Happiness: Defending against the onset of depression

Depression is a good example of a polysemic word. While some people describe it as an emotion “you just need to overcome”, others narrate it as a place where navigating your way to an exit can appear impossible. It’s a word frequently used to describe a momentary feeling, but how much do we really understand of the impact this unpredictable climate has in weathering our lives.

A recent study was conducted by ENIGMA MDD Working group whereby they took MRI scans of the brains of 1,728 individuals diagnosed with chronic depression and compared them with thousands of brain scans taken from healthy individuals. A significant finding was in the size of the hippocampus. This part of the brain has been readily associated with the ability to recall memory but Professor Ian Hickie, the co-author of the study illustrated that associating the loss of memory with the shrinkage of the hippocampus is a simple way to look at it. If you take into account the behaviours that derive from memory, shrinkage of the hippocampus is better described as a “loss of function”.Screen Shot 2016-05-08 at 18.54.52

The findings from this study has gained validity given the it’s sample size. This has given momentum to the criticised idea that depression is not a choice, and can now be seen as a form of brain damage. Though I agree that the findings highlight a definite change in the brains physiology, these only shed light on the effects of depression rather than the causes. It’s highly likely that the physiological changes play a role in the sustainability of depression, but the critical question we should be dissecting is what causes the onset of depression?

It would be unfair and ignorant to classify depression as a choice, but what if we explored depression as the choices we don’t make?

In his chapter titled ‘Life anenhanced-14883-1403037514-16.pngd Death’ taken from book ‘The War of Art’, Steven Pressfield enquires into how our actions mould our psyche. He talks about an author and lecturer, Tom Laughlin, who has devoted his career to working with people diagnosed with cancer. Steven paraphrased Tom’s words delivered at one of is workshops:

“The moment a person learns he’s got terminal cancer, a profound shift takes place in his psyche. At one stroke in the doctors office he becomes aware of what really matters to him. Things that sixty seconds earlier had seemed all-important suddenly appear meaningless, while people and concerns that he had till then dismissed at once take on supreme importance.”

Tom Laughlin’s foundation has helped people recover from cancer through not just making mental shifts but encouraging and teaching them to make the relevant changes in their lives. Steven writes about how Tom supports the housewife in resuming her career in social work and urges the business man to return to the violin. What struck my heart’s spinal cord were Tom’s following words:

Is it possible that the disease itself evolved as a consequence of actions taken (or not taken) in our lives? Could our unlived lives have exacted their vengeance upon us in the form of cancer? And if they did, can we cure ourselves now, by living these lives out?

I feel the same way about depression. Perhaps it’s not entirely the choices we’re making, but rather the choices we aren’t. If we take a closer look at the way western societies are set up, there’s little room for choice; expensive living costs in major cities measured against a minimum/living wage that makes it difficult to attain a good quality of life With overvalued housing prices and not to mention a perceived lack of time its no surprise that environments like this force people to live in pursuit of money, but at what cost? Time.

Robert Waldinger is the fourth director of the 75-year-old study on adult development and has unprecedented access to data on what what truly makes up happy. The current findings – relationships.

In his TEDxBeaconStreet talk he made a point to say:Screen Shot 2016-05-08 at 14.27.13 “It’s not the number of friends you have but the quality of your close relationships that matter.”

This study followed the lives of men in their sophomore year at Harvard University and men from Boston’s poorest neighbourhoods. When questioned on what their most important life goals were, over 80% said a major life goal was to get rich. 50% said it was to be famous. Unsurprisingly, Robert stated that the tens of thousands of data obtained from this study made one thing clear: “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”

Robert and his colleagues found that those that were satisfied with their relationships at age 50, were happier and healthier at age 80. Click to watch>> Robert Waldinger: What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness.

Tom encourages us to follow our true passions and Robert underscores the importance of quality relationships. Both entail meaningful connections, and require time as a form of currency. “Replacing screen time with people time”, Robert suggests.

The pursuit of happiness is madness if your idea of happiness is rooted in money and devoid of your life’s purpose. I’ve worked with many people suffering with mental health issues from varied walks of life. One of my main recommendations I work with them to achieve is the rediscovery of ‘self’ through the reinvestment of their time and priorities. Perhaps if we make certain choices now, years from now we won’t have to regret the choice we don’t make. DSC_0873

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