Beating the Blues with the Science of Happiness
By Miriam Akhtar
As if receiving a visit from the black dog wasn’t hard enough, one of the most depressing things about depression is the narrow choice of treatment available to you if and when you recognise what’s ailing you. Depression is the common cold of mental health affecting 1 in 10 people in Bristol at any one time and yet the treatment on offer usually comes down to anti-depressants or one of the talking therapies. But what if you’d prefer a drug-free approach which doesn’t involve picking over your emotional scabs?
Positive psychology is the scientific study of happiness – what it takes to feel good, function well and flourish. In the dozen or so years of research the field has generated a number of tools which have been scientifically proven to increase happiness and well-being. Not so well known is that a delightful consequence of these psychological techniques is that they also alleviate depression, in particular at the milder end of the spectrum.
By cultivating the positive you reduce the negative. It’s an approach that runs counter to the traditional therapeutic approach which focuses on gaining an emotional understanding of the source of suffering. With positive psychology it is more a case of ‘what you focus on grows’. Focus on activities that make you happy and the likelihood is that your happiness will grow. When you focus on what’s depressing you, you may find yourself getting to know the black dog more than you care to!
What positive psychology offers is evidence-based self-help for milder cases of depression. It is not a substitute for clinical advice (always consult your GP) but it can also be used to complement other forms of treatment. These easy-to-use techniques can speed the recovery from depression, build your positivity and resilience and protect you against future visits from the black dog.
Positive Psychology to Overcome Depression
Savour the moment: Relish, cherish, marvel, bask in and feast on life’s good stuff to maximise your enjoyment of a positive experience and generate positive emotions.
Practise gratitude: The attitude of gratitude helps you to grow your awareness of what’s going well in life and overcome the brain’s negativity bias, which spots what’s wrong before it notices what’s right.
Cultivate positivity: Make a ‘playlist’ of fun, enjoyable activities to act as a memory jogger when you’re low. Positive emotions build your resilience and undo the effects of negativity.
Learn optimism: Pessimism puts you on the fast track to depression while optimism’s tools act as psychological self-defence protecting you from it.
Nurture your relationships: Depression can lead to you withdrawing from social contact but relationships are vital for your happiness, so prioritise time in the company of your loved ones.
Meditate: Mindfulness meditation develops the brain’s capacity for positive emotions and helps you to detach from negativity.
Discover your strengths: Depression saps energy, undermines your functioning and may highlight a lack of meaning in life. Your strengths act as energisers to support your recovery and provide a clue to a positive direction to take.
Miriam Akhtar (www.positivepsychologytraining.co.uk) is one of the first positive psychologists in the UK and works as a coach and trainer in Bristol. She is the author of a new book - Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression; Self-help Strategies for Happiness, Inner Strength & Well-being (Watkins, 2012)