P. Jenkins & M.S Jenkins (2017 April 17)
Am I happy? Why am I not happy?
Ever asked yourself these same questions? I know I have. A lot.
Real happiness and clinical depression are becoming a more and more concerning topic in psychology every year. According to statistics more than 350 million people worldwide suffer from depression (1), and the world atlas website states that in ”the last 45 years suicide rates have increased 60% worldwide“ (2). Within the same article, it points out that South Korea’s number one cause of death among those aged 10 to 30 is suicide. A worldwide increase of 60% could effortlessly be called an epidemic if it were a physiological sickness. It’s quite tragic that despite living in the most technologically advanced, globally connected periods of our Earth’s history, in one of the most technologically advanced and globally connected countries, we are still living on the saddest planet.
There is a strong artificial feeling to the happiness we have been promised by the postmodern age. Some of the best examples can be found in the feeds and tweets of social media. Everywhere you scroll, clickbaity titles promise happiness but deliver only mediocre entertainment. Deep down we are looking for more than five to ten minute videos that only temporarily relieve feelings of isolation and discontentment with something ultimately unimportant. Entertainment has a role to play in a healthy life, but our pain and depression needs a real cure, not a sugar pill with a million likes.
Take Sandra Hayes, the $224 million dollar lottery winner back in April of 2006. Before she won it, she was a social worker in Missouri working hard to support her two children. She had her dreams of winning the lottery, thinking that it would somehow solve all her problems. But when she did win, it was far from the peace of mind she assumed she’d have. She recounts how even her closest friends became vultures hovering over her like a dead carcass. Hayes’ trials and misfortunes compelled her to write the book, “How Winning the Lottery Changed My Life.” In a blog post she says:
“You can have a lot of money or a little money; you can have fame, fortune, and power; you can even have the world but have no peace. Peace of mind is priceless”(3).
Many of us are searching for the same fantastic hope that will leave us worse off than we were before, and that’s because we’ve been sold a lie. A VERY big lie.
In the Bible there is a story about Jesus’ disciples as they were on the ship headed to Gergesenes. All were grown men and some were very experienced sailors, Peter especially. Yet when the clouds moved above them and the winds picked up speed these experienced, probably burly, men turned into terrified little kittens on a very shallow boat in a very deep sea. As the storm whirled about them like a wild mustang bucking their ship back and forth through the waves, Jesus slept peacefully beneath them. They woke Jesus up and said “don’t you care that we’re dying?” Jesus isn’t described with any kind of strong or fleeting emotions here. He only said, “Peace, be still,” and the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.
Despite all the knowledge and skill Peter had as a fisherman, he was no match for the storm, and just like Peter we are going to have to face down some pretty awful storms in our lifetime. “Many years ago a young Midwestern lawyer suffered from such deep depression that his friends thought it best to keep all knives and razors out of his reach. He questioned his life's calling and the prudence of even attempting to follow it through. During this time he wrote, ‘I am now the most miserable man living. Whether I shall ever be better, I cannot tell. I awfully forebode I shall not.’ But somehow, from somewhere, Abraham Lincoln received the encouragement he needed, and the achievements of his life thoroughly vindicated his bout with discouragement” (4).
People who suffer from depression often see themselves in a self-centered way, and I mean that literally. They have a hard time looking beyond themselves and the problems they are dealing with immediately. The circumstances of life, and especially often our own choices, dig us into a hole and depression is like a bulldozer full of dirt poured over the hole, compacting more and more by its own sheer weight. As the pressure builds, we become more and more desperate and escape becomes more and more difficult. The hardest thing to do in that moment is exactly the thing that is needed: conserve air and think carefully. Being buried alive isn’t that common, thank God, but lots of people have survived it and there is a science backing their advice.
Depression is exactly the same. In recent years the scientific community, especially the psychological community, has made up for all the pill pushing, disorder diagnosing and symptom treating we’ve been taking for years. There are a lot of things I can reference, but two will do well enough. First of all, Martin Seligman and Positive Psychology. “In 1998, Martin Seligman was elected President of the American Psychological Association and it was then that Positive Psychology became the theme of his term as president. He is widely seen as the father of contemporary positive psychology. However, while most people see Seligman as the face of Positive Psychology, he didn’t start the field alone and was not the first ‘positive psychologist’. In fact there have been many influencers which have contributed to this new era of psychology” (5).
Positive Psychology has helped us to move away from a disorder centered culture in psychology and focus on things like character strengths and virtues, which happens to be the same name as a book on the topic. It is a compendium of multitudinous studies on universally positive aspects of character across region, culture, and religion. It’s a bit expensive, and it reads kind of clunky in some places, but it mightily champions the field of positive psychology in recent times.
What Positive Psychology has done for us is establish that there are things we can do to be mentally healthy other than “avoid getting a mental disorder.” Mental health is connected to what we do and more often than not, we are reaping what we have sown, but don’t think I am blaming the victim. I am convinced that people who grapple with depression are dealing with a situation that has snowballed out of control, but the basic factors that started the avalanche are often of the victims own making. There’s no shame in that, but let’s not leave it at that.
The big lie we bought is that depression and sadness are out of our control; that they are some kind of scarce resource that needs to be imported to our ransacked third world country of a mind. This is what all the feeds and tweets try to satisfy, but only end up creating a dependency on foreign goods rather than lifting up the economy of your mind.
If there is a science to diagnose a mental illness like depression, there is a science that will lighten the way out, but the question is whether we are being led in the right direction. We have been treating depression with pills like Prozac for years, and now that they have been used so pervasively we can get a panoramic view of their effect. “With such high consumption of antidepressants, you’d think depression would be as solved like polio, right? Wrong. A recent United Kingdom meta-analysis of 47 clinical trials found that antidepressant drugs provide almost no benefit to the people taking them” (6). Ends up that messing with brain chemistry to make us happier isn’t a magic bullet. This isn’t to say that the medicines don’t help some people in a meaningful and dramatic way, of course. Ideally, though we’re designed to live without an umbilical cord of any material kind, especially in the form of any kind of medicine. This is exactly the direction that a lot of doctors and scientists are turning.
The second example of the scientific community making up for lost time is through lifestyle medicine. This type of medicine focuses in on the lifestyle of the patient in an effort to reverse the prevailing ailments. It has been used pervasively on heart disease and is becoming more and more common for depression. An outstanding example of this is Dr. Neil Nedley and his work in lifestyle medicine. “Because Major Depression has become so commonly seen in internal medicine practices, Dr. Nedley spent considerable time in medical university libraries researching causes as well as treatments of this debilitating condition. The results of this research brought about the Nedley™ Depression Recovery Program that is highly effective in treating both depression and anxiety. He now runs a comprehensive residential treatment program for those with treatment resistant depression and/or anxiety which to date, has produced an unprecedented 99.7 percent response rate in attendees. As an internist, he also is fully able to treat the multiple physical and medical condition, that are associated with depression and anxiety” (7). The treatment of depression by lifestyle medicine combines the medical knowledge of how the body works through its many systems to optimize the mental faculties and the empirical needs of the body while avoiding treatments.
There are changes you can make in your life that will help you fight off depression because it isn’t just a mental problem, it’s a lifestyle illness. There is a way out and it starts at the bottom of that pile of earth. Through the gritty texture of dirt grinding between your teeth, the earthy smell and the choked, labored breathing, you make the decision not to be crushed under the weight. You remain calm, conserve your oxygen, and start digging.