Thursday, May 16, 2013

Three Good Things

I’m dealing with a rather long period of depression. I wrote about it at Real Intent a while ago.

I believed at the time that part of my depression was physically induced: I was suffering from significant anemia and had been for months. A recent blood test reveals that for now my anemia is under control (good news), but I’m still feeling the effects of the depression (not such good news).

At the urging of my wife, my sister and others who are close to me, I’ve been seeing a therapist for a while, and those visits are illuminating. I’ve had one conversation with my doctor about possible medication, and while he is willing, he agrees with me that it’s prudent to pursue therapy first, especially since my depression is not keeping me from going to work and going about my life.

I’m not new to the concept of depression. I have members of my own family who have battled significant and persistent depression with a combination of therapy and medication and to differing degrees of success.  And I have had periods of persistent depression before, though none have lasted as long as this one.  It’s a tough road since one of the features of the condition is that it inhibits seeking help. While a person with a toothache won’t like going to the dentist, eventually the pain of the toothache is greater than the pain of resolving it, and the person heads to the dentist for relief. A person with depression, on the other hand, may feel like a blanket is over his head, and no matter what he tries, he can’t get that blanket off. As long as the blanket is in place, it’s hard to do anything, let alone get help in removing the blanket. Often it requires someone else’s observing, “Hey, you have a blanket on top of you!” for the person to realize that it is even there. In its most extreme and dangerous incantations, depression can lead a person to extremely unhealthy behavior in an effort to self-medicate or end the suffering.

I was chatting about all of this with a management coach I know. The coach is a PhD psychologist who works as a consultant helping executives to improve their communication and leadership styles. He also conducts a variety of workshops on his farm in Vermont. As we talked, he mentioned he was preparing to conduct a well-being workshop in the coming weekend, so he had lots of references at the top of mind.

We talked about the research that has shown that although medication can be helpful in severe cases of depression, its benefit is much less apparent in mild cases (I believe mine is a mild case). He agreed it was good I’m seeing a therapist and that I’ve been talking with my doctor. He recommended I try one more thing: the Three Good Things exercise.

The exercise grows out of the positive psychology movement, championed by Martin Seligman and others. (An overview of that movement, though somewhat dated, is available here.)

The exercise: at the end of each day, list three good things that happened and why they happened.

The research suggests that this simple exercise makes a difference. These charts are from the cited article. The first shows improvement in happiness over time (compared with a placebo exercise of reflecting on early life experiences), and the second shows a sustained reduction in depressive symptoms over time.

As my friend told me about the exercise, I immediate knew it would help, because we’ve used it (unwittingly) before. When our family moved overseas a number of years ago, our two youngest children were really struggling with the adjustment. After listening to a litany of complaints every day for weeks, my wife finally asked each of the children at night just as they were going to bed to list a few good things that happened that day. We wrote them down in a little notebook just before the kids said their prayers. Within a few weeks, their attitudes about living in our new home had changed; they naturally offered up good and bad things from their school days, and life was much more normal.

Of course, the gospel reinforces this process as well, as we are regularly reminded to be grateful for the tender mercies in our lives, to recognize the hand of the Lord in what we do, to ponder how merciful God has been, to count our blessings.

So, I’m counting. At least three a day. In a few weeks I’ll let you know how it’s going.

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