pervasive? Are there ready solutions, or do we think it is unsolvable?

While I had to accept my colleague’s decision, I had the presence of mind to ask for their reasons. This allowed me to evaluate a specific set of opinions instead of imagining everything that I might have said or done wrong. The latter would have been more likely to send me on a downward spiral.

Consequences

Because of the explanation, and the legitimate differences of opinion it revealed, I didn’t believe the problem was permanent or pervasive.

I apologized for the emotional pain I had contributed to, but because it hadn’t been intentional I wasn’t wracked with extreme guilt or self loathing.

I found myself in the weird position of cognitive and emotional self-acceptance accompanied by a bodily experience of a major depressive episode!

Because I hadn’t learned helplessness, I knew enough to add additional social events to my calendar to replace the ones I would be giving up. That was the logical thing to do. But, I also had to heal my wounded body.

Disputation

Mr. Achor writes:

Disputation involves first telling ourselves that our belief is just that—a belief, not fact—and then challenging (or disputing) it.

In a training session I’d done with a professional cuddler, we had discussed how the naturally calming effects of oxytocin might make a cuddle session the ideal setting for processing a traumatic experience.

How we remember events is malleable. So, taking a troubling memory out for an airing in an environment of calm, acceptance, and trust (all side effects of oxytocin) might significantly change the future feeling tone associated with that memory.

Scheduling conflicts prevented me from booking a session with that cuddler before I had the opportunity to attend a group cuddle session (where my body’s panicky “beliefs” could be calmed). I immediately followed that by conversing with someone familiar with the relationship dynamics between me and my colleague.

My body calmed, and reassurance by a third party that I had made mistakes, but not out of maliciousness, helped calm my mind.

Unintentional Alignment

In retrospect, it’s surprising how my experience aligns with the kind of growth that Shawn Achor described in his book.

The trauma strengthened my confidence in my mindfulness practice, which some people consider spiritual. I had greater compassion for my colleague, recognizing that it must have been hard on them, too. I took the opportunity to be more open than I usually am, which helped me move a couple acquaintanceships toward friendships. I added social events to my calendar to replace the ones that I would no longer be attending, and began building relationships with people I wouldn’t have otherwise met.

In terms of lessons learned, I recognized that because writing and editing sharpens my critical sense, it’s sometimes challenging to turn off my fault-finding habit in areas where it doesn’t serve me. My being less critical may prevent others from deciding to sever relations in the future.

Ten Minute Exercise

Though we can’t heal wounds in ten minutes, we can practice disputing beliefs that can lead to learned helplessness.

1. Set a timer for two minutes. Write down beliefs about an adverse event in your life that have not led to personal growth.

2. Set a timer for six minutes. Write a disputation of one belief.

Ask questions like:

  • What is the evidence for this belief?
  • Does the evidence support only one conclusion?
  • How might a skilled defense attorney argue for another interpretation of events more favorable to their client?
  • Would we let a close friend or loved one get away with this reasoning?

3. Set a timer for two minutes. Check to see whether a disputed belief might lead to:

  • Increases in spirituality
  • Compassion for others.
  • Openness.
  • Enhanced personal strength.
  • Self-confidence.
  • Improved social relationships.

Additional options. Though it takes more than ten minutes, The Work of Byron Katie discussed in “One Belief at a Time” offers a very helpful framework for disputation. The One-Belief-at-a-Time and Judge Your Neighbor worksheets are available here under downloads.

Consistency and Taking Small Steps

“We tend to see success as an event versus this series of small steps that are taken day after day, or a series of choice points that are made over and over.” – Eric Zimmer

small steps

Eric Zimmer, host of The One You Feed podcast recently posted a mini-episode entitled “Essential Concepts: Consistency and Taking Small Steps.” He covers principles that he uses in his Transformation Program. Mr. Zimmer has personal experience with cultivating positive habits to overcome addiction, but the importance of consistency and small steps applies to depression, too.

Mistakenly Seeing Success as an Event

One sunny day on my way from the parking lot to my advertising job, I noticed an unfamiliar sense of well-being. I felt that the fog of my depression had lifted. The birds were singing, sunshine warmed my cheeks and a gentle breeze caressed its heat away. The meds had kicked in.

I thought my depression was cured. I saw this as the end of my journey, not a place to begin.

“It’s so easy,” says Mr. Zimmer, “to overestimate one defining moment but underestimate how important it is to keep making small improvements. In the beginning, and day by day, there’s not a huge difference between making a choice that’s a little bit better or a little bit worse. But, if you follow that over a period of time, big gains or big losses occur.”

That mistake cost me: in weight gain, rage, relationships, withdrawal, and years of cyclical misery.

Treating the Effect Instead of the Cause

I didn’t understand (nor did the medical community at the time) that an “imbalance” in my brain chemistry was an effect of depression, not the cause. No one was thinking of the brain as an organ that was constantly forming new neural connections based on our experience. Doctors didn’t associate a chemical imbalance in those same neural pathways as the physical manifestation of consistently taking small steps reinforcing depression-producing habit patterns.

No one told me that fine-tuning my brain chemistry without addressing the mental and behavioral habits that created it was comparable to:

  • Sticking my hand in a fire.
  • Anesthetizing my hand to numb the pain.
  • Sticking my hand in the fire again.
Misguided Values

“What we’re after,” says Mr. Zimmer, “is continuing to make small changes in the direction of what matters to us.”

What mattered to me at the time was beating depression with as little effort (taking a pill) as possible.

The drug helped restore the energy I needed to keep doing what mattered to me. But doing the things the media and my peers told me I needed to do to be happy led me to depression instead.

Doubting Well-Being

“The problem that a lot of us have is when we don’t see success quickly we tend to give up,” Mr. Zimmer continues. “We hear about the value of meditation, so we might meditate a few times and suddenly we don’t feel different, our life isn’t different, and so we stop. Or, we hear deep breathing sounds like it could really help me with my anxiety. So, we try and take a couple deep breaths a couple times, we don’t see any big difference, we stop.”

I had read enough about the new (at the time) class of antidepressants to overcome my doubt and put in the minimal effort for me to take them for three weeks. The drug manufacturer’s narrative was simple to accept. Depressed brains were vacuuming up serotonin too quickly. “Normal” (happy) brains allowed serotonin to hand around longer. The drug helped the serotonin hang around.

I had also dabbled with meditation and breath work, but not even Jon Kabat-Zinn could provide a simple enough narrative to assuage my doubts in them.

Science Versus the Supernatural

It’s a shame that the people who taught me gratitude and compassion also taught me about Noah’s Ark. The parents who taught me to take deep breaths and count to ten when I was angry also told me that Santa Claus visited every child on the planet in one night.

Donald Hebb’s 1949 assertion that “Neurons that fire together, wire together” might have been a less confusing teaching meme than “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It was, in any case, my reality.

With each set of neurons firing to produce a baby step that kept me vertical, neurons wired together and I remembered how to walk. The same thing happened when I associated a winged creature with the sound created when b-i-r-d is pronounced, and later wiring the neurons associating the letters with the sound.

It took time for the science to catch up, but, thanks to brain scans, we now know that consistent meditation, even in small doses, can grow the brain region associated with mood regulation and shrinks the region associated with volatile mood swings.

The science of intentional breathing is so effective at engaging the parasympathetic nervous system and easing anxiety that the US Military teaches it.

And it turns out that consistent small steps wiring together the neurons associated with social connection, cooperation, compassion, generosity, and gratitude all build a brain’s sense of balance and even contribute to longevity.

Self Compassion and Acceptance

“In the same way that we realize that small steps lead us toward a good thing,” reminds Mr. Zimmer, “we also realize that a couple of steps that aren’t taken, or a couple of steps in the wrong direction do not spell disaster. It just means we take the next step as soon as we can.”

As I noted in the post “Shame, Blame, and Self-Acceptance,” recovering from our stumbles begins with our admission that we’re not perfect. We never will be nor do we need to be. There’s no reason to blame ourselves or be ashamed of our lapses.

Even the manufacturers of my antidepressant included instructions for what to do when I accidentally skipped or doubled up on my dosage.

If I had accepted that taking an antidepressant was the beginning of my journey from depression to well-being and not the end, I could have lived many more depression-free or at least depression-resistant years. But nobody’s perfect.

Ten Minute Exercise

Listen to Mr. Zimmer’s mini episode (just shy of 10 minutes at 9:48) “Essential Concepts: Consistency and Taking Small Steps

Extra credit: subscribe to The One You Feed podcast.