Depression Is Your Friend

It’s crazy, right? How can something as unpleasant as depression, the leading precursor to suicide, actually be thought of as a good buddy?

First off, I would like to emphasize that I am in no way praising deep, debilitating depression. Instead, this article is aimed at discussing depression as a form of motivation, not a psychological disorder.

When you think of a friend, what is the first thing that comes to mind? A friend might be someone who you watch a ballgame with. They might even be someone who drives you home when you’re too drunk to drive yourself. For me, a friend is someone so much more than that; someone much different than a family member or spouse.

For me, a friend is someone who attends that ballgame not because they want to get out of the house for a few hours, but because they genuinely enjoy your company. A friend is someone who drives you home when you’re drunk not out of obligation, but out of concern for your safety. Really, a friend is someone who accepts you without question, sees the value that you bring to the world, and looks out for you during hard times.

So how does depression look out for you? Well, for starters I’m writing this post with my fingers. I have a brain that thinks and reasons in order to produce the language that is responsible for the post in the first place. I have a stomach to digest the food I ate two hours ago and a heart that pumps blood to keep me alive. The truth is, depression wouldn’t exist if, along with every organ in my body, it didn’t serve some kind of a survival function. The theory of evolution suggests that our predecessors who did not experience depression were selected against and died off, while those who experienced depression lived on to spread their genes and ultimately create you and me. With that said, depression is as much a part of us as our fingers, stomachs, brains, and hearts are. It is an instrument of survival.

Then again, depression doesn’t get enough credit. We condemn it, scrutinize it, and in many cases medicate it when it doesn’t need medicating. How do you even define depression in a positive light when it is this widely stigmatized and condemnable “sickness of the mind” or worse, character flaw? Well, it’s not an impossible task.

Normal depression, and by extension grief, can be defined as a self-regulatory mechanism in which a problem is continually reflected on and analyzed with the intent of preventing it from reoccurring. It’s almost like trying to solve a math equation that you’ve been stuck on for hours in that you’ll rework the problem over and over until a correct solution becomes evident. The only time the mind-boggling math equation that is depression becomes debilitating is when episodes are prolonged, lasting for weeks and months at a time, and disrupt personal and professional relationships. At that point, you never solve the problem, you just keep staring at it and expecting something to change.

I can tell you with certainty that for every mistake I’ve made and problem that I’ve created, I never would have improved as a human being if I didn’t feel depressed afterward. There were times when I failed a test or said something extremely hurtful to another person, and afterward that was all I thought about for the rest of the day and even the rest of the week. I’d think to myself, “How could I let this happen?” and “What went wrong, and what can I do to fix this mess?”

Don’t get me wrong, depressive rumination isn’t fun. Some of the worst moments in my life were where I would become so emotionally drained, so dispirited, and so, well… depressed, that I couldn’t even move. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t play video games, and I generally couldn’t function normally. Why would anybody want to suffer through such an experience? The answer is that it can be used as motivational fuel when it is channeled into something more meaningful. I look at it this way: you could achieve every major success in the book, but by the time that one failure comes around it’s suddenly the worst thing in the world because you haven’t acquainted yourself with what it’s like to truly lose. To truly face defeat. In this manner, the low points in life help us appreciate the high points and remind us of the progress (or lack thereof) we’re making.

Occasional, not chronic, depression is your friend because it’s got your back. It PUSHES you toward improvement by notifying you that you need to make some much needed corrections in your life. And trust me, you’re better off with than without it.

“Positive Intelligence” (Review)

Last summer, I listened to “Positive Intelligence” (2012), an audiobook by Shirzad Chamine that my father introduced me to. You can also find a paper version of the text available for purchase at PositiveIntelligence.com. In it, Chamine explains how our minds are controlled by 10 entities, or “Saboteurs,” each with their own intents and motivations.

The 10 rather arbitrary Saboteurs, as their name suggests, sabotage our emotional health by corrupting our thinking, and thus account for much of the pain and anguish we feel in life. For example, the Judge is the primary Saboteur which all other Saboteurs stand in service to. Its job is to relentlessly heckle and scrutinize you for your every little mistake as a way of pushing you toward some much needed improvement. Sound familiar?

Chamine tells you to give your Judge a name as a way of identifying it so that when it appears to hijack and “sabotage” your thought process, you can strip it of its credibility. He talked about the creative names people gave their Judges; the Destroyer and the Executioner are two examples. I call my Judge the Chief Executive Cognitive Mediator, or CECM for short, because it mediates many of the higher-level cognitive processes that constitute rational decision making and emotional regulation. I also call it the Chief Executive Cerebral Mediator.

Other Saboteurs include the Avoider, the Controller, the Pleaser, and the Hyper-Achiever. They are malicious by their nature, but they served an important survival function in early childhood by steering us away from particularly dangerous threats, such as a hot stove, busy traffic, or a tiger. The main premise of Chamine’s book is that while the Saboteurs continue to remain useful, they are not needed as much in adulthood, mainly due to how our brains have developed enough for us to flee danger through the use of basic intuition and common sense.

Chamine believes that the greatest enemy we face in life is not the government, our parents, spouse, coworkers, or managers, but rather our very own internal mental conflicts—our Judge. And to a certain extent, he’s right. There were moments where an annoying customer would make me feel terrible at work only to find myself feeling even worse upon ruminating on it at home. It’s always been my reaction to the event and not the event itself that’s caused the majority of my depression. Unfortunately, Shirzad Chamine’s “Positive Intelligence” lacks in soundness for the simple fact that many if not all of his techniques for conquering the Saboteurs are just plain impractical, and also that his definitions of what Saboteurs even are prove to be very nebulous.

Regarding the impracticality of his techniques for conquering what he calls Saboteurs, Chamine has made me question his credentials on one too many occasions. He explains that the Sage is what’s used to overpower the Saboteurs, and that at a biological level, the Saboteurs dwell in the limbic system while the Sage dwells in the prefrontal cortex. If you activate your Sage, you can tone down your Saboteurs, and in order for your Sage to gain greater control over your Saboteurs, you have to “build up your PQ brain muscles.” This can be accomplished by fully immersing yourself in any activity that stimulates the senses, such as going to the bathroom, driving to work, and eating lunch. While I do agree with Chamine that distracting yourself from distressful feelings is a good way to work through them, it is not as simple as just doing a few “PQ reps” every day. Rubbing your fingers together (yes, that is a technique he proposes) is not going to allow you to recover from the deficits in your mental health.

The other issue I had with “Positive Intelligence” is Chamine’s ineffective attempts at precisely defining the Saboteurs. It was a relief to attach some words to the negative thoughts that constantly plague my mind, but I also found myself struggling to identify the Saboteurs based on the terminology that Chamine used. Extending from this issue is how he never quite specified where the Saboteurs activate in the brain, apart from the Saboteur-rich limbic system and the Sage-rich prefrontal cortex. Emotions are much more complex than Chamine leads his audience to believe. It would have been nice if he were to at the very least show brain scans of patients in “Sage mode” and “Saboteur mode,” differentiating between the emotional signals that fire in response to a problem and the rational thought that is required to solve the problem.

For the reasons discussed above, I cannot recommend Shirzad Chamine’s “Positive Intelligence” for readers who are oriented toward more scientific literature. His evidence for the Saboteurs is barebones and simply insufficient. It’s nonetheless a great self-help read.

The Secret to a Happy Life

In case you don’t already know, I am a strong advocate of the biology of human behavior. I believe that every psychological experience can be understood in physiological terms. Unfortunately, technology has restricted us in our capacity to identify where complex emotions such as anger, surprise, or joy occur in the brain. What’s even more restrictive is that it’s made it difficult for us to define this thing we call “happiness” in terms of something that we can readily feel, posing the question, is happiness also a complex emotion? In other words, does happiness come and go, or does it stay with us?

How you answer this question depends on a number of factors, including your past experiences, religious beliefs, values, and how you derive meaning from your existence. Personally, I define happiness as the sum of subjectively pleasurable experiences that a person accumulates in his or her lifetime, but even this definition isn’t enough to do the word sufficient justice because to many, happiness means so much more than that. Without happiness, what’s the point of even living? For reasons that I will discuss, I’m quick to treat happiness as more of a state-of-mind and less of a fleeting emotion.

You’ve probably been taught that happiness is meant to be pursued, and that it could later be obtained if you make all the right decisions. According to this logic, after you attend school, work for an X number of years, get married, have children, make millions of dollars, then and only then will you be textbook happy. The problem is that it places too much of an emphasis on waiting for happiness and hardly any emphasis on choosing to be happy right now.

I can tell you with confidence that, by virtue that I have clothes on my back and air in my lungs, I am happy. But alas, I don’t have a million dollars in the bank, so I’m not as happy as I could be. Have you noticed a contradiction yet? I complained about how I haven’t made enough money, yet at the same time negated the things that enabled me to make the money in the first place.

Such contradictory logic could be the result of erroneously mixing happiness with hedonism, which are not the same thing. They don’t even fall under the same category. Happiness has to do with the state or quality of being subjectively contented over an extended period of time. Alternatively, hedonism has to do with superficially indulging one’s self in pleasurable activities in a fixed period of time, like getting wasted at the bar, eating large quantities of Taco Bell, or playing a match of Call of Duty. These activities are indeed fun, but they are too short-lived to foster a conventionally happy life.

The question remains as to how happiness can be reconciled with hedonism. How do you will your mind into being happy when pleasure is so finite and intermittent? It’s simple: enjoy the high points in life as much as you can, but don’t be so discouraged by the low points. Because they, too, can be pretty special.