“The problem with introspection is that it has no end.” ― Philip K. Dick

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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.

Hamlet as the Ideal Depressive

From Peter Kramer’s There’s Nothing Deep About Depression article, which appeared a while back in the New York Times Magazine. He lays out his argument brilliantly — during Shakespeare’s time it was trendy to romanticize depression — and Hamlet is “arguably the seminal text of our culture.” His point being, romanticizing depression is ingrained in the culture to a point not often acknowledged. Interesting.

In dozens of stage dramas from the period, the principal character is a discontented melancholic. “Hamlet” is the great example. As soon as Hamlet takes the stage, an Elizabethan audience would understand that it is watching a tragedy whose hero’s characteristic flaw will be a melancholic trait, in this case, paralysis of action. By the same token, the audience would quickly accept Hamlet’s spiritual superiority, his suicidal impulses, his hostility to the established order, his protracted grief, solitary wanderings, erudition, impaired reason, murderousness, role-playing, passivity, rashness, antic disposition, “dejected haviour of the visage” and truck with graveyards and visions.

“Hamlet” is arguably the seminal text of our culture, one that cements our admiration for doubt, paralysis and alienation. But seeing “Hamlet” in its social setting, in an era rife with melancholy as an affected posture, might make us wonder how much of the historical association between melancholy and its attractive attributes is artistic conceit.

Red State Blues

Fascinating piece in today’s New York Times regarding differences between “red states” and “blue states” and their utilization of psychotherapy. It’s a thoughtful piece, and the author Seth Stevens-Davidowitz, takes some pains examining the data.

Compared with blue states, red states have roughly 30 percent higher suicide rates and around 20 percent higher rates of major depression. Among many other factors, lack of therapy is probably playing a role in these outcomes.

And this on the economics of therapy:

Sure, therapy can be pricey, but it is important to keep the costs of depression in mind. A recent study led by Paul E. Greenberg of the Analysis Group, an economic consulting firm, found that the average person with major depression costs some $7,000 per year in lost economic productivity. In study after study, therapy easily passes the many cost-benefit tests that have been applied to it.

Again, you can take a look at the article here. It’s worth a look.

Peter Kramer on Romanticizing Depression

And why it’s so pernicious. Brilliantly stated:

Other questioners set aside that van Gogh was actually ill. They took mood disorder to be a heavy dose of the artistic temperament, so that any application of antidepressants is finally cosmetic, remolding personality into a more socially acceptable form. For them, depression was less than a disease.

These attributions stood in contrast to my own belief, that depression is neither more nor less than a disease, but disease simply and altogether. Audiences seemed to be aware of the medical perspective, even to endorse it — but not to have adopted it as a habit of mind. To underscore this inconsistency, I began to pose a test question: We say that depression is a disease. Does that mean that we want to eradicate it as we have eradicated smallpox, so that no human being need ever suffer depression again? I made it clear that mere sadness was not at issue. Take major depression, however you define it. Are you content to be rid of that condition?

Always, the response was hedged: aren’t we meant to be depressed? Are we talking about changing human nature?

I took those protective worries as expressions of what depression is to us. Asked whether we are content to eradicate arthritis, no one says, “Well, the end-stage deformation, yes, but let’s hang on to tennis elbow, housemaid’s knee and the early stages of rheumatoid disease.” Multiple sclerosis, acne, schizophrenia, psoriasis, bulimia, malaria — there is no other disease we consider preserving. But eradicating depression calls out the caveats.

To this way of thinking, to oppose depression too completely is to be coarse and reductionist — to miss the inherent tragedy of the human condition. To be depressed, even gravely, is to be in touch with what matters most in life, its finitude and brevity, its absurdity and arbitrariness. To be depressed is to occupy the role of rebel and social critic. Depression, in our culture, is what tuberculosis was 100 years ago: illness that signifies refinement.