The expert in happiness with a history of depression
Notes from the author of Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression
On Blue Monday in January, I took a phone call from one of my colleagues. Her nephew had taken his life. 48 hours later I got a text from one of my friends. “Can you give me a call? I have some sad news to give you.” Immediately I thought it was about my 84-year old mother but no, it was about a friend of ours who had leapt to her death from a cliff edge. A shocking start to 2018.
As you try and process the news about people ending their life, you find yourself questioning your own choices. I had been in a similar position once before. Did they get it right? Had I got it wrong? I chose to stay alive – my curiosity about what life might offer swayed me then. But what about now? This year I reach the half-way point through my current decade and found myself questioning my choices over again. What is different since my last and most devastating episode of depression?
In some ways little has changed since that succession of losses – a significant relationship, the prospect of parenthood and a line of work but after the endings come new beginnings, right? And yes it’s true that professionally there is new work, which is both meaningful and motivating. I know from the work I do on Positive Ageing, that having a source of meaning is important as you get older. As life gets shorter the need for meaning grows. However it’s not wise to have all your eggs in one basket and I know from previous experience that the black dog enters when the work goes.
My interest in positive psychology originally came from a desire to find a solution to depression that didn’t involve popping pills. I’d tried anti-depressants but they did nothing for me and some had horrible side-effects. I remember once ending up in A&E having a terrifying sensation which was like being in a shower. The doctor told me that it was a tactile hallucination. It was a frightening experience to have when I was at my lowest point. We need to remember that anti-depressants are mind-altering drugs that can have unintended consequences. I’d also been down the counselling route as well but found that talking about my unhappiness didn’t help. I knew what was wrong and picking over the scabs of my emotional pain only left me feeling worse. I wondered what the science of happiness could offer me and found that the practices that raise well-being can also act as natural anti-depressants. I have found a new sense of purpose since going back to uni and becoming one of the first handful of positive psychologists in the UK.
Working as a positive psychology practitioner is a wonderful job but people do expect you to be a glittering model of happiness. I feel shy about admitting to being the expert in happiness with a history of depression. Yes, I have optimised the approximately 40% of happiness which is under direct influence but I’m still human and subject to the events of life. One of the key pieces of research to come out of positive psychology is that the happiest people on the planet have good, close relationships so where does that leave someone like me, who has an absence of that warmth?
One thing I have learnt after ten years in positive psychology is that it’s important to make the most of what is. Happiness isn’t having what you want but wanting what you already have. Life hasn’t turned out the way I wanted but I deeply appreciate what I do have like meaningful work, living in a great city and some good friends. I have mastered the practices that maintain mental health and can get so much positivity out of something as simple as savouring the cherry blossom that’s out right now. The word ‘yet’ gives me hope. I haven’t achieved X yet but it doesn’t mean I won’t. I’m signing up to the next half of my current decade.
I’ve now gone a decade without depression and am on a maintenance diet to keep it at bay. Here are the three simple practices I do every day to avoid a visit from the black dog.
The Maintenance Diet
Something physical. “Not exercising is like taking depressants” according to psychologist Tal Ben Shahar. For an instant mood boost I take a walk around the local park if the weather’s good or bounce up and down on my mini-trampoline to 3 minutes of classic pop when it’s not.
Something to appreciate. Every day I hunt the good stuff and reflect on the positives that have happened. Once a week I write my gratitude journal. It is these two practices that together helped me shift from a mindset of lack to abundance.
Something to savour. I now get so much pleasure from anything good that comes along. From a square of exquisite chocolate to a beautiful piece of music can transport me to a happy place. The secret is to slow down, put your focus on what you’re savouring and use your senses to get the full flavour of a positive experience.
Positive Psychology Foundations, the online course, starts May 2 2018.