2014-01-30

More Or Less

The best psychological advice I ever received was: Do more of the things that make you happy and less of the things that don't. On the surface, the suggestion is simple to the point of being unhelpful. "I know that already - my problem is that so many things are making me feel bad!" Dig a little deeper, though, and I'm certain you'll find it to be as profound as I do.

Exercise And Depression
What if I were to tell you that there was a medical therapy that was proven to elevate your mood for hours at a time by activating the brain's dopamine and seratonin responses, increasing adrenaline levels, lowering blood pressure, increasing the amount of oxygen in the brain, and providing a mega-dose of vitamins D and K? What if I told you that this therapy was available free of charge and came with small risks and almost no negative side effects? You'd be silly not to take that deal, right?

It sounds too good to be true until you know what therapy I'm talking about: exercise. Pessimists are quick to point out "that going for a run or picking up a guitar does not always solve the problem," but it is nearly impossible to maintain the strong form of that argument in light of all the research that has been done on the topic. As Harvard Medical School summarizes,
A review of studies stretching back to 1981 concluded that regular exercise can improve mood in people with mild to moderate depression. It also may play a supporting role in treating severe depression.
The science of the matter, at least, is clear. Exercise won't cure depression, but it almost always alleviates your symptoms.

More Of The Things That Make You Happy
I mention exercise not to propose it as a cure-all, but rather to demonstrate that certain things make you happy no matter what. The clinical evidence is inarguable: Exercise makes you happier than you would be without it. It's true that you can't always control all the negative things that happen to you in life, but you can always control the things that make you happy.

So, the crude example is: No matter what lousy stuff happens today, you can always go home and do some push-ups or sit-ups or some other appropriate form of exercise. Not everyone can run, but everyone can engage in a body-appropriate form of exercise. You know it will make you feel better because it is a clinically proven fact. No matter how bad things might have gotten today, at least you can squeeze in a workout. It won't solve your problems, but the fact that it will make you feel better is, I repeat, a fact.

Exercise isn't the only thing that makes you happy. Music might. Or art. Or cat pictures on the internet. Or meditation. Or a phone call to a friend or relative. None of these things has the magic power to solve all your problems, but if any of them make you feel better, then guess what: You have some control over how you feel. So use it.

Last point here: Some of "the things that make you happy" are shockingly simple. If you have to work with a difficult coworker, for example, you probably can't just pick up and go for a run every time he irritates you. But you can take the time to applaud yourself for being able to keep your composure and interact gracefully with someone whose personality tries your patience. Something that simple can be a great source of happiness when things are going wrong. And if your problem is more severe - a chronic medical condition like diabetes, for example - you don't need to force yourself to accomplish something every day to feel better about yourself. You can set your mind at ease by simply patting yourself on the back for keeping a sense of humor about your predicament.

No need to climb Everest here, just do things that make you happy.

Less Of The Things That Make You Unhappy
The flip side of my advice so far is to do less of the things that make you unhappy.

Some of this is very low-hanging fruit. If you know that binge drinking gives you a hangover and costs you a lot of money, then you know... stop it. If you know that, every time you try to give your teenager advice, she flips out and calls you a Nazi, it's probably in your benefit and hers to just cool it. Don't aggravate an already-bad situation. That's the introductory course.

The intermediate course is: Figure out how you're making your own problems worse, and try to make a change. If you find yourself always swearing at the rush hour traffic you have to drive through every day, you can take concrete steps to alleviate your problem. If you can flex your working hours in such a way that you show up earlier for work, and leave earlier, thus missing the worst of a traffic, that's a no-brainer. But wouldn't it be nice to be able to drive through bad traffic every day, and not lose your cool? Singing along with my favorite CDs sure helps me. Some people like audio books. Maybe you can find an alternate route that takes a little longer, but saves you a big headache. Maybe you can start taking the bus. Maybe you can offer to give your friend a ride and put some social pressure on yourself not to flip out. All of these things might help.

The key here is to remember that bad traffic is really irritating, and you're not wrong to think that it is; but doing less yelling is sure to help you from feeling worse. And if your problems are more serious, like my diabetes example above? Maybe what makes you feel bad is that you just think too much about it, and you need to take a break from talking or thinking about it all the time. Or perhaps what makes you feel bad is the isolation, in which case a support group or family member might be able to keep you from spending too much time in your own head. I can't say for sure, but again, the key is to find what makes you feel bad - isolation, obsession, pining for the ice cream you can no longer eat, whatever - and find a way to do less of it.