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.

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 amount 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.

The Apocalypse Might Not Kill Us All

Normal body temperature fluctuates daily from 98.5 to 98.7 degrees Fahrenheit. When you contract the flu, you will feel terrible. You’ll have a sore throat, runny nose, fatigue, headache, or muscle aches, but your body temperature will also elevate way beyond its normal range, causing you to feel like you’re burning up and that you’re on the brink of death.

Fevers are triggered by chemical agents known as pyrogens, which flow in the bloodstream. Pyrogens activate special receptors in your hypothalamus that signal to your body’s immune system that is has to work overtime, and thus raise your body temperature enough to kill off hostile bacteria and hopefully eradicate the sickness. As unpleasant a fever may be, it serves a critical survival function in that it helps your body combat a potentially life-threatening infection.

So why the science lesson? Because a fever, no matter how bad it makes you feel, is an inherently good thing.

In my previous post, I introduced this idea of “good and bad” thinking—that if you incorporate perspectives that you hadn’t previously considered into your attitudes, you can begin to convert every inconvenience into an opportunity. This week’s post is about putting that idea into action so that you don’t have to feel like the inconveniences that do spring up in your life have to be treated as though they were end-of-the-world catastrophes. While practicing this strategy of thinking, that fever of yours could be treated as a welcome addition to your sick day, assuming that you drink plenty of fluids!

If you still don’t believe me, I’m going to provide three examples of objectively classifiable catastrophes, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina, and the bombing of Hiroshima, to further demonstrate that beyond all of that large-scale destruction is an opportunity for positive change.

Disclaimer: I am in no way neglecting or dismissing any of these disasters. I am merely using them to illustrate the point that, in spite of the inconceivable destruction and enormous loss of life, they still brought some good.

September 11th

9/11 is thought of as profoundly devastating because it was an attack on American people and most of all, an attack on American values, or the very fabric that once made America so highly esteemed. Over 3,000 innocent people, many of which were mothers, fathers, boyfriends, and girlfriends, lost their lives while two of the most iconic towers in New York City collapsed in just 102 minutes. What further exacerbated this tragedy was a growing hatred and gross misunderstanding of the Islamic faith (Rose, 2013).

Those who were directly involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks and lived to see the next sunrise could never truly let go of what happened to them. At the same time, many participated in what was one of the greatest coming-together occasions in all of American history, while multiple foundations were established that appropriated funds toward other causes like hurricane relief and the assisting of emergency respondents (Davis, 2013). The attacks also motivated the Federal government to upgrade security measures and conceive of the Department of Homeland Security, which has since been responsible for multiple counter-terrorist operations.

It just demonstrates that while terrorists can destroy all of the buildings they want, they can never destroy the American spirit.

Hurricane Katrina

Hurricane Katrina was an event of destructive proportions. The storm, with winds stretching over 50 kilometers and blowing 40 mph on average, caused the deaths of an estimated 1,833 people and a whopping $108 billion in total property damage (Zimmermann, 2015). It is ranked as the sixth strongest storm in recorded Atlantic hurricanes, and has sent the city of New Orleans into social, political, and economic disarray. Thousands of people were left without homes, stripped of all hope and a will to move on.

However, even Hurricane Katrina had positive effects. Juan Williams (2010) uses the example of former New Orleans resident Josh Levin, who wrote in a post for Slate Magazine saying “[Katrina] gave New Orleanians an unprecedented opportunity to remake a city that wasn’t working.” According to Levin, Republican Joe Cao and Democrat Mayor Mitch Landrieu used the storm as an opportunity to tackle rampant poverty, crime, and education issues, inciting major reforms that would set the city in the right direction and essentially hit the reset button. Williams also states that interestingly enough, Hurricane Katrina lifted the stigma off New Orleans’s widespread poverty and improved upon previously tense race relations.

Right now, New Orleans is still in a very tight spot, but even if it takes another 10, 50, or 100 years, I believe that someday that town will be better off than before Katrina first made landfall.

Hiroshima

Unlike the 9/11 attacks and naturally based Katrina disaster, the bombing of Hiroshima was instigated on American prerogative in an effort to put a stop to WWII and therefore save countless lives. Harry S. Truman was faced with the hardest decision a president has ever had to make: force Japan to surrender unconditionally, or suffer hundreds of thousands more American casualties by allowing the war to continue. Finally, at 8:15 A.M. on August 6th, 1945, the decision had been made, and the United States dropped an A-bomb on the heart of Hiroshima. Most if not all people within a two-kilometer radius were instantly vaporized while the city had become leveled and shrouded in atomic fire.

Overall, around 140,000 were killed or died in the following months, either by burn damage or radiation poisoning. Yet as much of a stain on our history as Hiroshima is, it was necessary to end a war that claimed, and would continue to claim, millions of lives. In fact, the total amount of prevented casualties is roughly as high as 1,237,980, not counting for conservative estimates (Vespa, 2016).

The argument as to whether the bombing of Hiroshima was morally and ethically justifiable remains unresolved, and like other moral grey areas, there will never be a single answer that everyone agrees with. One thing is for certain: it was preferable to the alternative.

Final Word

9/11, Hurricane Katrina and Hiroshima are evidence of how all life is a double helix of good and bad; that all bad has to lead into good and vice versa. I’ve found this way of thinking incredibly helpful not because it promotes positive thinking, but because it promotes critical thinking. It allows you to get creative and actually use your brain to arrive at an accurate conclusion of the universe’s complex dynamics.

Anyone can curl up in a ball and cry when the world’s about to end, but to stand up and smile in the face of imminent annihilation? That takes character.

 

References

Davis, L. (2013, September 12). 9 Ways 9/11 Inadvertently Sparked Good In The World. Retrieved September 09, 2016, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/12/9-ways-911-inadvertently-_n_3909148.html

 

Rose, S. (2013, November 11). Since 9/11, Racism and Islamophobia Remain Intertwined. Retrieved September 09, 2016, from http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/steve-rose/911-racism-islamophobia_b_3908411.html

 

Vespa, M. (2016, May 27). Yes, Dropping Atomic Bombs On Japan Was A Good Thing. Retrieved September 29, 2016, from http://townhall.com/tipsheet/mattvespa/2016/05/27/no-america-dropping-atomic-bombs-on-japan-was-a-good-thing-n2161273

 

Williams, J. (2010, August 27). Even Katrina Has a Silver Lining | Fox News. Retrieved September 09, 2016, from http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2010/08/27/juan-williams-katrina-brookings-new-orleans-gulf-coast-black-poverty-pew-poll.html

 

Zimmerman, K. A. (2015, August 27). Hurricane Katrina: Facts, Damage & Aftermath. Retrieved September 09, 2016, from http://www.livescience.com/22522-hurricane-katrina-facts.html

The Dangers of Seeing Black & White

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the narco world, it’s that life is more complicated than you think. Good and bad, they’re relative concepts.”

Narcos (Season 1, Episode 1), Steve Murphy

I used to think colorblind patients literally saw the world in black and white, like their lives were an unending 1940s noir film that lacked in depth and quality. Later, I realized that colorblindness is actually a deficiency of the retina’s cone cells to properly differentiate between colors. It is, of course, still possible to see in black and white, but not in the way that you would expect.

Disclaimer: I take no credit for what I’m about to say here. The purpose of this article is to put my own spin on what’s been known for the entire course of human existence.

You do not need eyes to see. I was introduced to this concept when I attended therapy last year, as I wanted to get a better feel for how the process worked. I only went a couple of times because I didn’t see the value in talking about my problems to a stranger whose job was to more or less regurgitate much of what I already knew. My therapist, by her grace, brought up an interesting point that I will never forget.

She told me, “Well Marc, you seem like an all-or-nothing kind of guy.”

Her statement struck a chord with me because it identified a personality trait that I wasn’t previously aware of. It appeared that my understanding of the problems I was discussing ad nauseum was the real problem, and not external forces. Perhaps if I viewed them as opportunities and not impossibly unreachable obstacles, they wouldn’t be so problematic anymore.

I felt transformed and revitalized, but as time had come to pass, I reverted back to my age-old ways of interpreting reality. Nonetheless, my understanding of what my therapist told me that day became further solidified upon listening to the audiobook Positive Intelligence (2012) by Shirzad Chamine. There was a particular chapter in that book where Chamine referenced an ancient Taoist parable that is also my now-favorite philosophy.

The parable chronicles 5 days in a Chinese province. On the first day, a horse jumps a poor farmer and his teenage son’s fence, causing major property damage. However, by the terms of the local law, the boy and his father were allowed to keep the horse, meaning they would become wealthy and prominent. On the second day, the horse gallops back to the mountains and leaves the farm behind, yet returns on the third day with a dozen more wild horses. On each of these three days, the father dispassionately asked his son, “Who knows what is good and what is bad?”

On the fourth day, the boy gets violently knocked off one of the horses and breaks his leg. His father, noticing that his son is in tremendous pain, asks him once again with his usual indifferent tone, “Who knows what is good and what is bad?” Finally, on the fifth day, the province goes to war, and Army recruiters arrive at the town where the poor farmer and his son live and begin drafting able-bodied young men to go off and fight. Every young man in the town is sent away to certain death except for the farmer’s son, and all because of his broken leg from the day before.

This old but gold parable led to the creation of an idea I call Noir Syndrome, with noir being a reference to the film genre that was traditionally shot in black and white. Noir Syndrome proposes that all of our anxieties originate from our tendency to view life as falling on one extreme or another without taking into account deeper meaning, contrary evidence, and alternative perspectives. All or nothing.

We’ve been conditioned to view life in this way because it is effortless and requires very little additional thought. However, this manner of thinking is dangerous in that it harbors the delusion that everything is always operating on a good-bad dichotomy, when it is anything but. Chamine talks about the same thing in his book. Again, I am not the first person to think of this, and neither was he.

How do you even define what is good and what is bad, or what should fall on one extreme end of the spectrum and the other? The poor farmer could only ever ask this question because he was wise enough to know that it didn’t possess an answer. Technically, every “bad” thing in life is nothing more than a momentary inconvenience, while the extent of this inconvenience is the primary determinant for how “bad” it really is by our standards. Life is a double helix of sorts, and not a straight line; all good eventually leads in to bad and all bad eventually leads in to good, creating a self-contradiction of sorts since the two cannot be categorized independently from each other. They are two sides of the same coin.

You have to search for some shred of good in every tragedy or setback you experience. In fact, you don’t even have a choice in the matter. This is because if you constantly view things as the best or worst, good or bad, all or nothing, you’re setting yourself for unimaginable heartbreak if they fall somewhere in the middle. By that logic, you determine your reality by setting the parameters for how it’s supposed to look in your eyes.

Start seeing grey, and the world becomes a whole lot more colorful.

Why You Might Be Self-Destructing Without Even Realizing It

Almost every scientific textbook teaches us of the placebo effect, a tactic used by researchers in which their subjects are provided with treatments that they expect will elicit certain reactions. Depending on the nature of the control treatment, subjects may react in ways that confirm the researchers’ expectations, providing contrast to the experimental treatment so that a conclusion can be drawn. The same can be said for the rest of us in that our behaviors, like the reactions subjects have to the placebo pills, are nothing more than projections of our inner beliefs. This phenomenon is known as the self-fulfilling prophecy, and you might not have known about it before. Or you might have already known about it, in which case you should probably stop reading this article. What knowledge do you possibly have to gain here?

That right there was a micro self-fulfilling prophecy. I assumed that because you already possessed knowledge on the topic I was covering, there was virtually no value to be gained in continuing to read about it, which might have prompted you to close the page without giving the article a chance. That is, either you knew about the idea of self-fulfilling prophecies, or you didn’t know about the idea of self-fulfilling prophecies. The end result is the same: you don’t walk away feeling like you’ve learned anything new. At least if you stuck around long enough to finish reading the article, you might have learned something of interest.

Self-fulfilling prophecies are defined as beliefs we have about ourselves that cause them to become true in reality, oftentimes unknowingly. My favorite example of the self-fulfilling prophecy is the journey of Anakin Skywalker.

Star Wars fans like to condemn the prequel trilogy because it pales in comparison to the original and was incompetently directed. You wouldn’t know it, but Revenge of the Sith (2005) is actually one of my all-time favorite movies. I find that it explores Anakin’s transformation into Darth Vader quite adeptly, and is an intriguing character study.

Anyone who is familiar with the Star Wars universe knows about the tragedy of Anakin Skywalker. Anakin fell victim to the self-fulfilling prophecy upon dreaming of his wife, Padme, who died in childbirth. His visions eventually became so disturbing, and his fear so paralyzing, that he went to extreme lengths to prevent his dream from ever happening. He joined the Dark Side, murdered children, and betrayed his long-time mentor, who was basically a father figure to him for more than half of his life. Padme ended up dying in childbirth anyway, and Anakin became the infamous Darth Vader who would go on to destroy entire planets. His transition from Jedi to Sith is an exemplary demonstration of the self-fulfilling prophecy because his fears about his wife’s death are what caused his wife’s death.

Every day, self-fulfilling prophecies can either undermine or nurture the relationships we have with ourselves and others. We might not be aware of them at all times, but we can be certain they are lurking somewhere in the far background, regulating our attitudes toward the world and guiding the behavior that follows. This creates a positive feedback loop of action and reaction, cause and effect, which invariably manifests itself in the real world.

Another example of the self-fulfilling prophecy is the difficulty people experience in trying to find dates and cultivate meaningful, long-lasting relationships. A multi-billion dollar industry was founded on the idea that the dating world is overwhelmingly complicated, and that the average person can no longer find love by conventional means. People contemplate why love has eluded them for so long, endlessly convincing themselves that the standards for beauty have reached enormous heights and that it would be impossible for anyone to ever like them. And yet, have they not stopped to consider that their notions of what constitute beauty and glamour are what inadvertently cause them to appear as unattractive to outside observers and therefore experience difficulty in finding dates? Maybe if they stopped believing they were so unattractive, they would become supermodels.

Since our moods are so strongly affected by our internal self-beliefs, the next time this article comes to mind, I would advise you to take note of something. Focus on your mood in the moment and observe how it is affecting those in your presence, looking for any slight change in people’s behavior toward you. You’d be surprised that how you view yourself deep down goes a longer way in getting others to like you than the façade you spend so much energy sustaining.

Be less like Anakin and more like Luke. Don’t murder children!

Music as a Form of Emotional Therapy

Music serves as the pinnacle of cultures across the world, using words and phrases, sounds, tones, pitches, rhythms, and beats to establish both meaning and feeling. I personally find it therapeutic to come home after a long day to listen to countless hours of music on YouTube without any end in sight. Why is it so enjoyable?

Music is the definitive form of emotional therapy. Even if you normally experience difficulty with managing or expressing emotions, you’ll definitely revel in the occasional tune. By stimulating the part of your brain known as the cerebellum, the “little brain” responsible for helping you to regulate your emotions and maintain balance and coordination, musical cues elicit various emotional responses. These responses range from the “feel good” sensation you’d experience from a Sugar Ray song to the almost melancholic sensation you’d experience from parts of The Dark Knight OST.

Although there is a biological basis for the pleasure derived from music, our taste in it is very subjective. Sometimes we flock to it for entertainment purposes, other times we use it as a means for introspection. After all, when you’re locked in dark room with nothing but your earphones and racing thoughts, there isn’t much else beyond a little self-discovery.

When you listen to music, it can generate feelings of euphoria or foreboding based upon the kind of day you’re having (or had). Melodies capitalize on our moods and allow us to gain a deeper understanding of their origins. Think of your mood right now. How are you feeling? Might you perhaps want to listen to a certain song or band that best suites your current state-of-mind?

Now that you know why music is so effective, what are you waiting for? Start up some tunes already! There is never any shame in enjoyment, unless you’re listening to Nickelback.