Introduction: My depression and my quest for happiness
My own depression is the most personal topic in this book and also the most difficult to write about. I try to be as open and honest as I can in this chapter.
I started experiencing depression when I was 18 years old and graduating high school. I wasn’t enjoying things like I used to. I was worried I might try to end my own life. It was scary and frustrating. I reached out to the school’s counselor.
Since then, I’ve learned a lot about depression. I talked to psychiatrists and therapists. I wanted to learn how I could treat it. I wanted to learn how to be a happy person.
Right now, I’m feeling pretty good. But there have been lots of ups and downs in my happiness and in my depression over the past several years.
This chapter shares some of what I’ve learned from my experiences. My hope is that it will help everyone live happier lives, whether they have depression or not.
I am not a psychologist and I am not an expert. I try to write about my own experiences and the things I’ve learned. But these experiences may vary widely from person to person, so I try to be careful about making generalized recommendations.
There is much I could still learn about depression and happiness. Please contact me if you have suggestions or corrections.
My own experience with depression
During college I was still depressed. I felt like my life was miserable. I couldn’t feel happy.
I started seeing a therapist and getting medication. Both of these helped a lot. The medication helped me with many of the symptoms. The therapy helped me see things differently.
Thankfully, I eventually got better. I still feel depressed occasionally, but it is infrequent, not as severe, and doesn’t last as long.
The medication was very helpful in treating me. The medication takes a while to have effect, but they are very helpful in relieving symptoms. It helps me have the chemicals I need to feel good when good things happen instead of being miserable no matter what.
A couple of times I tried to stop taking the medication (with the doctor’s permission) because I felt like I didn’t need it anymore. But after two months of not taking medication I felt awful again and went back to the doctor.
There have been several things during my life that caused me a lot of stress: self-criticism (I’m difficult on myself and a perfectionist), my career, my education, and my relationships (dating, friends, or family), and my difficulty finding my purpose in life. This stress probably made me more likely to get depression.
In hopes of helping me feel better, I also tried a few different journal writing exercises. For example, I started writing down (privately) how I was feeling. I also started studying a thought-examination process by Byron Katie called “The Work”. I describe “The Work” at the end of this chapter. I think counseling or therapy is usually more helpful, but writing exercises can help too.
A brief introduction to depression
Depression is when your brain does not function properly, causing you to feel extreme sadness. A depressed person will not be able to feel appropriate happiness when joyful things happen. A depressed person will also feel much worse in response to stressful situations.
There are different types and degrees of depression. A mildly depressed person may be able to hide their depression very well, especially if they have some good things going on in their life. A severely depressed person may not be able to do much besides sleep, eat a little, and waste time.
Symptoms of Depression
Symptoms can include: difficulty enjoying life, inability to enjoy or be interested in the things you used to care about, feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, thoughts of suicide, difficulty falling asleep, oversleeping, feeling fatigued and low-energy regardless of sleep, low self-control/willpower, loss of appetite or overeating (along with either weight loss or weight gain), moodiness, frequent sadness, anger or irritability, low motivation, low ambition, low self-worth, indifference towards everything, loss of interest in social interaction, wishing you had never been born, and difficulty focusing or making decisions.
Those are all symptoms I can remember experiencing at one point or another.
Some experiences I had when I was really depressed included: Having a very low appetite so that I lost a lot of weight unintentionally, staying awake at night crying, feeling like I was irritable or in a bad mood during the day, wishing I had never been born, not having the self-control/willpower to do the things I wanted to do, trouble focusing on tasks, being unable to enjoy the things I liked to do (like dancing), and even imagining suicide. During the worst month I could barely get out of bed.
Tell your doctor, psychiatrist, or therapist all your relevant symptoms, feelings, and thoughts. This helps them diagnose you and treat you. You can even write down your symptoms and give them written notes.
Negative thoughts I’ve had during depressed times in my life
Looking back on the most challenging times in my life, I can remember some of the painful thoughts that I had. I didn’t know how to examine these thoughts and deal with them. Instead, I dwelled on them. This only made them worse. All of the thoughts turned out to not be true. (The end of this chapter discusses treating negative thoughts.)
When I was in my teens I had thoughts like: I am a loser, I don’t come from a good enough family, I am sub-human, I am unattractive, I don’t have enough friends, my life is miserable and hopeless, I wish I had never been born.
When I was in my twenties I had thoughts like: I am a failure, my future will be dreadful, I am not a good programmer, I will go broke, I won’t be able to find happiness, my first book will never be good, if I don’t become a super successful person then I will be a failure, my life is miserable, I am suffering.
I can see now that I didn’t need to be worried about these fears. They are all false, and most of them are ridiculous!
Everybody has at least a few concerns like these. But when you’re depressed these thoughts can feel overwhelming.
Depression as a lens through which you experience the world
I like the metaphor of depression as a lens or filter through which you experience the world. Your brain is how you understand, perceive, feel, believe, and know. Depression is a problem in the brain that is going to change how you do all those things.
When you’re depressed, every activity seems more stressful and tiring. At the same time, every happy moment seems less rewarding or interesting. You feel different from normal people because you know the things that make them happy won’t make you happy.
Treating depression means peeling back the layers of depression so that your brain can perceive things normally again.
Suicide and suicide prevention
Tragically, some percentage of the population ends their own life by committing suicide. Curiously, this does NOT only happen to people with objectively terrible lives. Instead, suicide can occur in people with seemingly great lives or people with potentially great futures. People with suicidal thoughts can be successful and smart in addition to depressed and struggling.
If you’re having suicidal thoughts, go see a doctor or a therapist.
I believe these suicides happen to people whose brains are structured in such a way that cause negative emotions to overpower rational thinking. A depressed person might see their future live as miserable, hopeless, or scary even when their life doesn’t have to be.
They also might behave irrationally, making their situation worse. For example, the brain makes you want to stay in bed and sleep instead of spending time doing the things necessary to be happy. The ultimate irrational decision is to end your own life when there were ways to overcome your problems without being so destructive.
Suicide is very tragic for the family and friends of the victim. These people may have been able to see the rational solutions to the problems. They might have felt that the victim had the opportunity to live out the rest of his or her natural life happily.
I had a cousin commit suicide. I wish I had known that was a possibility and reached out to him more. Maybe I could’ve been able to prevent it. Or maybe there was nothing I could have done.
Suicide is also tragic for the victim. Even in a suicidal, depressed state, the victim might not see suicide as a good option. Instead it is seen as the better choice because all the other options seem worse. In other words, the victim might have chosen not to commit suicide if he thought there were better options. But the irrational, depressed thinking makes other options feel unobtainable. This is how I felt when I had suicidal thoughts.
I remember imagining my own suicide. I didn’t want to have those thoughts. Deep down I didn’t even want to die, I just wanted the feeling of hopelessness to go away. I also didn’t want to bring emotional pain to the people who knew me.
If I had committed suicide, the note I would have written would go something like, “I’m disappointed I didn’t live to my full potential, but it’s too painful to continue. Sorry to my friends and family.”
I remember investigating different methods of suicide. For example, I remember thinking to myself that I did NOT want to kill myself by jumping in front of a train because that would be too bothersome for the people trying to ride the train. Even when I was at my most depressed I still wanted to be as considerate as possible to everyone else.
Suicide prevention is difficult because people can be very secretive about their suicidal thoughts. They might even isolate themselves socially.
Luckily, depression can be treated and prevented. There are a variety of methods to help you do this.
There are medications that can help regulate the chemicals in your brain. This helps you have the same feelings and responses as a healthy person.
There is also “cognitive therapy” that helps change the way you think. This is usually done by talking with a therapist. If you think you have depression, talk to your doctor about a plan for treating it.
When treated properly, the symptoms of depression become less frequent and less severe.
Curiously, physical exercise is supposed to be very good for depressed people. In my own experience, I have found that I am generally less depressed if I am exercising a lot. Of course, when you’re really depressed you don’t want to exercise.
Depression is a serious problem and it’s not all that uncommon. By attempting to treat it, we are creating opportunities for lives to be happier, healthier, more productive, and more fulfilling.
The purpose of antidepressant medication is to normalize the chemistry in your brain. There is a common misconception that antidepressants make you feel happy or unreasonably good. But antidepressants won’t make you feel great about things that are bad.
What they actually do is allow a depressed person to feel how a normal, healthy person feels. In a normal, healthy person, you feel good if good things are happening and feel bad if bad things are happening.
Causes of Depression
Depression is related to anxiety. Both are caused by the chemicals and neurological structures in your brain. When you’re sad, worried, stressed, or angry much of the time, it makes it easier for you to feel that way again in the future. This creates a downward spiral of negative feelings.
Thinking sad thoughts even started to feel good, even though ruminating on them only made me more depressed. I also tend to daydream a lot and set very high expectations for myself. I rarely live up to my own expectations.
Some factors that can affect the likelihood of depression are genetics, life experiences, worries, expectations, self-esteem, stress, diet, and exercise.
Willpower gives you the ability to do a certain tasks even though you don’t completely want to do the task. Willpower lets you do chores that aren’t inherently super fun. It takes a lot of willpower to stay focused on a homework assignment I don’t care about, but it takes very little willpower for me to eat a slice of delicious pizza.
Willpower is a very important topic because people with depression can suffer from very low willpower and motivation. For example, I really wanted to get a chore done but did not have the willpower to do it. I just did nothing instead. When I lack willpower, I feel extremely lazy and I procrastinate.
Willpower is different than energy or tiredness. I could have low willpower but still be energetic and awake.
A brief introduction to neurology
The brain is very complicated. It is very powerful because it can learn and remember a large amount of knowledge. It is also very “flexible” in the sense that there is a huge variety to the things the brain can learn, think, sense, and understand.
But the brain isn’t magic! Its flexibility and power comes from being made out of approximately 100 billion neurons. A single neuron is not all that useful, but it can be connected to other neurons via synapses. A single neuron can have hundreds of synapses. Chemistry, physics, and electrical signals allow neurons to change how they are connected to each other.
This system of many neurons with many possible connections and changing connections is very useful. It allows us to learn and remember and change how we think. Neurons remind me of LEGO blocks because the a large collection of blocks can build a huge range of different structures.
The brain’s flexibility gives it the possibility to be extremely smart in many different ways. But that flexibility also makes it vulnerable to developing emotional disorders.
Some people online ask, “Is depression a genetic flaw that will eventually be removed from the gene pool via natural selection?” To me, I don’t think so because I don’t think it is as simple as that. I think of depression as a symptom of the brain’s powerful flexibility, which is generally a good thing. I don’t know all the details though.
Some common, undesirable emotions are: rejection, guilt, low self-esteem, anger, fear, disappointment, frustration, hopelessness. An emotionally healthy person will have an appropriate emotional response to situations. It’s normal to feel negative emotions every once in awhile when something undesirable occurs.
An emotionally unhealthy person, however, will have a negative emotion too frequently or have a bad reaction to that emotion. For example, people can react with depression, anxiety, panic, or rage.
Treating emotions with emotional first aid
I read a cool book called Emotional First Aid by Dr. Guy Winch, a psychologist. It introduced me to the concept of “emotional first aid”. In physical health, first aid is the treatment that we can do ourselves without a doctor to handle small problems and prevent worse problems. Emotional first aid are things we can do to treat our small emotional injuries. This can help prevent more serious problems in the future.
The book covers different types of emotional “injuries” such as rejection, loneliness, low self-esteem, and failure. The author gives examples of patients who had these problems and how their thoughts about the problem made it worse. The suggested remedy often involved thinking critically so that we don’t unfairly blame ourselves or unrealistically feel hopeless.
The value of having a good support system
We all have problems. We all have irrational fears and feelings. We all have misconceptions. Having a good support system can help prevent emotional challenges become debilitating mental health issues.
What makes up a support system? To me, it encompasses a very broad range of things in your life. Almost anything could be a part of your support system.
My support system includes family, friends, and sometimes even acquaintances. It includes a doctor and a therapist. It includes examining my thoughts in a journal. It also includes my beliefs about myself, my knowledge and training, my goals, and my ability to manage negative thoughts.
Supporting others online
As a programmer, I’m curious about how technology can be used to help support people. There are a couple websites already that I think help a lot of people.
There are very real limitations to websites like these. It relies on volunteers who might not be very well trained or knowledgeable.
But there are also very real benefits. There are many people with “easy” problems that can be helped without needing an expert. Online resources like these can be a valuable tool for some people. They can also help lead people towards more professional tools.
I’ve been spending time on BlahTherapy and various online communities within Reddit. I listen to and talk to people about their problems. I’ve learned a lot about what people are going through and how to be better at supporting them.
Supporting others online with BlahTherapy.com
Users of BlahTherapy.com enter are paired with another user in a private chat room. You can designate yourself as either a “Venter” or a “Listener” each time
you request to chat. And each chat room consists of one Venter and one Listener. The two can type to each other.
I’ve used this service many times as both a Venter and a Listener. Having someone listen to you can be very powerful. It can give you new perspective.
Sometimes the venters are teenagers, other times they are adults. The problems tend to be about relationships, career, or family.
Anyone can be a Listener, and the quality of listener varies. Some listeners are very good at listening and are very helpful, but others are not attentive or understanding enough. I’ve spent a lot of time as a listener and I’m much better at helping people feel better than when I first started.
There is also a section of the website that allows users to chat with trained psychologists for a fee.
Supporting others online with /r/SuicideWatch and /r/Depression
Another website is the “Suicide Watch” section of Reddit (www.reddit.com/r/SuicideWatch). Users who are suicidal can post written calls for help here. Other users can try to write responses in the hope of helping to prevent suicides. I think these expressions and conversations can help prevent suicide in some cases. When I have free time I will read the posts of suicidal people and try to respond with messages that I think will help them.
Sadly, some of the users who create posts here do end up committing suicide. I know this because I got a message from a parent thanking me for my effort but also informing me that the user I responded to had in fact committed suicide.
I also try to respond to people who reach out for help on reddit.com/r/depression. Hundreds of depressed people post there every day. Whenever I can, I’ll respond to a few to try to help them.
I prioritize responding to posts that don’t have any responses and are at risk of not getting any.
Social media can be depressing
Social media websites like Facebook can be depressing. I see pictures of people I know from school having lots of fun and being super successful. I feel jealous if I don’t think I’m having enough fun or being successful enough.
Social media isn’t that big of a source of depression for me, personally, but I know for some people it is.
The pictures, videos, and stories show the best of their lives. It doesn’t show the difficulties they had to overcome or the luck that they had. The story you’re getting is not necessarily the whole story or even the true story.
Hopefully you spend more time doing what makes you happy than looking at what other people are doing. If you don’t know what you can do to be happier, invest time in finding out.
An introduction to “Loving What Is” and “The Work” by Byron Katie
“Loving What Is” is the title of a book by author Byron Katie. In it, she describes her process for finding peace and happiness, called “The Work”. Her website is TheWork.com.
The title “Loving What Is” is intimidating and a little bit misleading for beginners. The goal is NOT to take something horrible and see it as a great thing. Instead, the goal is to examine your thoughts about a stressful situation so that your thinking is realistic and productive.
When confronted with something horrible, the way you think about the problem can make it even worse. The Work calms you down so that your mind is better able to take action and fix what is horrible. It allows you to love yourself and the world despite the problems you face.
The Work consists of questions that help you see how your own thinking is hurting you. It also helps you think of new thoughts that you hadn’t considered before. Her book, “Loving What Is”, describes the questions and why they are helpful. For example, “Who would you be without the thought that is on your mind?”
Byron Katie has helped many people overcome their fears and problems with The Work. The book gives many examples of people answering the questions with her. You can find videos online of her counseling people using The Work. She has also given lectures around the world.
Her website has a free worksheet called “Judge Your Neighbor” which you can use to try The Work. It is a little confusing at first. In fact, when I first read “Loving What Is”, I didn’t understand it or like it all that much. It wasn’t until I saw Byron Katie speak at a lecture that I began to see how helpful it could be.
The ideas behind The Work are not unique. They are a form of “cognitive behavioral therapy” that psychologists use to help improve how patients think.
How to perform “The Work”
The first step is to identify something that you are stressed about or upset about. This could be another person or something you don’t like about your life.
The second step is write down some statements you believe about the situation. You need at least one. Byron Katie’s “Judge Your Neighbor” worksheet asks six questions to help you identify some of your beliefs. For example, “In order for you to be happy, what do you need?” or “How should things be different?”.
The third step is to examine those belief statements one at a time. Byron Katie does this by asking questions like “Can I absolutely know this is true?”, “How do I react when I think this thought?”, “Who would I be without this belief?”, “Can I see a reason to let go of this belief?”. The answers might surprise you. You might find that what you thought was true was not completely true. Or you might find that the belief is hurting you rather than helping you.
That question, “Who would I be without this belief?”, is my favorite part of The Work. Imagining what I would do if I let go of my thoughts leads to me to helpful realizations.
The fourth is what Byron Katie calls “the turnaround”. You take the statement you are examining and transform it into new or opposite thoughts. For example, you might examine whether the opposite of what you thought is actually true. Or maybe you are doing in some way what you are accusing someone else of doing. You see if you can come up with genuine reasons in support of the “turnaround” variations. Basically, you are trying to look for counter-arguments to your beliefs.
These thinking exercises help you become calmer, more reasonable, and more focused regarding whatever is upsetting you.
There are no wrong answers, so answer honestly. That sometimes means admitting that a belief absolutely is true. The point is not to change your mind or get you to answer a certain way.
When I first started the Work, I incorrectly thought I had to disprove my stressful belief. That lead me to answer questions in a way that wasn’t completely honest. It is more helpful to be completely honest with yourself, even your answers seem “wrong” or pessimistic.
My experience with The Work
When I examine my thoughts I find that I have fears and beliefs that are not really true. This can help me feel better about how things are going in my life. Over time, I think it helps decrease how much I worry.
I use the thinking exercises from The Work almost every day. I ask myself questions and write the answers in a journal. I answer the questions based on whatever is frustrating me at the time. I also come up with my own prompt questions, such as “Why am I not happy?” and then I examine my answers.
By studying Byron Katie, I learned that some of my stress comes from “should thoughts”.
A “should thought” is when you dislike something and think it should be different. A “should thought” can be about yourself (“I should have gotten more work done yesterday”), about someone else (“My co-worker should be less annoying”), or about the world (“Politicians should be better!”).
There are actually two definitions of the word “should”. Most of the time we say “should” we are expressing a preference or an ideal. For example, “My roommate should be cleaner.” This is the first definition of “should”.
The second definition of “should” means you have an expectation about reality. Things should happen because the necessary prerequisites are met. For example, “I started the washing machine an hour ago so it should be done by now”. This second definition is more helpful because it reminds us that things only happen if reality dictates that it must.
Why should things be any different than how they are? “Should thoughts” are wrong because they want reality to be something that it is not.
In reality, everything is exactly how it should be. Everything happens because it obeyed the rules of our universe. If something didn’t happen, then it should not have happened (according to the second definition). Byron Katie likes to say “When I argue with reality, I lose”.
I create a lot of stress for myself when I think about things I don’t like. “Should thoughts” make me less happy and less motivated. Without “should thoughts”, I can be more at peace and move forward more easily. To let go of these frustrating thoughts, I can try to think about the reasons why things are exactly as they are.
As an example, I remember being mad at one of my friends. I thought that she was being overly judgemental and that she should be kinder. If I didn’t examine that thought, I would have just stayed mad at my friend. But because I examined that thought, I thought about how that friend wasn’t trying to be mean, she was trying to be helpful and frank. Based on her past experiences, she wasn’t prepared to be kinder. And I also realized that I hadn’t been kind to her either and that I should apologize.
Even if you don’t think you have many “should thoughts”, try examining your thoughts. Some “should thoughts” are hidden.
The purpose of life is to be where you are right now
The purpose of life is to be where you are right now. Byron Katie mentioned this idea in a video and I really like it.
When I’m feeling depressed, I don’t know what the purpose of my life is. I might feel like life has no purpose and that nothing matters. But this is very demotivating and doesn’t ring completely true. Other times I feel like the purpose of life is to become very successful and accomplish my goals. But this is also demotivating, because my goals feel impossible when I’m depressed.
Remembering that the purpose of life is to be where you are right now is very motivating. It’s a form of self-kindness since it prevents me from getting mad at myself for my current shortcomings. It helps focus on the present rather than some imaginary future or failure.
The website I built to help people examine their thoughts
I made a website, www.ExamineYourThoughts.com. Anyone can go there and try writing answers to some questions. It’s inspired by what I learned from studying Byron Katie.
The ping-pong metaphor for anxious thoughts
Let’s say I have an anxious thought. For example, “this book will be a failure” or “this weekend will be horrible.” It helps to imagine the anxious thought as a ping-pong ball or tennis ball that has been served towards you.
The goal is to hit it back quickly and as solidly as you can. You can hit back by examining your thoughts or having reassuring thoughts. For example, “this book will have some fans and be a success even in the worst case scenario” or “The parts of this weekend I’m worried about probably won’t be that bad.”
Keep reminding yourself: Never give up, Things won’t be as bad as you think, Just get started
Never give up. For most big things (such as fighting your depression, building a happy life), you are better off not giving up. Ask yourself, what do you have to lose by giving up? What do you have to gain by not giving up? If you’re depressed, you have a lot to gain by not giving up: you could potentially have many happy years ahead of you.
Things won’t be as bad as you think. When was the last time that something you worried about turned out to be as bad as you worried it would be? Probably not recently. Generally the things we worry about don’t turn out to be that big of a deal.
Just get started! For me, the hardest of anything is getting started. Once I get started a little bit, the task becomes so much less scary.
If it helps you to remember, write it down on a piece of paper and tape it to your wall.
Tackling issues that cause sadness, anxiety, or stress
Sometimes when a person is depressed or anxious, it is because they have issues that they are worrying about. If that is the case, examine the issue or issues. Then spend time actually working on one of the issues.
For example, as I’m writing this book, I sometimes feel anxious that this book isn’t good enough yet. The best thing I can do in that situation is spend time focused on improving the book.
Tackling the issue head on is going to be more helpful than doing something to make yourself feel good without solving the underlying issue.
I might be afraid to face the issue and try to avoid it. If I notice this, I try examining my thoughts about the issue. This helps me get to a place where I’m less afraid to try working on the problem. If I’m really nervous, I set a timer so that at the very least I work on the issue for ten minutes.
Helping someone you know who has depression
If someone you know is depressed, it can be very frustrating to try to help them. They might be moody or angry. Or maybe they don’t feel like sharing all their thoughts with you. It might feel like they aren’t listening to you. The depression causes them to avoid doing the things that might help them.
Ask them what you can do to help them. Avoid telling them what to do. They probably know what they could do differently but just don’t have the willpower to do it.
Spend time with them. Take them outside in the sun, out to eat a healthy meal, or out to get exercise. Talk to them about their fears and problems. Help them examine their thoughts. Offer to help them get chores or goals accomplished. Help them find resources and professionals who can help them more.
You might be attempted to ignore them because helping them is so stressful to you. But if you can, respond to them when they reach out for help. It will help them feel less alone.
It feels like some people have it easier
It made me jealous when I noticed that some other people had an easier time being happy than me. For example, some people are happy without struggling with depression first. Another example: some people are (seemingly) perfectly happy with lives and careers that wouldn’t bring me that same happiness. I’m a little bit jealous of people who have a passion that is cooler than writing a self-help book, haha!
It’s probably best to not worry about other people and just be the happiest you can be.
Happiness is something you do
Instead of trying to be happy, try to be doing happy. Happiness is something you do. Instead of worrying about whether you are happy or how to achieve happiness, think about doing things happily. This mean could mean changing what you’re doing and/or changing how you do things.
This isn’t an original idea. It’s something that I found online in a forum comment. But it stuck with me. Anytime I’m in the middle of doing a chore I try to remind myself that I can try to do it happily.
The future of mental health
Hopefully our society will continue to get better at taking care of mental health as time goes on. There will be additional research, new discoveries, better resources, better educational materials, better training, etc. There are lots of opportunities for improvement and there are people willing to put effort towards those opportunities.