Depression is one of the leading causes of disability worldwide.1 It affects more people and younger people than in the past.2 So we should all understand what it is and how to deal with it. Thankfully, a lot of progress has been done in this direction. The rise of positive psychology helps us better understand why people are happy or unhappy and how we can elevate our happiness levels. Unfortunately, many people still hold on to outdated perspectives about it. So let’s learn more about depression!
Before I tell about the way we should all understand depression, I’d like to tell you about my experience with it. This will help you better understand my perspective as well. And I want to continue to openly talk about depression to raise awareness about it and help stop the stigma that still accompanies it. So keep reading because I have something important to share.
Back in 2014 I lived like most young adults do. I was working in call centers and living in a rented apartment. I did not enjoy my job, but I knew I had to work to earn a living. However, I was proud of myself for being able to take care of myself. And in exchange for doing a work I was not passionate about, I would use my money to eat out, buy some clothes or whatever I wanted. It was not a bad life, but it was not a great life either.
Me at work
My work computer
But at one point, something strange happened. I started feeling...unwell. I would often have headaches and I would feel sick to my stomach. And I would always feel tired. No, exhausted – no matter how many hours of sleep I got.
I did not worry since I assumed that I just need to rest more. After all, I had been working 2 jobs for a few months. I hoped that, in time, I would be back to normal. I started staying in more, to rest and recover. I have come to point where I would wake up late, at around 12 pm, eat and get ready to go to work at 3 pm. Then I would come back home, watch movies or TV series and then go to sleep. I did not wake up early or go out at night, so I expected to feel better eventually. All I knew is that I was physically unwell and I felt exhausted all the time. It was like my life was being sucked out of me…
But days, weeks, months passed and I felt the same way. In the morning, I did not want to get out of bed. I did not want to go to work. And at night I sometimes couldn’t sleep. I still had no desire to do pretty much anything: cook, go out, work out or meet friends.
I was always exhausted and worn out!
At one point I thought that I was ill. I was feeling so bad that I knew something was wrong. So I went to the doctor. Over the course of the following weeks I visited my doctor several times and did many tests. My possible diagnostics included anemia, a cardiovascular disease, a thyroid disorder and Addison’s disease. One by one, they were all ruled out. And all those visits to the doctor and tests could still not explain what was wrong with me.
So, like any young person with Internet access, I started doing more research on my own. I started reading about my symptoms hoping to find the cause. And little by little, I put the puzzle pieces together and I realized that I was actually depressed! And when I discovered this, I experienced a range of emotions and thoughts. I was puzzled since almost a year has gone by and I had no idea that I was depressed! I could not understand what caused it and how to get better.
I desperately wanted to stop feeling so exhausted and apathetic all the time. So I decided to start doing therapy. To be honest, I’m not really sure that helped me. The therapist I was seeing seemed very smart and prepared, but I needed something else at the time. I went to several sessions and I was not making any progress. I think that the problem was that the therapy itself was not suited to me. It may have worked on other people, but I felt that what we did there was too basic and simple and ineffective for me. So, after a few months, I eventually stopped going.
How I recovered
While all this was going on, something else happened in my life. I decided to go to the United States for the following summer through the Work and Travel Program with a colleague. Even though I was not feeling great and I was anxious about all the things that could go wrong, I made a decision and all the arrangements were already made. So in July 2015, I went away.
I flew across the ocean, went to a place that was totally new and foreign to me and…I WAS CURED! At first I was only working at a hotel and it was quite a demanding job since I had to stand for many hours and carry things from one place to another. Every day I would feel tired after work. But this time, I was only physically tired. After a few hours of sleep or staying in bed, I was as good as new. And about a month later, I found a second job at a restaurant. I loved working there! And here I was, working two jobs, always standing on my feet, always working on something and FEELING GREAT!
A day off exploring Camden
The restaurant I worked at
Visiting New York
You might say that this was a miraculous healing. It honestly felt that way at the time. After spending a year in depression and always feeling like an empty battery, I was suddenly charged with energy, excitement and happiness. It may sound far-fetched, but it’s 100% true!
The part about depression
I know that you did not come here to read about my depression. But I wrote about my experience because it is an important piece of my perspective and argument. So if you scrolled down to this part, please go back to the beginning and read the first part too. I promise it’s important!
What most people think about depression
As I said, I realized I was depressed after reading about it online. I know that it is not advisable to diagnose yourself based on what you read online. But I also know that we are the best ones to judge how we feel. So it may be a good idea to also consult a therapist or a doctor if you think you may be depressed, but do not disregard your feelings or opinions. After all, the doctor I’ve been to for many times never even bothered to ask me about my emotional well-being. So if it weren’t for me, I’d still be doing tests and visiting doctors trying to find the disease that was affecting my body…
Over the years that followed, I kept reading about depression. I was so shocked by my experience that I wanted to learn more about this. And last year I had another episode of depression. What I learned in the meantime was interesting at times and disappointing other times.
Many people, including many doctors and psychologists, believe that depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain.
They say that the brain of a depressed person creates too little serotonin or dopamine. And as a treatment they recommend pills that are meant to fix this imbalance or shock therapy.2,3 However, these treatments are not even very efficient!2 And the people that take antidepressants and stop their medical treatment experience depression again.2
Although this treatment may cure depression for a while, it also has negative effects and it fails to create a lasting positive effect. Rather than helping people cope with their depression, doctors prescribe the pills meant to fix “the chemical imbalance” in their brains. These people are not helped to understand what caused their depression (since it is often caused by certain events, persistent stress or negativity), they are not taught how to cope with their depression on their own and how to find a way to live a good life without having to rely on medication.
Actually, a study shows that exercise is a much better treatment for depression than pills. The people that experienced depression and worked out 3 times a week for 45 minutes overcame depression just like the people who took medication. Moreover, the people who used exercise as a therapy had a much smaller relapse rate than the people who took antidepressants but did not work out.4
Another theory is that depression is anger turned towards oneself.2
According to psychoanalysts, depression is the patient’s fault.2 The treatment they recommend is therapy where the patient tries to uncover all the problems he/she dealt with during childhood.2 This type of treatment is not very effective either.2 Rather, this can make the situation worse since it makes the patient actively think about the negative experiences from their childhood. And when you constantly seek out all that is bad and you are clinging on to the pain you suffered in the past, it gets harder to heal and find happiness again.
A few years ago, I knew that depression was not just a disease caused by a chemical imbalance or self-hatred. I had not studied this enough and my knowledge about the topic was much more limited, but it just felt wrong.
Otherwise, how could I explain what happened to me? How could a crippling, year-long depression just go away when I moved to the US for a few months? How could I explain that I never felt sick or exhausted or powerless there? I took no medication, I stopped doing therapy and I did nothing special to heal. I definitely did not take anti-depressants or do shock therapy! Yet, I have never been better and happier than I was then!
If you believe what they tell you about depression, then my healing is nothing short of a miracle!
But I highly doubt that. Actually, I think that I was healed when I moved to the USA because multiple factors worked in my favour: the excitement of a new place, the freedom to be whoever I wanted, the lack of pressure from work or uni, feeling useful and competent and feeling in control. I would say it all boils down to a change in environment, attitude and day-to-day life.
What is depression?
I’ve read quite a bit about negativity, depression and happiness in the last year. And I was so thrilled when I discovered that my intuition was right! While reading the books of some renowned psychologists, I discovered that they believed depression is not a chemical imbalance or self-hatred either. I know that there is a big difference between my experience and intuition and the conclusions of people that studied psychology for decades. So what I believe and what I share is not based just on my personal perspective or experience, but also on the work of competent people who lead the field of positive psychology.
I particularly liked the book “Learned Optimism” by Martin Seligman, and not just because his book often overlaps with my perspective. Seligman is actually the founder of the field of positive psychology. And I enjoyed his work because it presents an entire philosophy that seems sound, accurate and encouraging. But what does he say about depression?
He starts explaining what depression is by describing a fascinating experiment that involved dogs! In the following paragraphs, I’m going to describe the experiment as it was described in the book “Learned Optimism”.
When Seligman started studying at university, he witnessed the following experiment involving dogs. The researchers were first trying to condition the dogs to associate a high-pitched noise with an electric shock. They would first hear the noise then they would feel the shock. The aim was to make the dogs feel scared of the noise since this was to be associated with the shock.2
In the second part of the experiment, the dogs were put in a box with two compartments. When they heard the same noise, they were supposed to jump into the other section of the box to escape the shock. The dogs had to learn how to jump across the barrier between the 2 sections of the cage first. And then the researchers wanted to see if the dogs would jump across it to escape the shock, before it was administered – when they heard the high-pitched noise.2
But something strange happened when the dogs were learning how to jump over the barrier. Some dogs would simply lie down without trying to escape the shocks. It turns out that in the first part of the experiment, the researchers accidentally taught the dogs to be helpless. They administered electric shocks to these dogs to get them to associate the shock with a particular sound. In those moments, the dogs could do nothing to escape the shocks. So they learned that they could do nothing to help themselves, even when they actually could stop the shocks by jumping into the other section of the cage.2
Like these dogs, we can also learn to feel helpless.
Over the next decade, Seligman continued to study this and to make other experiments to prove that those dogs were in fact helpless. He believed that just like those dogs, people learn to become helpless if they think that their actions do not matter. And if we learn helplessness, we can also unlearn it, he believed.2 Moreover, we can learn not just how to stop being helpless, but also how to start being optimistic and happier!
If you want to read more about other experiments Seligman did and his theory about optimism and happiness, I would definitely recommend reading his book, “Learned Optimism”!
Helplessness and depression
According to Seligman, some people learn how to be helpless – not willingly and consciously, of course. He believes that in the face of adversity, some people persevere with optimism while others give up in despair. And the difference between these people is in the way they think about themselves, their lives and the world.
In the book “Learned Optimism”, he talks about “explanatory style” – the way we explain events to ourselves.2 He believes that the explanatory style we use determines our outlook on life. If we have a good, positive explanatory style, we are optimistic. If we have a bad or negative explanatory style, we are pessimistic. And this explanatory style obviously affects not just what we think, but also how we act and how we react to certain events.
I’ll give you an example to explain this better. Let’s say that you are fired from your job. If you are an optimistic person, you will think something like this: “Oh, it’s such a shame I was fired. Maybe the company needs to cut back on their costs so they are firing more people. But I’m sure I can find a new job soon. After all, I was very good at my job and they will probably give me a recommendation as well.” What will you do next? You’ll probably start looking for a new job, send out résumés and schedule job interviews, right?
But let’s say that you are a pessimist and you get fired. Your thoughts will probably go like this: “Oh, no! I can’t believe I got fired! Why me? Oh…I know why. It’s because I’m no good. Actually, I’m surprised they did not fire me sooner. I’ll never find a good job. What if I get kicked out of the apartment because I cannot pay my rent? I’ll have to move back in with my parents. Well, that’s just great!” What will you do next? I’d say that you will feel sorry for yourself. You will postpone looking for a job because you believe you will l never find one. You will worry and worry without seeing a way out of this situation. In other words, you will give up!
Learned helplessness is the giving-up reaction, the quitting response that follows from the belief that whatever you do doesn’t matter.
Just like the dogs in the experiment, pessimists tend to lay down and suffer. Instead of getting up and facing the challenge, they believe that their actions do not matter. They think that they are not in control of their lives. They feel helpless and give up again and again and again.
And that’s how Seligman defines depression – as learned helplessness.2 Of course, depression has various symptoms and effects. It can cause anything from physical pain to suicidal thoughts. Depression also involves rumination and negative thinking. But all these lead to the same thing – helplessness. And the cause for this seems to be that depressed people believe nothing they do matters or will matter.
When I was depressed, I often felt helpless. I felt like a victim of fate, God or the entire world. I was desperate to get better, without knowing what do, without feeling like I could do something. I would often blame myself for mistakes and failure, no matter how big or small they were. I would be critical of myself. And I could not imagine doing something to actually experience happiness again. I did not understand helplessness back then, but now I recognize it for what it was.
Even now, when I feel depressed, I know that I feel helpless. When I feel sad and I want to give up, I lie in bed thinking that there is nothing I can do to feel energetic, motivated and happy again. It’s like all hope is lost. And as I go back to bed, I picture that dog in the cage that just lied down while feeling shock after shock. And as strange as it sounds, in that moment, I can’t think of a way out.
Why we need to redefine depression as helplessness
I believe that depression is helplessness. And this way of understanding depression seems to be the most accurate and useful that I have found so far. I think that this is how we should understand depression. Why do I think that?
First of all, because it has already been proven that helplessness is depression.
Helplessness has been tested in several experiments, scrutinized by other psychologists and proven to be a valid model that explains depression. The symptoms of depression, as they are described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and the symptoms of helplessness match almost entirely. The only one that could not observed in these experiments was the presence of suicidal thoughts or attempts.2
Secondly, my experience confirms it.
When I was depressed, I was working in two call centers. And even though I enjoyed working there at first, I soon started to feel helpless. The more time I spent working there, the more I felt like a little piece in a big puzzle. But unlike a piece in an actual puzzle, I was replaceable. No on seemed to care how I feel and how I could contribute as long as I did my work well enough – nothing more.
But when I spent time in the USA, my work seemed to matter. I was working with smaller teams and interacted with people face to face and I could see the impact I had on them. Every day I had the chance to make someone’s dinner or vacation more enjoyable and I was motivated to do my best. The better and happier I felt, the more others reciprocated. No wonder I felt amazingly happy there!
First of all, because it has already been proven that helplessness is depression.
This perspective of depression, much more than any other, gives people the power to heal themselves. Telling people that they need to rely on therapists, psychologists and prescribed medication will only make them feel more helpless. But if we help them understand that depression is helplessness that results from negative thinking (or a negative explanatory style), we take back the power from the hands of others and give it back to the people. We teach them that they are responsible for themselves and they are capable, with help and awareness, to overcome depression and find happiness again! And that thought alone can do wonders for someone who is depressed.
Learned helplessness could be cured by showing the subject his own actions would now work. It could also be cured by teaching the subject to think differently about what caused him to fail.
I know that the field of psychology and popular belief are constantly evolving. And they are usually not evolving at the same pace. This is the reason why many people, even psychologists, still believe that depression is a chemical imbalance that needs to be treated with pills. However, at the same time, others like Martin Seligman have moved past that and have developed newer and more accurate perspectives.
I think that it will take a while for the rest of the world to catch up with these discoveries and theories. But I also think that redefining depression as helplessness is important and necessary. Moreover, I think that seeing things this was will greatly empower those that suffer from depression and pave the way to a healthier, more self-sufficient healing. And knowing that you are here, taking the time to read this article, gives me hope for the future.
Remember, we all have the power to do something that matters and that can improve the quality of our lives and build our happiness. It may not always feel that way, but we all have that power!
One more thing...
I deeply believe that we have much more power than we think. We can heal ourselves, overcome negativity and recover from depression. And this belief is the foundation of my book “Happy by Choice”. If you need help to find that power within yourself, you can start that process with my book. Only you can make a change in your life, but I can help you get started! Is that something you are interested in?
- World Health Organization - http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs396/en/
- Martin Seligman – “Learned Optimism”
- Scientific American, “Is Depression Just Bad Chemistry?” - https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/is-depression-just-bad-chemistry/
- Shawn Achor – “The Happiness Advantage”