Famous Depressives #2

Here’s a profile of Spalding Gray by Oliver Sacks that appeared in the New Yorker this April. “The Catastrophe: Spalding Gray’s Brain Injury.” The subtitle is a bit misleading, you might think it deals with neuroscience. What it really chronicles is a slow, but seemingly unavoidable descent toward suicide. It is very dark. Those that recall Spaldings performances during his popularity will recall that he was the essence of life. When he first disappeared I seem to recall the press treated it as if it were a mystery. To hear this recounting is chilling. Highly recommended, if you’re up for it. Not recommended if you’re depressed.

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Happiness Takes Work

Another brief entry from Lyubomirsky’s happiness series. The title may seem all too obvious to anyone struggling with depression. But don’t confuse “takes work” with “just snap out of it” or similar well meaning, but useless, encouragement. Lyubomirsky’s work asserts that these are habits that we develop to maintain and bolster our happiness. We don’t just diet for two weeks. We don’t go to psychotherapy for a month. We patiently and diligently apply ourselves to these tasks, knowing that over time they yield significant benefits.

Some of the approaches are not indicated for those struggling with depression. (Expressing gratitude can be especially challenging and lead to a spiral of self-criticism for lack of gratitude, for instance.) But the notion, according to her research, that 40 percent of one’s happiness is mediated by one’s own actions is a powerful idea — and contradicts the sea of hopelessness that depression pulls for.

It should be obvious that these practices are not a cure for depression. Depression and happiness are not on the same scale. (One writer compared sadness to the common cold, depression to cancer.) But increasing our general level of happiness, can help inoculate us from some of the triggers that lead to depressive episodes.

[edit: I updated the link, which was incorrect.]

Sonja Lyubomirsky: Happiness Research

Psychoanalysts famously charted the origins of mental pathology. Cognitive psychologists take a pragmatic, manualized approach to treatment. But what about once pathology has been tamed, or minimized? Is there anything more? Sonya Lyubomirsky has been busy researching the answer to this question. She belongs to the positive psychology movement, a group which, rather than focussing on pathology (a worthwhile pursuit), is interested in what makes certain people happier than others.

Her approach is not glib. She is a real researcher who tests assumptions. One finding is particularly interesting. She found that 50 percent of our happiness is based on our genetics, 10 percent on circumstance, and 40 percent on actions we take ourselves. The genetics part is not surprising. That circumstance is contributes only 10 percent to our happiness is a bit of an eyebrow raiser. But that 40 percent of happiness hangs on our own actions is quite empowering, if you think about it.

Dr. Lyubomirsky is smart enough to caution that these numbers are not absolutes. They vary from person to person. But this ratio generally holds for most.

The next obvious question – actions can I cram into that 40 percent that will increase my happiness. Well, fortunately for us she supplies a list — but with some caveats. Some practices will be more useful for some people than others. There is an importance of “fit.” In other words, if you enjoy a practice then go for it. If you don’t enjoy a practice, then abandon it. What works for what people can hinge on culture. Depressed people found expressing gratitude to be – more depressing. They tended to end up criticizing themselves for not being grateful enough. So, do what works. If it doesn’t work, toss it.

Here are some of the practices she maps out:

  • practicing gratitude and positive thinking
  • investing in social connections
  • managing stress, hardship, and trauma
  • living to the present
  • committing to goals
  • taking care of the body and soul

Dr. Lyubomirsky has a number of books including The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want.