The opposite of depression is not happiness, according to Peter Kramer, author of “Against Depression” and “Listening to Prozac,” it is resilience: the ability to cope with life’s frustrations without falling apart. Proper treatment doesn’t suppress emotions or dull a person’s ability to feel things deeply. It builds a protective layer–an emotional resilience–to safeguard a depressive from becoming overwhelmed and disabled by the difficulties of daily life.
However, the tools found in happiness research are those I practice in my recovery from depression and anxiety, even though, theoretically, I can be happy and depressed at the same time. I came up with my own recovery program that coincides with the steps toward happiness published in positive psychology studies.
Sleep is crucial to sanity because sleep disturbances can contribute to, aggravate, and even cause mood disorders and a host of other illnesses. The link between sleep deprivation and psychosis was documented in a 2007 study at Harvard Medical School and the University of California at Berkeley. Using MRI scans, they found that sleep deprivation causes a person to become irrational because the brain can’t put an emotional event in proper prospective and is incapable of making an appropriate response. Chronic sleep deprivation, especially, is bad news. It often affects memory and concentration. And, according to one recent study, it can cause a decline in cognitive performance similar to the intoxicated brain.
My mouth and brain are in constant negotiation with each other because while one loves white bread, pasta, and chocolate, the other throws a hissy fit whenever they enter my blood stream. My diet has always been an important part of my recovery from depression, but two years ago—after working with the naturopath and reading Kathleen DesMaison’s “Potatoes Not Prozac“–I could more competently trace the path from my stomach to my limbic system. Moreover, I recognized with new clarity how directly everything that I put in my mouth affects my mood.
Here are the bad boys: nicotine, caffeine, alcohol, sugar, white flour, and processed food—you know, what you live on. Here are the good guys: protein; complex starches (whole grains, beans, potatoes); vegetables; vitamins (vitamin B-complex, vitamins C, D, and E, and a multivitamin); minerals (magnesium, calcium, and zinc); and omega-3 fatty acids. I’m religious about stocking up on Omega-3 capsules because leading physicians at Harvard Medical School confirmed the positive effects of this natural, anti-inflammatory molecule on emotional health.
Dr. James A. Blumenthal, a professor of medical psychology at Duke University, led a recent study in which he and his team discovered that, among the 202 depressed people randomly assigned to various treatments, three sessions of vigorous aerobic exercise were approximately as effective at treating depression as daily doses of Zoloft, when the treatment effects were measured after four months. A separate study showed that the depressives who improved with exercise were less likely to relapse after 10 months than those treated successfully with antidepressants, and the participants who continued to exercise beyond four months were half as likely to relapse months later compared to those who did not exercise.
Even as little as 20 minutes a week of physical activity can boost mental health. In a new Scottish study, reported in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, 20,000 people were asked about their state of mind and how much physical activity they do in a week. The results showed that the more physical activity a person engaged in—including housework, gardening, walking, and sports–the lower their risk of distress and anxiety.
Exercise relieves depression in several ways. First, cardiovascular workouts stimulate brain chemicals that foster growth of nerve cells. Second, exercise increases the activity of serotonin and/or norepinephrine. Third, a raised heart rate releases endorphins and a hormone known as ANP, which reduces pain, induces euphoria, and helps control the brain’s response to stress and anxiety. Other added benefits include improved sleep patterns, exposure to natural daylight (if you’re exercising outside), weight loss or maintenance, and psychological aids.
4. Relationships and Community
We are social creatures and are happiest when we are in relationship. One of the clearest findings among happiness research is that we need each other in order to thrive and be happy, that loving relationships are crucial to our well-being. Relationships create a space of safety where we can learn and explore. Belonging to a group or a community gives people a sense of identity. Studies indicate that social involvement can promote health, contribute toward faster recovery from trauma and illness, and lower risk of stress-related health problems and mental illness.
Plenty of evidence indicates that support groups aid the recovery of person struggling with depression and decrease rates of relapse. The New England Journal of Medicine published a study in December of 2001 in which 158 women with metastic breast cancer were assigned to a supportive-expressive therapy. These women showed greater improvement in psychological symptoms and reported less pain than the women with breast cancer who were assigned to the control group with no supportive therapy.
Another study in 2002, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, followed a group of more than 100 persons with severe depression who joined online depression support groups. More than 95 percent of them said that their participation in the online support groups helped their symptoms. The online forums on both Psych Central and Everyday Health are great resources.
The father of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, explains in his book, “Authentic Happiness,” that a critical element to happiness exists in using your signature strengths in the service of something you believe is larger than you. After collecting exhaustive questionnaires he found that the most satisfied people were those that had found a way to use their unique combination of strengths and talents to make a difference. Dan Baker, Ph.D., director of the Life Enhancement Program at Canyon Ranch, believes that a sense of purpose–committing oneself to a noble mission–and acts of altruism are strong antidotes to depression. And then there’s Ghandi, who wrote: “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
Gratitude doesn’t come easily to me. When my girlfriend sees a half-full glass of fresh milk, I see a half-empty glass of cholesterol-rising, cardiac-arresting agents. And when the kids’ school is called off because some road somewhere in our county apparently accumulated a half of an inch of snow, she thanks God for an opportunity to build snowmen with she kids. I have a conversation with God, too, but it’s much different.
However, I train myself to say thank you more often than is natural for me because I know that gratitude is like broccoli–good for your health in more than one way. According to psychologists like Sonja Lyubomirsky at the University of California Riverside, keeping a gratitude journal—where you record once a week all the things you have to be grateful for—and other gratitude exercises can increase your energy, and relieve pain and fatigue.
Originally published on PsychCentral.com.
Join me at one of three free private screenings of “Happy,” a film that explores what makes us happy, plus a discussion on depression and happiness, and a book signing. The events, which are produced in partnership with Everyday Health and funded by an advertising sponsor, are in Washington, D.C. (May 21), New York City (May 22), and Chicago (May 30).