BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

This actually helped ...

As regular readers of this space (especially if you're reading it in my main blog) will recognize, depression is something that I've been dealing with for a long time, made more pointed as the years pile up with my not being able to find a full-time job (I'm up to five and a half years at this point). It's hard to get “up” when you're in free-fall down.

I'm not sure how Andrew Weil's Spontaneous Happiness got on my radar, but I only ordered it a few weeks back (after it having been parked on my Amazon wish list for quite a while). Needless to say, getting books about “being happy” is a huge pivot for me (as anybody who's been exposed to my poetry can no doubt attest), but things have been so bleak, I'll try nearly anything (although I haven't been able to bring myself to listening to “happy” music instead of my usual goth/metal mix). Needless to say, it was very encouraging to find that Dr. Weil has struggled with depression most of his life:
Over the years I tried various forms of psychotherapy and counseling but got little benefit from them. Once, in my early forties, I filled a persciption for an antidepressant but gave it up after a few days because I could not tolerate its side effects. It numbed my body and dulled my mind. … Eventually I came to accept my depressive episodes as existential in nature – part of my being – to be endured and not inflicted on others. This way of thinking increased my tendency to be antisocial and isolated, traits not uncommon in writers.
Like Weil, I tried a number of psychiatric drugs (in the wake of my publishing company failing in 2004), but could not tolerate any … and eventually figured being an anguished authentic me was better than being a dulled, zombified, shadow of myself … who just happened to not be feeling the pain of existence.

Weil points to a lot of data about how depression, and “being unhappy” more generally, may simply be a side effect of the modern lifestyle. Cases of depression have multiplied ten times since the end of WW2, and are highest in first-world urban settings (oh, like the downtown Chicago highrise I've lived in for the past 33 years). He notes:
Human beings evolved to thrive in natural environments and in bonded social groups. Few of us today can enjoy such a life and the emotional equilibrium it engenders, but out genetic predisposition for it has not changed.
While there is quite a bit of his personal story in here, it's really not an autobiographical look at the author's struggles, but an attempt at a regimen for improving one's psychological state. The book features four chapters on “theory”, three chapters on “practice”, and a final chapter presenting “An 8-Week Program for Emotional Well-Being”.

Of course, “Brendan doesn't play well with the other children.” (funny how notes home from kindergarten never seem to fade), so the odds of my throwing myself into a lifestyle-disrupting 8-week program are slim to none from the get-go … and much of the material in the book focuses forward to how it integrates into the “plan”, which had me mentally fighting a lot as I read it.

There are parts here, however, that I was on board with predictably … such as “Integrating Eastern and Western Psychology”. It's no surprise that this is part of Weil's approach, as he's a major figure in the field of “Integrative Medicine” … and he pulls in Native American elements, as well as Buddhist thought, from Gautama’s teachings two and a half millennia ago, to projects pioneered by the Dalai Lama with psychological groups in our own era.

In the “Practice” section, the three chapters deal with “Caring for the Body”, “Retraining and Caring for the Mind” and “Secular Spirituality and Emotional Well-Being”. Weil goes into a lot of “CBT” (cognitive-behavioral therapy) work in the middle one of these, while contrasting it with classical psychotherapy and related approaches. In the latter, he defines his approach with:
I find it awkward for two reasons to discuss spirituality. First, many people confuse spirituality with religion. Although the two may overlap, religion usually demands dogmatic adherence to beliefs that are ultimately not provable, and differences in those beliefs are common causes of suspicion and conflict in our world. Second, spiritual reality concerns the nonphysical aspect of our being. Western science and medicine adhere to the philosophy of materialism, which dictates that only what can be directly perceived, touched, and measured is real; to materialists, the term nonphysical reality is an oxymoron.
And, in this section, discusses “spiritual” approaches as divergent as interacting with pets, appreciating art, and practicing forgiveness.

However, the most significant element in the book (for me) is in the “Caring for the Body” section, where he discusses many ways to improve mood by way of exercise, limiting caffeine, and avoidance of various convenience foods (you see where this was heading in my lifestyle?) but in amid all those “ain't gonna happen” things there was the dietary supplement part … and especially his suggestion of adding fish oil to one's diet:
Many studies link specific nutrient deficiencies to suboptimal brain function and mental/emotional health. The most important by far is lack of omega-3 fatty acids. These special fats are critically important for both physical and and mental health. The body needs regular daily intake of adequate amounts of both EPA and DHA, two long-chain omega-3 fats that are abundant in oily fish from cold northern waters but otherwise are hard to come by. … A great deal of scientific data links low tissue levels of EPA and DHA to a host of mental/emotional disorders, … I recommend that everyone take 2 to 4 grams of a good fish oil product every day. … Not only does it offer real protection against depression, but I believe it can help move your emotional set point away from sadness and towards contentment. {emphasis mine}
I finished reading this book less than two weeks ago, but started taking a fish oil supplement right away … and I have been amazed. It's no psychological panacea, but the effect was quite notable. My “depression elevator” used to go down to the 25th, 50th, etc., sub-basement deep into “life is miserable, what is the point?” territory, but since adding fish oil to my daily handful of pills, that has a new “floor” never getting much lower than maybe the 5th to 10th sub-basement. Still no “happy camper”, but far, far less dire and desperate! I would recommend Dr. Weils recommendations on this to anybody struggling with depression.

As noted, the book culminates with “An 8-Week Program for Emotional Well-Being”, which pulls together all the bits and pieces laid out in the preceding sections into an action plan … that is way too involved for me, personally. Like the fish oil, I'm up for cherry-picking items that I can integrate into my day-to-day existence, but I'd probably need to check in to a retreat center (wouldn't it be nice if there were “happiness" rehab programs?) to be able to shift as many gears in my life to be able to attempt a regimen like he suggests here. I do realize, though, that there are folks out there who are happy to jump into this sort of thing, so that might be something that would appeal to you.

The book has several useful things at the end, with an appendix outlining Weil's “Anti-Inflammatory Diet”, another with a listing of suggested books, web sites, and sources of supplies, and an oddly-formatted section of notes (which are related back to page numbers, but not the other way, so I guess one is supposed to keep an eye on that while reading through the text) which has some interesting contextual info.

Anyway, I certainly found Spontaneous Happiness a very useful book, although not being the sort of thing that I could simply “jump into” … but I'm guessing that others (who are more attuned to the “self-help” genre) might find this quite engaging. I would certainly recommend it to anybody who is struggling with depression. I'm surprised, frankly, that this has only been out for a few years, but has already worked its way down to being available for a penny for “very good” copies of the hardcover (and at the moment one of the Amazon's new/used vendors has a “like new” copy for a whopping 4¢), so you don't have much of a barrier to picking this up!

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Tags: book review
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