News Flash: Depression Has Been Solved… For the Last Forty Years!

I’ve talked about depression a lot on this blog, both my own and in general, primarily because I’ve been dealing with it since early childhood. My personal depressive hell has gotten a lot less torturous over the last few years; my depressions now last a day or two at most (thanks primarily to the Lefkoe Belief System), rather than the months that they often spanned when I was in my twenties, but they still existed and still interfered with what I wanted to do.

Early last month, I stumbled onto some references to Dr. Martin Seligman‘s work on depression, which sounded interesting enough that I dug further into it.

What I discovered was a shock. As the title of this post says, depression has been solved! Dr. Seligman explained the mental mechanisms involved, proved that his explanation was correct, and came up with a simple treatment for it based on that. No drugs needed, it’s entirely a matter of changing a mental habit, and it’s something that anyone can do for themselves once they understand it. (The details are described at the end of this post.)

What I find appalling is that I’d never heard of this before! Seligman started working on the theory before I was born, and had pretty much proved it by the time I finished high school. His work was known for years before I even realized that I was dealing with depression. Why didn’t the three mental health professionals that I saw in order to get treatment tell me anything about it? Why the hell have I suffered forty years of dealing with depression when science knew a very simple cure for at least twenty of them?!

(My cynical side has an immediate answer for that: depressed people are their bread and butter, they’re not going to go around handing out a cure when they can make a damned good living by milking the sufferers forever with a mere treatment.)

That’s all water under the bridge though, so let’s move on.

I was more than a little skeptical when I first read about this. It couldn’t be something that simple, could it? So I gave it a try. Surely thirty days should be enough to prove whether it worked or not, when used on someone like me who deals with mild depression most days.

It was. It works.

The Thirty-Day Test

In the last few years, I’d generally start my day feeling optimistic and at least somewhat enthusiastic. Something about a good night’s sleep just charges me up. The feeling would generally fade by noon or so, and after lunch it would take a lot of effort to push myself to get back to work, though before this I never understood why. By evening, more often than not, I just wanted to watch TV, play a computer game, or read a book. Sometimes even those seemed to require too much effort.

The first day I tried this method, I caught myself twice feeling slightly bored and starting to feel depressed. I discovered that I was “explaining” the bored feeling to myself (without verbalizing, even mentally) as a permanent state that would cast its shadow on my whole life and which I had no control over. (So that is why I’ve always felt that death would be preferable to boredom!) I just reminded myself that the boring bit of the project I was working on was temporary, and the depression all but vanished, instantly!

By the end of that first week, I’d found a couple other subjects that have traditionally triggered depression in me (any sort of monetary setback, and physically feeling less than 100%), and trained myself to see them in a more optimistic way. I no longer had to push myself to get back to work after lunch, even if what I was working on was only vaguely interesting. I was also feeling so good that I’d expanded my exercise routine, started cleaning and decluttering our perpetually-cluttered house (and keeping it that way!), and doing tasks that I’d been meaning to do for the last several years but hadn’t had the energy. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you find that you have eight to ten more productive hours a day than you’re used to.

I also found that my sleep problems had corrected themselves. Before this, I seldom had any trouble getting to sleep, but I found that I couldn’t stay asleep more than about six to six-and-a-half hours (or even less if I went to bed later than usual). After that I was wide awake, whether I was ready to be or not, and often had to have an afternoon nap to catch up with myself. Now I sleep between seven-and-a-half and eight-and-a-half hours each night, regardless of when I go to bed, and the afternoon nap is entirely optional.

That started a couple days after I began the thirty-day test, but it took me nearly a week to realize that it wasn’t some fluke, and that it was related. I’m sure some readers will be nodding sagely at this, as it’s well known that depressed people often either sleep a lot more or a lot less than non-depressed people, but I don’t think that was the case here, or at least that it wasn’t the only thing. I think it’s that I knew that I functioned much better in the mornings than later in the day, before this, and was subconsciously pushing myself to get as much done before lunch as I could. With the progressive depression out of the picture, I can now sleep as much as I need to.

Early in the second week, my wife asked me one morning whether my newfound cheerfulness was some kind of act. I hadn’t realized that it was noticeable to anyone else. 🙂

Problems During Transition

I love the benefits I described above, but during the transition there were a few bumps.

Late in the second week of my test, I realized that I was far less patient with boring things than I used to be. If my wife wanted to stand around talking to a friend about tea for half an hour when I was waiting to take her home, I used to just stand there and listen politely, but at that point I found myself itching to do something, anything, so long as it was more interesting. It was very hard to force myself to stand there and pay attention as I did previously.

That seemed to pass after a week or so, but a bit later I discovered that I was feeling very dissatisfied with my daily life. I love programming, there’s nothing I’d rather do for a living, but I found myself resenting the need to work full-time on other people’s stuff. I wanted to work on my stuff, and trading nearly a third of my waking time every week for money, with other people reaping the benefit, wasn’t leaving me enough time to do it, at least according to my subconscious. The problem was solved, at least for the moment, by applying the same anti-depression method to turn around my feeling of helplessness when it came to making a living from my own products. I’m now working on the first of my new products (I have ideas for a number of them), and I know that I’ll keep at it until I have either big hit like Project Badger, or enough smaller but viable projects that I don’t need to write code for others anymore.

The Original Source of My Depression

Now that the mechanism behind depression is known, I thought it might be interesting to determine how I came to have a pessimistic explanatory style in the first place.

The more I’ve learned of the human mind, the more I’ve come to believe that Scott Adams’ moist robot theory is correct: that the human brain is little more than a biological computer, albeit a vast, incredibly intricate, and self-programming one. It’s the self-programming bit that causes most of our problems, because we don’t get much of a programming manual for our own brains, and we have to start programming them in earnest within a few weeks of birth.

My mother, the youngest from a large family (and far too young when she married and started her own), had a very unpredictable temper when I didn’t do exactly what she wanted me to — in other words, when I acted like a normal little boy — so it’s likely that I learned to explain things to myself in a way that depressed me into being quiet and sitting still as a way of protecting myself. No doubt being somewhat depressed all the time helped me pay attention and learn more in school as well, though it worked against my grades because homework was usually too much of an effort to be worth it. It has definitely worked against me heavily in my post-school life too, though without feeling depressed and exhausted so often, I might not have had the determination to start my own programming business.

Fortunately, like any computer, the brain can be reprogrammed once you learn the language that it operates on. 🙂

I’ll wrap this post up with an explanation of how anyone can stop depression in its tracks.

The Cure

According to Dr. Seligman, depression is not caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. It’s the other way around: the chemical changes that scientists have noted are caused by the depression. The depression itself is caused by how you view adverse situations, in three areas:

  • Whether the situation is permanent or temporary.

  • Whether it will affect every part of your life (“global”) or is circumscribed to a specific part (“localized”).

  • Whether it came about because of your own actions or things that are beyond your control.

(The only exception is for manic-depression, a relatively rare variant which apparently is caused by a brain chemical imbalance.)

If you generally feel that bad events are permanent, global, and due to your own actions, and good events are temporary, localized, and due to luck or someone else’s actions, then you have a pessimistic explanatory style, and you’ll feel hopeless and depressed any time you run into any setbacks, no matter how minor. On the other hand, if you feel that good events are permanent, global, and due to your own actions, and bad things are temporary, localized, and due to bad luck or something someone else did, you have an optimistic explanatory style and you’ll never have a depressed day in your life.

Your default explanatory style is probably some essentially-random mixture of optimistic and pessimistic based on your early experiences, with exceptions for specific situations.

Once you understand the above, the way to cure depression should be pretty obvious: change the way you explain things to yourself.

The way you explain things to yourself is entirely under your control. It’s nothing more than a mental habit, and habits can be changed pretty easily, just by practicing a new habit for a few weeks.

You can use an optimistic explanatory style on practically anything if you look at it carefully enough, and there are alternate strategies (which I won’t get into here) to handle situations you can’t honestly reinterpret optimistically.

A common example: when you run into a problem doing X, where X can be anything from gardening to computers to filling out tax forms, you might be in the habit of thinking to yourself “I just can’t understand X.” For most people that’s a pessimistic explanation, because it implies something that’s permanent and unchangeable no matter what you do, and as such it will depress you to some extent. Worse, it stop you from ever understanding it, because subconsciously you’ll believe you couldn’t even if you tried.

Change that to “I haven’t spent enough time to understand X,” which implies a temporary situation that is entirely within your power to change (and is probably closer to the truth too), and you not only avoid the depression, you’re free to change it in the future if you choose to do so.

For more on this, and how to eliminate depression even when dealing with things that are permanent, global, and out of your control, read the book Learned Optimism.