I’ve been trying to come to grips with the recent suicide of a family member. He became depressed after separating from his wife some years ago. We all thought that he would eventually get over it. We were wrong.
Many of us have experienced the agony of breaking up with someone special and I, for one, can absolutely relate to the feeling of despair that sets in. But in my case, up to now, I was always able to pick myself up and find reasons to go on with life. So why can’t everyone do this?? As with all things human, there’s never a simple answer and depression is a particularly complex topic. While there may be some people who are so afflicted by depression that drugs or physical intervention are necessary, I think that most of us are somewhere in the middle of a large spectrum of levels of innate happiness. Kind of like a happiness or life gratification scale. Those on the low end see little point in going on and those at the high end have a tremendous enthusiasm for life. I believe that where we fall (on average) on this spectrum is part biology and part the choices we make in life. Of course I can’t help you with the biology part – you are born as you are. However, I do believe that it’s possible to take steps to nudge yourself up at least a bit on the happiness and life gratification scale. Yet we’re almost never taught how. So here are a few of the methods that I’ve learned and apply in my own life, and which I’d like to share with you. And while some may sound easy, it’s the discipline of keeping them up that is the hard part.
- Nurture relationships & be vulnerable – I believe these two things go hand-in-hand. Let me begin with relationships. It’s a shame that we don’t teach relationship building in school. It’s one of the most important skills for life happiness and longevity. Many articles like this one point to the science on this. There are many good books on different aspects of relationship building. For instance, if you’re shy and don’t know how to strike up conversations with strangers, check out Fierce Conversations or How to Talk to Anyone. I personally really liked Dale Carnegie’s timeless classic, How to Win Friends & Influence People. On the vulnerability part – I have come to learn – initially through a Storyleaders workshop, but later through experience, that relationships are deepest and connections with other strongest when you allow yourself to be vulnerable – whether it’s a relationship with your spouse, friend, child, your boss at work or even a customer you’re negotiating with. Brenee Brown explains the power of vulnerability in this Ted Talk. For some of us, this goes totally against everything we’ve been taught in life. But trust me, it’s one of the most profound things I’ve learned in life. Give it a try!
- Exercise, fresh air, sunshine and nature – We all know it’s important to do these things! But I admit, it’s often hard to peel my lazy butt out of my comfy office chair to get out for a walk, but I never regret it afterward. I’ve even co-opted a friend in the neighborhood to join me at a regular time each weekday morning when the weather’s nice, which makes it harder for me to skip this important ritual of my day. It’s important to somehow find a way to get out at least for a bit and experience mother nature’s amazing healing powers. By the way, I feel like many people nowadays are too extreme in their exercise and outdoor activities. They post images of their 60 mile bikeride map or 10 mile run over mountainous terrain or mention that they’re training for IronMan. Sure, it’s impressive but let’s not let the increased prevalence of these extreme sports dimish the value of a quick 1 mile stroll or 2 mile bike ride to the grocery store, which is also something to be very proud of.
- Help others (teach, volunteer, blog, etc) – Here’s a fun article on 10 Facts that Prove Helping Others is a Key to Achieving Happiness. Figure out what you’re good at and then use that skill to help others. Maybe it’s an instructional video on youtube, but much better if it’s something you can do in the physical presence of others. I’ve taught people how to make yogurt, butter and bread – sometimes informally (to my au pair, while my son is in school) and sometimes formally (as a scheduled class for 12 people in my home on a set date). The customers of the farm buying club I voluntarily run sometimes question why I spend so much time doing this every week – sorting out mispacked orders, chasing down the farmer for inventory updates, figuring out truck routes, etc. – if I don’t get paid. Well, they haven’t experienced the joy that I get from the hugs and kind words from the farmer and the customers whose lives I’m positively influencing. It’s tremendously satisfying and gives me a constant stream of confidence-boosting energy. Money can’t buy that. And don’t for a second believe that you don’t have any special knowledge or talents. If you think that’s the case, then ask the people closest to you what they think they are and you might find their responses surprising.
- Create things – The sense of accomplishment one feels from having created something from scratch can be very powerful and the effects long-lasting if it’s something you can hold on to for a while. This can be physical things, like artwork, a piece of furniture you built, a garden you tended, a knitted blanket, even just a loaf of sourdough bread. Physical activities that involve repetitive motions have been shown to increase oxytocin (the love hormone) levels. But even non-physical activities can be gratifying: create a website, develop a software application, write a story, a cookbook or better yet – your memoir. Yes, a book about you! I speak from experience – it’s amazing what you can learn about yourself by trying to write out your life story. Do it for your best friend, your partner, parent and/or your child.
- Improve your diet – you’ve probably heard about the gut-brain connection. Yes, it’s real and it’s extremely strong. Don’t believe me? Pay attention to how your stomach feels the next time you get distressing news. Immediate sick and/or crampy feeling down there – or “butterflies,” right? Well, it seems to work both ways. Take care of yourself down there and you feel better up in your brain. If you want to get into the biology, then read about the enteric nervous system. I particularly like this writeup but an easier one to understand is this article from Scientific American. So how do you nourish your gut in a way that promotes the release of happy hormones? Lots of study in this field, but there does seem to be general agreement that a high proportion of certain desirable bacterial strains are highly correlated with happiness. Yogurt and other fermented foods, like kefir, miso, kombucha, kvass, sauerkraut, kimchi, natto, fish sauce, etc. contain beneficial bacteria, as are many probiotic supplements. While eating these probiotic-rich foods and supplements is often suggested, there is still more to be learned about how to introduce these good bacteria and make them “stick” in our intestines without always needing to replenish them. Resistant starch is one area of study. Many feel that it’s also helpful to starve out the “bad” bacterial strains – the ones that feed on sugar and simple starches while consuming the probiotic-rich foods. Some use very aggressive methods, like killing everything with antibiotics and then re-introducing good strains through fecal transplants. I will admit the science on this is still young, but I have personally found that eliminating sugar, gluten and alcohol from my diet, adding probiotic-rich foods, and supplementing with a probiotic (I use VSL-3 DS since I suffer from colitis, triggered from a parasitic infection) has also coincided with an improvement in my mood and much better sleep.
- Get a pet – Similar to the relationship point above, but different, many studies suggest that pet ownership is associated with greater happiness. Check out this article in Psychology Today. Yes, pets require some maintenance, but I’ve lived with all sorts of different animals almost my entire life and I am convinced it’s absolutely worth the bit of inconvenience. And if you’re new to pet ownership and worried, instead of adopting a rescue animal whose personality may be a bit unknown, consider a purebred animal of a breed whose traits are well known and pretty consistent (e.g. ragdoll cats are very docile and low maintenance, siamese cats are emotional and relatively “talkative,” golden retrievers are intelligent and very good with kids, etc). You might even ask a friend if you could borrow their pet while they are away just to get some practice and see if it makes a difference for you.
Many who read my blog are very devoted to taking care of their bodies through exercise and food. I’m sure that you also exercise some discipline in other areas of life – investing your money, for instance. Consider the above steps for emotional nourishment to be an equally important investment for your future. You may not feel you need it now, but it’s best to develop good habits now and start the investing today so that when your life course is unexpectedly derailed one day due to an unfortunate event like what I just experienced, you’ll be able to get yourself back on course and find happiness again.