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Like many others living with mental illnesses, I have a chemical imbalance in my brain that makes life more difficult than it already is. Unfortunately, even with a diagnosis, the fix isn't always easy. People spend years finding the right cocktail of meds, and some never find it. 😔 I personally take the lowest possible dose of my medication because I can't tolerate more, so I still fall into depressed moods which run the risk of extending into longer episodes. But even if your brain is by all definitions functioning just fine, I think we can all relate to feeling depressed at one point or another. Depression continues to rise at alarming rates, and especially so during the current COVID-19 pandemic[efn_note]Wan, W. 2020 May 4. "The coronavirus pandemic is pushing America into a mental health crisis." The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2020/05/04/mental-health-coronavirus/[/efn_note]. Given systemic racism, climate change, and the general state of our country and world, I'm sure none of us would say no to a mood boost.
Researchers have been studying happiness for years. Unfortunately, there is sometimes difficulty in disseminating relevant, applicable research to the general public. A lot of times the information is out there but underutilized. As someone who hates being depressed and enjoys reading research articles, I've so far tried two doable interventions that are reported to impact moods in a positive way. If you're down for some dopamine hits, these interventions could be easily implemented in your own life. I'm not claiming a quick cure for depression, but I've experimented with these things personally and they've worked for me. Not only is being happy way more fun than being depressed, but happier people tend to live longer too[efn_note]Lawrence, EM et al. 2015 Nov. "Happiness and Longevity in the United States." Social Science and Medicine. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4724393/[/efn_note], so why not try? These strategies are pretty harmless things to adopt, so I encourage you to give it a shot and let me know how it goes.
commit to therapy, it works
Some might think of therapy as something that certain people definitely "need" and others don't, but personally I think everyone could benefit from some self-exploration with the assistance of a professional. At my most depressed point, around age 25, I decided to try therapy for the first time. It was a leap of faith because I had always been curious about therapy, but at the same time, it made me nervous. I didn't love the idea of talking to a stranger about my deepest thoughts. But at the time, I was caught in the longest and hardest depressive episode of my life, lasting several years. It had become almost impossible to get out of bed every day, and most of my time awake was a struggle. I started to have half-formed, fleeting suicidal thoughts — never a solid plan, just constant curiosity and fantasies. This was especially alarming to me because practically and logically, I knew I wanted to live. I came to the point where I would try anything to get out of it, so I decided to finally try therapy.
At our first meeting, my therapist suggested that we try cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which essentially is a way to rewire your thoughts. The idea is to eliminate cognitive distortions, and it has been proven useful in treating a variety of conditions, including depression and anxiety[efn_note]Hofmann, SG et al. 2012 Oct 1. "The Efficacy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Review of Meta-analyses." Cognitive Therapy and Research. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3584580/[/efn_note]. It's well studied and trust me, it works if you put in the effort. I simply kept a journal of my negative thoughts for several months, and during therapy sessions we would go through them and identify distortions. These distortions can cause anxiety and exacerbate depression, so correcting them relieves it. After many months of practice, I learned the habit of self-correcting my distorted thoughts. I'm still working on it even now, but I definitely credit CBT (and my awesome therapist) with helping me find some relief from that long depressive episode. It might feel a little silly at first to keep a journal of your thoughts and talk about them, but if you stick with it and put in some work, I truly believe you'll see results.
A quick aside: not every therapist out there will be right for you. If you've tried therapy and didn't like it, maybe try another therapist or two before calling it quits. It's important to meet someone who makes you feel understood and not judged. And if you're hesitant to go to therapy because you don't want to talk about your past, I want to let you know that I've never shared anything I didn't want to share. The right therapist will respect your boundaries. With CBT, there's no need to delve into the past unless you want to. Finally, therapy can be expensive and is often not covered by insurance (an issue that needs to be addressed, but that's something for another post). If you can't pay for therapy, consider starting a CBT "book club" with friends or finding an accountability partner. If you want, you can reach out to me for some help identifying distorted thoughts. I'm no expert, so we can learn together.
create a circle of kindness
Having experienced firsthand the amazing benefits of CBT, I wondered what other interventions I could apply to my life. In a previous post, I talked about the importance of our relationships to our well-being. So naturally I thought that maybe I could improve and grow my relationships with other people to be happier. Instinctively, I thought I could accomplish this by being kinder and less judgmental of others. And because of CBT, I had more patience and understanding towards others, because I had reduced how much I generalize and try to read people's minds (both are types of distortions). Once I had decided to try being kinder, I started doing some reading to confirm whether or not I could actually expect this to work.
It turns out that the effects of kindness on happiness have already been reported in the literature[efn_note]Otake, K et al. 2006 Sep. "Happy people become happier through kindness: a counting kindnesses intervention." Journal of Happiness Studies. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1820947/[/efn_note] [efn_note]Layous, K et al. 2012 Dec 26. "Kindness Counts: Promoting Prosocial Behavior in Preadolescents Boosts Peer Acceptance and Well-Being." PLOS One. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3530573/[/efn_note]. Otake et al. found that happier people perform more acts of kindness than less happy people and report more frequent episodes of happiness of higher intensity. The authors suggest a cyclical relationship between kindness and happiness, which they refer to as an "upward spiral" — being happy makes you more likely to do kind things, and doing kind things will make you even happier...and so it continues! 🥰 In the second aim of their study, they provide evidence that a simple "counting kindnesses" intervention, in which you write down and count each act of kindness that you perform in a particular time period (in this case a week), can significantly increase happiness.
I can say with certainty that CBT and being kind have positively impacted my life. I still expect to have depressive episodes, but they'll be more manageable with preventative measures such as CBT, practicing kindness, optimism and gratitude[efn_note]Lyubomirsky, S et al. 2015 Mar 31. "Becoming Happier Takes Both a Will and a Proper Way: An Experimental Longitudinal Intervention to Boost Well-Being." Emotion. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4380267/[/efn_note], regular exercise, meditation, a healthy diet, and meds.
but what right do i have to be happy?
I don't know if anyone else feels this way, but sometimes I feel guilty for trying to be happy. In this broken world, how privileged am I to think about my moods, something as trivial as my own happiness, when millions are suffering?
But I believe that when we feel good, we are better poised to contribute to society. In order to change the world and take care of others, we need to take care of ourselves first. It's not selfish, it's practical. And to me this is true generosity: making sure you are showing up as your best, most complete self for the people you love.
We know that happy people are more likely to be kind, and that being kind will in turn make you even happier. And if you're kind to others, wouldn't that make others happier and make them more likely to be kind to others? 🤔 So just...start the cycle. Your happiness can start a circle, a wave of kindness that will affect others and bring a little more light to this world.
what about trump supporters, though?
Yeah...this one's a tough one. 😐 And first off, let me say this is not a neutral blog. Even though I consider myself a positive person who tries not to judge others, I'm not about to feed you a bunch of flowery language about how we should love our neighbors and respect each other's differences. My rule is that I don't judge others unless they're hurting other people, and frankly, I believe supporting Donald Trump is downright harmful to others. A vote for Donald Trump was a vote in favor of white supremacy[efn_note]Graham, DA et al. 2019 Jun. "An Oral History of Trump's Bigotry." The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/06/trump-racism-comments/588067/[/efn_note] [efn_note]McCammon, S. 2020 Sep 30. "From Debate Stage, Trump Declines to Denounce White Supremacy." NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2020/09/30/918483794/from-debate-stage-trump-declines-to-denounce-white-supremacy[/efn_note], against black and brown lives[efn_note]Bump, P. 2020 Sep 1. "Over and over, Trump has focused on Black Lives Matter as a target of derision or violence." The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/09/01/over-over-trump-has-focused-black-lives-matter-target-derision-or-violence/.[/efn_note] [efn_note]Johnson, J et al. 2017 May 20. "‘I think Islam hates us’: A timeline of Trump’s comments about Islam and Muslims." The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2017/05/20/i-think-islam-hates-us-a-timeline-of-trumps-comments-about-islam-and-muslims/[/efn_note], against LGBTQ+ lives[efn_note]Acosta, L. 2020 Jun 11. "The Real List of Trump’s “Unprecedented Steps” for the LGBTQ Community." Human Rights Campaign. Retrieved from https://www.hrc.org/news/the-list-of-trumps-unprecedented-steps-for-the-lgbtq-community[/efn_note] [efn_note]"Trump's Record of Action Against Transgender People." Transequality. Retrieved from https://transequality.org/the-discrimination-administration[/efn_note], and against science[efn_note]Marks, A. 2017 Jan 18. "Trumps 5 Most Anti-Science Moves." Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/trumps-5-most-ldquo-anti-science-rdquo-moves/[/efn_note] [efn_note]2020 Oct 5. "A four-year timeline of Trump's impact on science." Nature. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02814-3[/efn_note] [efn_note]Tollefson, J. 2020 Oct 7. "How Trump damaged science – and why it could take decades to recover." Nature. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02800-9[/efn_note]. When I hear of someone I know voting for Trump, how can I not call into question their morals and priorities? 😞
But it's the privilege in me, as well as my INFP personality, that allows me to not immediately hate every Trump supporter I come across. I recognize that these are people with their own set of experiences, their own filtered version of the world, and their own struggles and insecurities. I choose to view the majority of them as misinformed, and while I agree that many can probably be called toxic and incapable of change, I also believe that there are those that might want to listen. There are people who voted for Trump who say they want what's best for this country. If that's true, maybe we can work together towards understanding. Being kind is the first step. We need to remember that people from marginalized communities voted for Trump too. Knowing that, misinformation has to be at play.
I totally understand if you are not in a position to be kind to someone who voted against your skin color, gender identity, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status. As a cisgendered, basically straight, financially secure female Asian-American, my experience moving through this world has certainly been annoying at times, but I've never feared for my life on a daily basis. So while I can't relate, I can totally appreciate that you might not be able to look past someone for their political and moral views, and that's okay. So no, I'm not saying you have to be kind to Trump supporters. If the goal of being kind is to increase your mood and start a circle of kindness within your own environment, you have every right to define what that environment is. 😌
So just to summarize, I boosted my moods and helped manage my bipolar disorder by practicing CBT and kindness regularly. There are plenty of other research-backed ways to increase your happiness if these two don't work for you, but I like these two the most because for me they were pretty easy to start from a low-energy place! It was only after I started doing these things that I had more energy to eat healthier, exercise, etc. That's my personal experience. If you have any questions I'm more than happy to chat. Thanks for reading some of my thoughts on this, and let me know if you try it out! I really hope it works for you 💕
© if you know you grow 2023.