It is easy to forget, but staying happy and feeling good about ourselves and our relationships can be the key to preventing and treating mental illness
Positive psychology focuses on the science of what keeps us happy and mentally healthy. The beauty of this approach, to both prevent and treat depression, is that it’s natural and there’s solid scientific evidence to back it up. It’s based on properly researched techniques and a positive mindset that can keep depression at bay.
Think like an optimist when things go wrong, to challenge the pessimism that accompanies depression. This can help minimise the negative impact on your emotions caused by an adverse event. Try the following three steps:
Expand your focus to think of all the other factors that might have played a role in causing the negative event.
Look at the evidence of how things change and remind yourself how “this too shall pass”. It may not be forever.
Think of the bigger picture. You might have had a disappointment in this area of life, but what other parts are working better?
What some of the happiest people on the planet have in common is that they are highly social and have strong relationships. Yet when depression strikes, we can end up isolating ourselves. One great way to nurture your relationships is to actively remind yourself of someone’s good points, whether it’s their loyalty, energy or sense of humour. To help deepen the bonds in all types of relationships:
- Spend time together sharing interests and activities.
- Pay close attention to the details of their life, so that you appreciate their likes and dislikes.
- Collaborate on a joint task.
- Show them the real you.
Vitality: the mind–body connection
When you’re depressed it can seem like a superhuman effort to experience the mildest of positive emotions. This is where physical activity is your friend. Moving your body produces endorphins, feel-good hormones that lift your mood naturally, so that you’re more able to think positively. The key is to find a physical activity that is more pleasure than pain. Think about what puts you in the “flow”, that state where you’re completely absorbed in what you’re doing. Sportspeople call it being “in the zone”, but you can also get it from dancing, gardening or martial arts.
Resilience means having the ability to deal with difficulty and bounce back. Tackling the negative beliefs that pull us down, and adopting healthier ways of thinking, are at the heart of what it takes to be resilient. You can also learn resilience from other people and the strategies they use to get through tough times. I have a friend who devours books about great feats of endurance whenever she’s down. She finds it comforting to read about people who’ve sailed around the world single-handedly, or survived being kidnapped. It puts her own misfortunes into perspective.
Mindfulness is about being fully awake to the here and now, and being conscious of how body and mind affect each other. Bringing even a tiny bit of awareness to a single moment can help to break the chain of events that lead to chronic unhappiness. Begin by choosing some routine activity that you do, and try to do it mindfully, bringing a moment-by-moment awareness to the task:
- Whenever possible, do one thing at a time.
- Pay full attention to what it is you’re doing.
- When your mind wanders, gently bring it back.
Acts of kindness
Acts of kindness are win-win situations, because not only do they help others to feel good, but they make you feel good too. Altruism is just as beneficial for your own psychological health as it is for your relationships. Doing good things for people may seem counter-intuitive when you’re feeling down, but it really does work – whether it’s offering support to someone in need, or contributing your time to a worthy cause. It's a way of distracting yourself from your own problems, and from rumination, overthinking what’s gone wrong, which is a risk factor for depression.
Miriam Akhtar is the author of 'Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression' (Watkins) published on 19 April. Find out more at positivepsychologytraining.co.uk and follow Miriam on Twitter @pospsychologist