In a recent post, I mentioned one specific non-pharmaceutical, anti-depressant strategy: This is, when you sense depression and anxiety beginning to grow, rather than attempting to cheer yourself up by doing something alone and directly for yourself, instead try to do something for someone else. This do-something-for-someone-else strategy is, as Johann Hari explains in the book Lost Connections, one way of establishing or strengthening meaningful connection with other people. (I reviewed Lost Connections here.) A lack of meaningful connection with others is one proven cause of depression, and connecting or re-connecting with others has anti-depressant effects.
There are good reasons to take this strategy seriously. One of course being the study I discussed in that recent post, “Effective and Ineffective Pursuits of Happiness.” Another is Hari’s reported personal success with the strategy: “When I applied this technique, I realized that it often–though not always–stopped the slide downward,” he writes.
Even so, this approach to the onset of depressed (or anxious) feelings is not, apparently, intuitive to most of us in highly individualistic societies such as those of the United States or the United Kingdom. This may result from habituation; we are not accustomed to it, and as a result, it does not naturally occur to us to todo something for someone else when we begin to “slide downward,” nor perhaps would the act feel natural to do. It appears also, however, to result from mindset, and specifically from how we implicitly view and understand happiness, sadness, emotions generally, and even the self.
So today I’d like to reflect on that strategy. Let me start with some cautions (all of which bear a connection with intrinsic self-esteem), then move on to how to get this strategy right, which has a lot to do with understanding it properly.
One way we might go wrong, is by doing things for others as a way of avoiding our own pain and reality. This is not same as avoiding an isolating, depressive state through doing something conducive to a shared, uplifting experience. When I say avoiding our own pain, I mean pain that is, at the same time, both (1) already in us and (2) needing to be felt. A lot of us have a lot of pain like this, and we don’t always know it. On the other hand, doing things for others, and thereby investing in relationships, can help us through the experiences of feeling that kind of pain. We just don’t want to reduce the strategy to a pathological coping mechanism, which might easily happen inadvertently.
We might also go wrong if we end up tending too exclusively to others’ needs at the expense of our own needs. Of course, the whole point of doing something for someone else when you start to feel depressed is that it tends to help you avoid a depressive spiral, and it tends to be much more effective at this than if you tried doing something for yourself. The caution is to not get so carried away that you sacrifice tending to your own genuine needs. Some of us have this unhealthy inclination in us, and it could warp what would otherwise be a healthy anti-depressant strategy.
A third potential error is “helping,” or seeking to “help,” others only in order to get something for yourself. This holds true even if that something is a pleasant feeling, a “good” self-perception, or a distraction. Treating another person like this is treating them badly; it merely uses them, is disrespectful and disingenuous. Moreover, and in fact because of this, it won’t ultimately have the desired effect of increasing happiness or heading off depressive states, because human connection and meaningful emotional experiences don’t work that way. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be seeking happiness for ourselves; it’s just that we must genuinely seek it for the other person(s) involved as well.
Again, one essential link between all three of those potential errors, and a key to understanding our susceptibility to them, is likely a lack of intrinsic self-esteem, which I explained in my most recent post. Therefore in general, one should take care that a lack of intrinsic self-esteem is not distorting or directing the way we engage in this anti-depressant strategy.
Getting It Right
The strategy of doing something for someone else when you begin to slide downward toward a depressed state, is not just a course of action to be followed. It is the natural outgrowth or manifestation of certain implicit understandings of emotional states and of the self. And I suspect it’s important that these understandings ground the course of action. In other words, it strikes me as important that we “individualists” understand the perspective that makes doing-something-for-someone-else an obvious route to happiness, and that we recall this perspective to mind and try to feel it when enacting this strategy.
So what is this understanding, this perspective? As I mentioned in a recent post, in societies sometimes termed “collectivistic,” such as those of East Asia, “feelings are understood to be properties of individuals in relation with each other, or to put it another way, feelings are felt with others.” Less abstractly, in a “collectivistic” context, it makes no sense that I could feel happy while in the presence of friends who are sad. Emotions are not properties of isolated selves, but of selves in interconnection with those around them and with those important to them.
To get this strategy right, I suggest getting into the mindset of that perspective, before taking action to do something for someone else that you think may make them feel happy. Emotions are a shared experience. Your course of action is toward promoting a shared emotional experience of happiness, by bringing happiness to someone else, especially someone who is important to you. Also bring to mind that in the big picture, this course of action is an investment in meaningful relationships with others, which are natural anti-depressants for everyone involved.
What do you think of this view of emotions and persons?
This post is “part 3” of a series:
(Quotations from Hari are from Chapter 16: “Reconnection One: To Other People,” of Lost Connections.
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