Happiness can be fleeting under the best of circumstances. Even people who are basically happy have periods when they’re not, and for those who are prone to depression, it’s always a struggle. The core issue with depression (or one of them) is that it hijacks your urge to want to fix things, which obviously creates a vicious cycle. One strategy that helps with the hijack is to create a little routine that you stick to, and which can become a habit itself, and into which you build other habits (see below for more on this method). And according to science and psychologists, there are other things to do to improve your happiness level, whether you’re depressed or just dealing with “stuff” right now. Here’s what the science tells us we can do to make ourselves a little happier in an ongoing way.
(Note: Meds can be life-changing or life-saving for some people who are depressed, and it’s important to point that out. This article is about other strategies, which you can do with or without meds, and whether you’re depressed or just want to be happier overall.)
Unless you’re one of those people who likes to exercise, you won’t want to hear this, but exercise is well known to help with depression and improve well-being. “Cardiovascular exercise has been shown time and time again to be a wonder drug with regard to overall well-being,” says Ben Michaelis, psychologist and author of the book Your Next Big Thing. It’s actually similar to the efficacy of antidepressants for some types of depression, and this seems to be at least in part due to its neurogenic effects–that is, its capacity to “grow” new neurons in area of the brain known to be affected by depression (and dementia): the hippocampus. In fact, a study last week found that exercise helps release a compound in muscles, cathepsin B, which appears to migrate to the brain’s hippocampus and spark the development of new brain cells. So the exercise effect is not necessarily just about the endorphins from the “runner’s high,” as was once thought, but it’s about other types of changes that occur not only in the chemistry of the brain, but maybe even at a structural level, too.
The things you put in your body
“Avoiding processed sugars has been shown to reduce the likelihood for depression, which is another way of saying it promotes happiness,” says Michaelis. Studies have shown that Western diets in general are associated with prevalence of depression. Others have shown that sugar itself may be linked to depression–and while the mechanisms aren’t totally clear, researchers speculate that the oxidative stress that excess sugar can create may take a toll on the brain. There’s another body of evidence that’s lain out the addictive potential for sugar, which itself can contribute to depression, or at least to unstable mood and cycling ups and downs. And a fast-growing body of evidence has found that our gut microbes seem to affect our mental health in significant ways, and the foods we eat can select for or reduce certain strains of bacteria. More work needs to be done here, but eating a plant-based diet, low in sugar and processed foods may well help promote our mental health.
Make a schedule
“Having a structured schedule that you set and follow is proven to help depression,” says psychologist Shannon Kolakowski, author of the book When Depression Hurts Your Relationship. “It’s the basis of behavioral activation for depression, an evidence-based treatment for depression.” She adds that creating a routine kills two birds with one stone. The structure of a daily routine that you can stick to is in itself comforting, even therapeutic, when you’re down or depressed. But it also makes getting in all the single elements that we know help depression more likely. “By planning activities that you do even when you don’t feel like it,” says Kolakowski, “it ensures you will get the exercise and social interactions, for example, that are so well known to help with depression.”
This one is fascinating because the research keeps showing that social connection is perhaps the single best thing we can do for our mental health. And it seems to occur at the level of the brain. (It may also be the single best thing we can do for our physical health, so it’s really a win-win.) “We know that a sense of community significantly adds to our happiness and overall mental health,” says Michaelis. We’re social creatures by nature, no matter how much you want time to yourself–there’s a thin line between being self-sufficient and being lonely.
And the catch-22 is that when we’re unhappy or depressed we tend to want to isolate; so forcing yourself to stay connected, especially during tough times, can be hard. Luckily, the effects are generally pretty immediate–most people have experienced that even a 10-minute conversation with someone can make a huge difference when you’re feeling really down. Or it can at least bring out of our heads enough to put things in perspective; and it reminds us that human interaction is a really powerful thing, even in small doses.
Marriage, says Kolakowski, is an extension of this one–at least, a good marriage. “Research shows that having a strong marriage can no doubt help depression,” she says. “But having a relationship that is struggling, unhealthy or lacking in support can unfortunately make depression worse in a cyclical fashion. So it’s important that your social relationships be good ones.”
Getting it out
A lot of people are familiar with the ongoing conversation in their heads (or monologue), which can exist whether you’re depressed or not. But it’s particularly loud when you’re depressed, and it creates a vicious cycle of over-thinking, internalization, and unhappiness (in fact, rumination is one of the hallmarks of depression). But directing those thoughts outward, by either talking to someone you trust or by writing it out in a journal, is a lot more therapeutic than just cycling it around in your head. There’s something about the act of telling that directs and releases it in a fundamentally different way from thinking it.
Therapy, of course, partially falls into this category, with the added benefit of feedback from someone who’s trained in problem-solving. More on this below.
Cognitive behavior therapy
This form of therapy is considered the gold standard for a number of different issues–anxiety, addiction and depression, to name a few. In CBT, the general idea is that you first learn to identify various thought processes as they arise, and just note them. Then for the negative ones (which are often fear-based, and kind of ridiculous–“I can’t do anything right”) you learn to replace them with more positive, and perhaps more logical, ones. Over time and with practice, this process becomes less clunky, and more natural and reflexive. Essentially you’re laying down new tracks of connections in your brain, which can be a lengthy process. But it’s very possible over time. Though CBT has been shown to have significant effects on depression, there are certainly others that can be just as valuable.
This is a fascinating practice that, in various iterations, has been around for thousands of years, and the science is just starting to show how it changes the brain over time. Meditation wasn’t exactly developed to improve mental health, but this does seem to be one of its benefits. Studies have shown that eight weeks of meditation training seems to help improve a number of aspects of mental health: One study a couple of years ago from Johns Hopkins found that meditation addressed symptoms of depression and anxiety on the level of antidepressants. Another, out of University of Oxford, found that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is as effective as antidepressants at preventing relapse in people with depression. One of the ways in which meditation seems to work for depression is that it reduces activity in the default mode network (DMN), the group of areas that are active when our minds are wandering, and generally associated with negative or stressful thoughts.
A central component of meditation is mindfulness, which is the act of paying attention without judgment to what’s going on at the present time–this trait itself has been linked to mental health. This is because just noting your present experience, rather than editorializing it, helps release some of the charge of those negative thoughts and feelings. Then they lose a little of their power. (You can see the natural overlaps between mindfulness meditation and CBT, which is why MBCT was developed.)
Be easier on yourself
This one is very hard to do without feeling self-indulgent, but self-compassion is actually a really important element to being happier. And it actually affects your connection to yourself and other areas of your life.
“This is a big one that’s counterintuitive when you’re depressed,” says Kolakowski. “Depression makes you beat up on yourself and feel down about three main components, what’s called the Cognitive Triad of Depression: your self, your future and others. Self-compassion helps you approach your self and your future with compassion as opposed to self-criticism. It also helps you to have compassion for others, which in turn helps you feel more connected and hopeful.”
Self-compassion has been shown to be an even better predictor of the severity of one’s symptoms of anxiety and depression (or lack thereof) than being mindful, which is a fairly good predictor in itself. And having compassion for yourself is actually an offshoot of mindfulness: If acceptance without judgment is a cornerstone of mindfulness, then not judging and being compassionate about you’re going through, and about yourself in general, is a stone’s throw away. In depression, or even in general down-ness or disillusionment, people tend to, at best, abandon themselves, and at worst, criticize themselves extensively and harshly. Here’s a nice rundown, if you need some ideas for how to be more compassionate with yourself.