Tuesday, August 30, 2011

I have of late, but wherefore I know not, been chasing happiness.

I raced through The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth In Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Project, Or Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle and Generally Have More Fun by Gretchen Rubin. Haidt was a fortuitously great first choice. He supplied the scientific, blended with a fair whack of ancient wisdom and he skillfully drew pleasing and unpatronising connections between the two. Rubin came off as a little spoilt, bless her, but gave me laughs and real insights too. In dipping into these and quitting smoking weed (something I have done almost every day for nigh on 15 years), I realised the severity of my problems. Mine was not so much a Happiness Project (a la Rubin), but a What-The-Fuck-Just-Try-To-Stay-Alive Project. Taking cues from both, I moved onto an approach that befitted my personal pathology of Severe Depression.

Vibing off the concepts of positive psychology, a reassuringly new branch of psychology referenced by both Haidt and Rubin, I picked up Martin Seligman's Learned Optimism: How To Change Your Mind And Your Life, David D Burns' Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy and Stephen S Ilardi's The Depression Cure: The 6 Step Program to Beat Depression Without Drugs. Seligman's book was a grim read for a while, as the first two thirds consist of recognising the true extent of your life's awfulness, should you be as thoroughly brain-wrong as it turns out I am. The DSM IV's diagnostic criteria for depression, our first step in misery accountancy, have me down as "severely depressed". He lays out the excellent tests, much like familiar Cosmopolitan multiple choice quizzes, for "pessimistic explanatory style". I did not score well. My explanatory style, the filter through which I experience both positive and negative events, is not merely pessimistic, but permanently, pervasively and personally pessimistic. I reached the latter part of the book with some relief, having noticed my life becoming less bearable while stuck in the grisly-realisation section. The last third covered solutions, focusing primarily on the benefits of cognitive therapy.

I have found myself unable, so far, to finish David Burns' Feeling Good. The version I have is printed cheaply and reminds me of books I would peruse in the 1980s that felt somehow worthless and irrelevant by virtue of their printing. The book has a lowest-common-denominator style and comes across as patronising and lifeless, like a Allen Carr stop-smoking pamphlet on the matter of the human condition. It outlines the techniques of cognitive therapy, stopping negative thoughts and methodically completing written exercises for each one until you reach the unconscious competence level and no longer have to scribble down every self-hating reverie. I made it to chapter 3, though I will return to it, out of necessity rather than any enthusiasm.

Ilardi's The Depression Cure is solid and sits somewhere between the two. It outlines and advocates Therapeutic Lifestyle Change, with an emphasis on clinically proven changes one can make. It picks out light exposure, Omega-3s, exercise, engaging activity, sociable behaviour and avoidance of rumination as the keys to escaping depression. Little bits of wisdom like getting molecularly distilled EPA/DHA capsules to avoid "fishy burps" are actually really valuable. I now have a colossal tub of fish oil pills next to my Centrum multi-vitamins and have been sticking to the doses. Ilardi's empirical attitude was convincing enough for at least that. The light-box is not as religiously used, but I'm getting there.

While bouncing back from my reaction to Burns' crap writing and daunting cognitive techniques, I read The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. It is a quick and easy read. The tone is familiar from Castaneda and I needed a hippie to help after Feeling Good's lifelessness. Ruiz channels the ancient smarts of the Toltec, referencing magic and sacredness, qualities I need to access so badly in among the cold analysis of more rational approaches. Though it seems I shouldn't try to be the perfect person while trying to fix all the broken pieces, it's good to have someone talk about values in among the necessities. He speaks of our lives as dreams and while caught in all the habits of the world, they are dreams of hell, which can be escaped by "agreeing" to new and better paradigms. Be impeccable with your word, he says, cast not black magic with your thought and speech. Take nothing personally, for it is a route to suffering. Don't make assumptions and do your best, remembering not to judge yourself and thus make yourself a victim. It's a good little book and Oprah loved it.

I have often described, in the worst depths of despair, how it seems that there is an entity, resident somewhere in my mind, that wants my demise. It's a simplification to characterise the feeling that way, but an expedient one. In response and at a loss in such moments, my other half bought How I Stayed Alive When My Brain Was Trying To Kill Me: One Person's Guide to Suicide Prevention by Susan Rose Blauner. It's a book for psychological emergencies and I sadly recognise many of the impulses, distortions and confusions that she describes. It's far from a light read and can be overwhelming, but her delineation of approaches when she is overwhelmed can be really useful. I can't seem to dip into this one as I have the others - it's very much focused on extreme trauma and it can be tough to admit that level of mental fuckedness, though I experience it daily. Having had a rougher past than even mine, she describes reveling in suicidal ideation in a way I can't really relate to. I haven't managed to get to the halfway point in Blauner's book, but I can see much value in her crisis lists, deep breaths and rational positive reappraisal in the moment.

I watched a Will Smith interview with Tavis Smiley on YouTube where he mentioned Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist. Despite Oprah's championing of the book and my aversion to the populist, I swallowed my cynicism and grabbed that too. So far, I am disappointed that I must have a Personal Legend in order that I might follow the guidance of the old king, the little boy and whatever else the fable might entail. Lack of a Personal Legend clearly is a barrier to success. So that gives me a task for the scary weeks ahead in my What-The-Fuck-Just-Try-To-Stay-Alive Project.


RonenV said...

Read 'FLOW' and 'The Power Of Positive Thinking' and 'Way Of The Superior Man'

Dan M'boy said...

What a piece of work is a man!