“Dwelling on the negative simply contributes to its power.”
Let me say up front that Pollyanna Sunshine advice to just "choose" to be happy can really be annoying. It is not meant for people who are seriously depressed. If someone is so depressed they are not functioning, are suicidal, are losing the will to live, or are psychotic - this advice is at best inappropriate, if not downright ludicrous. This article is meant as a cure-all for people struggling with life threatening depression. However, it is intended for people struggling with the negative thinking so prevalent in depression.
From what I have experienced and observed, there is a kind of thinking that goes with depression. A very negative outlook on life that always focuses on what is wrong, rather than what is right. I've seen it in myself, in my clients and in people attending depression support groups. I don't know which came first, the thinking or the depression, and I'm not going to debate that here. Whichever came first, they do co-exist. And our thoughts affect our mood. However, since they are thoughts, we do have some control over them. That is what this article if for. It is not meant to be a miracle cure or a panacea. I'm not advocating that readers throw away their antidepressants and consider this the Holy Grail. But it can certainly help.
The idea that you can change how you think about things, and that by changing how you think about things, you can change how you feel about them is the basis of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). And I think this is especially true in the case of depression. This one of the reasons CBT is one of the most effective forms of treatment for depression - it addresses the thought patterns. And addressing the thought patterns changes the mood.
With that said, "choosing" to be happy is not the blasé answer it appears to be. Choosing to be happy takes a lot of work and concentration. It takes a lot of mindfulness. And it takes a true desire to be happy. Some people, for whatever reasons, are heavily invested in suffering, in martyrdom, in being depressed. Some people are afraid to be happy, perhaps out of fear they will lose it again, or it will be wrenched from them. In order for this to work, you have to be willing to accept change and you have to want to be happy. If you are willing to fight for it, the benefits can be significant, even life altering.
The word "mindfulness" is bandied about quite a bit these days. But what do this word actually mean? Being "mindful" can seem counter intuitive when you're in a state of life-sucking sadness and misery. When you're really depressed, being "mindful" doesn't sound like a very good idea. Why would I want to be more aware of my miserable state?
Therefore, mindfulness alone will not do the trick. You have to actively choose what to be mindful of. I think "reframing" needs to occur along with mindfulness. Reframing can be a conscious effort to look at things from the other side of the table. People who are struggling with depression tend to see the glass as half empty. Reframing requires that you be in the present (mindful) and look at how the glass is half full (reframing). This can require a lot of effort, but the payoff can be huge.
Imagine you are feeling depressed. And by depressed I mean, feeling sad or melancholic for no good reason. If you are grieving the loss of someone or something, that is not depression. That is grieving and should be experienced in order to heal. So imagine everything is OK in your world, yet you still feel depressed. Try this exercise. Personalize these things for yourself. You may like rainy days or storms. You may like the sound of traffic lulling you to sleep or the excitement of a screeching neighbor. Make this exercise specific to you.
Look around your world at what is going on. How is your glass half full? What is going right in your world? Is the weather really good today? Are you healthy and strong? Has your partner cooked you a lovely meal? Is your dog patiently waiting to be played with? Are your children peacefully playing a game? Is your favorite song playing? Are you enjoying a hot bath? Are you eating a good meal? Are you snuggled up in a particularly cozy blanket or sitting in a really comfortable chair?
For this exercise, I try to be hyper aware of what is happening to my body right now. And to be hyper aware of what is not happening to me right now. I'm not in pain. I'm not paralyzed. My body is functioning pretty well. I'm not too hot or too cold. I'm not being annoyed by my screeching neighbor or the sound of traffic. It's not storming and there is no freezing rain. My new job is calm and fairly peaceful. I'm no longer terrorized by my work environment or sick with dread at the thought of having to return to work tomorrow. I'm no longer dealing with that nightmare of a relationship I was in. I have no family drama plaguing me. All my bills are paid and I have an adequate paycheck coming in. The weather is beautiful and I'm walking my fabulous dog who is thrilled to be alive. (I have a lot to learn from her.)
Having accurately assessed what is not wrong, I want to look at how the glass is half full. I tune into the pleasant activity (and this should be specific to you). Focus your mindfulness on what is going right, instead of what is going wrong, then turn up the volume. Choose to enjoy what is going right and really get into it. Use your five senses as a guide. Try to use them all in your experience of your pleasant activity. If you are standing outside in beautiful weather, can you feel the sun warming your skin? Stand still and try to feel it. Take a minute to just be happy and feel the warmth of the sun on your body. Choose to enjoy it. Can you feel the breeze on your skin, or hear it rustling the leaves in the trees? Is the sky a particularly beautiful shade of blue? Are the clouds a fluffy white? Take an hour to cloud watch and see what shapes they form. (Or feel the waves lapping on your feet if you are a beach person. Or the silence of snow fall and the way if gently lands on your face if you are snow person.) Choose to get into the experience and really feel it.
Repeat weekly, daily, even hourly if you can manage it.
This exercise is not easy and takes a lot of effort. I don't want to minimize or trivialize that, especially if your are struggling with depression. But it is worth the fight. Think of it like any physical exercise. It's really tough to get off the couch and get started. But the more you do it, the easier it gets. The more you practice it, the more natural it becomes.