Artistic credit Alexi Berry. Used with permission.
Source: Artistic credit Alexi Berry. Used with permission.

Depression, even as a mental health diagnosis, is considered one of the most common mental health disorders. If you include people that have bouts of depressive symptoms and generally just don’t consider themselves happy or satisfied in life, the frequency soars. Depression is so common that anti-depressants are the fastest growing class of drugs and the second most common medication prescribed in the United States. Many who are prescribed anti-depressants do not have a psychiatric diagnosis, but report symptoms of depression to their primary care physician (Stone, 2016).

Despite being a wealthy country, Americans report less life satisfaction than other cultures, even ones that are much less affluent (Helliwell, J; Layard, R; Sachs, J; 2016). Our culture contributes to the prevalence of depression. Many fall victim to the hedonic treadmill that we are sold (one example is the idea that a new purchase will make us happy, which it does for a short time, only to be followed by a new desire for something else). In addition, as Shawn Achor points out, we often believe happiness lies beyond our next goal, but once we attain that goal, we move happiness beyond the next goal (2011). Viktor Frankl described American Culture in Man’s Search for Meaning: “To the European, it is a characteristic of the American Culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy’. But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.” (p. 138). Rollo May, another existential psychotherapist wrote, “We are the independent men who, often taking our power too seriously, continuously act and react, unaware that much of value in life comes only if we don’t press, comes in quietly when it is not pushed or required, comes not from a drive from behind or an attraction from in front, but emerges silently from simply being together.” (p.317 & 318, 1969)

Another argument could be made that we’ve begun idolizing complaining and an angry, pessimistic attitude. Many of the most popular stars of television are gruff, difficult characters. Others struggle with emotional problems. The effects of media on behavior are well established. It is then possible the culture has become more pessimistic as a result of seeing this behavior modeled positively on television.

As I (and others more qualified) have discussed in the past, another reason we may be a depressed species is that our brains are negative-biased. We tend to look for the negative, and often overlook and take for granted the positives. Our focus is on what needs improvement, not on what is working well. It’s been estimated that it takes five positives to counter one negative.

I recently posted, “Existence is Suffering.” It is one of my more popular posts of late (I believe it is because of the cute little empty guy in the picture). In it I write how life is painful, and people would benefit from getting in touch with that pain. The benefit of this is to overcome the unconscious compulsions we have to simply avoid life.

If we accept the argument that this culture grooms people to be discontent (if not diagnosable with depression), or even that life itself is wrought with suffering, then we have to wonder what is to be done about it. Many suggest getting out of one's self and helping others. As a therapist I have found this to be true. When I’ve had difficult times in my life, helping others has taken me out of my focus on myself and my troubles. In discussing the darkest time of his life when he was suicidal, Tim Ferriss talks about his most powerful technique. “If you can’t seem to make yourself happy, do little things to make other people happy” (Popova, M). There are scores of others, including the Dalai Lama, who make the same suggestion.

One of the biggest movements in psychology today is mindfulness, which is based on Eastern thought. Mindfulness, as I’ve addressed in nearly everything I write, can vastly benefit happiness. In fact, I could argue it is what the existentialists above are alluding to when they say happiness happens, but cannot be sought. It must arrive naturally from what one is doing. In positive psychology, the self-actualizing person enjoys activities in the act of doing them, rather than for the ends it brings (for example, enjoying exercise for its sake, not for losing weight or looking better). Even simply focusing on something one enjoys in life, and really savoring it (like a cup of coffee or tasty treat) can increase the enjoyment in life. I could go on about the use of mindfulness, but I’ve written plenty about it, and recommend anyone interested in delving into it deeper to Rick Hanson’s Buddha’s Brain.  In it, he discusses how to use mindfulness and other focusing exercises to rewire the malleable brain to be more positively focused.

In a recent issue of Psychology Today, under the topic of “Facing Adversity,” Toni Bernhard focused on accepting things as they are (p.66). She discusses how an illness completely altered her life, and how at first she was “angry and filled with self-blame.” She then worked toward acceptance (another Eastern influence on psychology and a topic I’ve discussed in numerous posts) and altered her perception and attitude toward life.

In the TED Talk I referenced earlier, Shawn Achor not only discusses how happiness is always beyond a goal, but also offers some suggestions that demonstrated effectiveness in raising happiness. He purports that these five things, done daily for 21 days (though I suggest a continued practice) raise one’s level of happiness. I’ve termed them the "Achor 5" and suggest them to all of my clients struggling with depression. The five are meditation (which has been demonstrated as effective as antidepressants in the prevention of depressive relapse); exercise (also demonstrated as effective as antidepressants); noting three different things a day you are grateful for; journaling a positive event from the day to relive it; and completing one act of conscious kindness for another. This can be as simple as expressing appreciation for what they do for you, or a heartfelt compliment. It is also beneficial to begin, as Rick Hanson has suggested, savoring the small joys in life.

I also work with clients to help discover their pillars, things they can structure into their lives that bring them happiness. For me, these are things like exercise, reading for self-improvement, challenging work, and being creative in some way. For others, I’m sure the pillars could be totally different (family, dancing, etc).

Depression, feeling depressed, focusing on the negative, and generally feeling more sad than happy are common in this culture. It is reinforced, and often, expected. For many it is natural, despite being painful. However, there are ways to combat this default mode of being. It takes a conscious effort, but even small changes can lead to feeling less sad, and a more rewarding life.

Copyright William Berry

References

Achor, S; 2011; The Happy Secret to Better Work; TED Talk; retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/shawn_achor_the_happy_secret_to_better_work on December 17th, 2016.

Bernhard, T; 2016; Psychology Today, October 2016; 16 Life Lessons: Facing Adversity: Expect the Unexpected-And Make Peace With It; p.66-67.

Frankl, V; 2006; Man’s Search for Meaning; Beacon Press; Boston, Ma.

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