Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Happiness Project and a digression about depression

I've been reading a blog by Gretchen Rubin called The Happiness Project. Rubin is writing a book with that title, about "test-driving every principle, tip, theory, and scientific study" she can find about making oneself happier. She says she has indeed made herself happier, by making very small shifts in behavior. I think her lists of "resolutions" are too big, and rather overwhelming, but I'm interested in finding out how she actually makes these small shifts in behavior.

When it comes right down to it, my main goal is to be a happier person. I don't mean I want to have more hedonistic pleasures. I have joked that I have "anhedonia-- a psychological condition characterized by inability to experience pleasure in normally pleasurable acts." That's not really true-- I do experience pleasure. I joke around and laugh a lot, and generally am not a morose person.
But I've been told by a professional that I have "dysthymia--
a chronic form of depression characterized by moods that are consistently low, but not as extreme as in other types of depression." Yes, medication helps. Yes, exercise helps. No, I'm not complaining. I have many things to be grateful for and proud of, and realizing this just baffles me sometimes and leads me to self-chastisement along the order of "you are very fortunate and gifted, and you can do anything you set your mind to, so why don't you just get over it." But anyone who has had any experience with any kind of depression (and the numbers of us are legion) realizes that depression is totally insidious. It eats away from the inside and robs a person of rational thought. Or, as has happened to me at times, leaves nothing left but rational thought with no emotion.

A few years ago I read a well-known book on depression, The Noonday Demon : an Atlas of Depression, by Andrew Solomon (2001.) Solomon described depression in such a way that I was moved to type out a few excerpts and save them in a file. (The emphasized parts are my doing.)

From pp. 15-16:
Depression is the flaw in love. To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair. When it comes, it degrades one's self and ultimately eclipses the capacity to give or receive affection. It is the aloneness within us made manifest, and it destroys not only connection to others but also the ability to be peacefully alone with oneself. Love, though it is no prophylactic against depression, is what cushions the mind and protects it from itself. Medications and psychotherapy can renew that protection, making it easier to love and be loved, and that is why they work. In good spirits, some love themselves and some love others and some love work and some love God: any of these passions can furnish that vital sense of purpose that is the opposite of depression. Love forsakes us from time to time, and we forsake love. In depression, the meaninglessness of every enterprise and every emotion, the meaninglessness of life itself, becomes self-evident. The only feeling left in this loveless state is insignificance.
Depression has been roughly divided into small (mild or dysthymic) and large (major) depression. Mild depression is a gradual and sometimes permanent thing that undermines people the way rust weakens iron. It is too much grief at too slight a cause, pain that takes over from the other emotions and crowds them out. Such depression takes up bodily occupancy in the eyelids and in the muscles that keep the spine erect. It hurts your heart and lungs, making the contraction of involuntary muscles harder than it needs to be. Like physical pain that becomes chronic, it is miserable not so much because it is intolerable in the moment as because it is intolerable to have known it in the moments gone and to look forward only to knowing it the moments to come. The present tense of mild depression envisages no alleviation because it feels like knowledge.
From pp. 292-293:
In the fifth century, Cassian writes of the... noonday demon spoken of in the Nintieth Psalm... The section in question would be literally translated from the Vulgate: His truth shall compass thee with a shield: thou shalt not be afraid of the terror of the night, of the arrow that flieth in the day, of the business that walketh about in the dark: of invasion, or of the noonday demon. Cassian presumed that 'the terror of the night' refers to evil; 'the arrow that flies in the day' to the onslaught of human enemies; 'the business that walks in the dark' to fiends that come in sleep; 'invasion' to possession, and 'the noonday demon' to melancholia, the thing that you can see clearly in the brightest part of the day but that nonetheless comes to wrench your soul away from God. Other sins might waste the night, but this bold one consumes day and night.
I have taken the phrase as the title of this book because it describes so exactly what one experiences in depression. The image serves to conjure the terrible feeling of invasion that attends the depressive's plight. There is something brazen about depression. Most demons-- most forms of anguish-- rely on the cover of night; to see them clearly is to defeat them. Depression stands in the full glare of the sun, unchallenged by recognition. You can know all the why and wherefore and suffer just as much as if you were shrouded by ignorance. There is almost no other mental state of which the same can be said.
I have spent many years trying to think my way out of depression. It doesn't work. What seems to work best for me is to feel a sense of accomplishment. I tend to get bogged down in making lists of things I need to do and then feeling too overwhelmed to actually do any of them. I also have a hard time getting started on a project, and get sucked into procrastination and avoidance behaviors. When I actually manage to complete something, I feel good about myself and am able to do more.

All of these writing is an attempt to approach change differently so that I can actually accomplish the goals I set for myself.

1 comment:

CresceNet said...

Gostei muito desse post e seu blog é muito interessante, vou passar por aqui sempre =) Depois dá uma passada lá no meu site, que é sobre o CresceNet, espero que goste. O endereço dele é . Um abraço.