As a follow up to my previous post in May entitled "10 Ways to Improve Depression and Anxiety Without Meds," I thought I would offer up a few more suggestions on how to live a happier and more contented life, gleaned from my years observing and treating patients as an adult psychiatrist. The following six ideas may seem counterintuitive at first blush, but bear with me -- you might find a kernel of truth in each that resonates with you:
Yes, you read that right. Work fewer hours, make less money, live in a smaller house, do work you like, have fewer possessions, and enjoy life! While this idea may run counter to the Great American Way of Life, where materialism and money rule the day, the inescapable fact of the matter is that all the shiny objects in the world won't make you a happier person. As a corollary to this, if you hate your job and it's contributing to your depression and anxiety, you probably shouldn't be doing it, right? I know life may not always seem that handily straightforward, but in reality it always is; you have a choice! Is doing work you dislike, simply because it pays well, any way to be spending the beautiful days of your life? As writer Annie Dillard so logically put it: "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives." How would you like to spend your life?
Now before you call the cops on me, I'm not suggesting that you never, ever get married or settle down, but please, please only do so if you are 100 percent sure, deep down in your own heart, that it is the absolute right decision for you and your life, (and not because it's the next to-do item on your Life Checklist). Unhappy unions, relationship strife, marital discord, feelings of claustrophobia in bad marriages -- this is the stuff of psychotherapy and psychiatric visits across America every day. I often remind patients that marriage isn't a panacea for everything that ails us; it's a serious social venture, one that involves very serious commitments of time, energy, money, and emotion. Of course, there are great and wonderful rewards that can accompany it too, like love, companionship, and long-term security, but don't automatically discount alternative lifestyles or ways of living that may be more suited to your individual nature, like that of the single bachelor or bachelorette. Just like not all human beings are naturally heterosexual (a concept that wasn't widely accepted even just 50 years ago), not everyone is built for marriage.
Now I've always been a firm believer in having compassion, empathy, concern, and care for our families, friends, and fellow human beings, but never at the expense of ourselves or our own personal fulfillment. It's interesting to note that depressed patients are sometimes labeled selfish or self-absorbed by unsympathetic observers; I've actually found just the opposite to be true. Most depressed patients I see have forgotten how to be selfish, how to truly look out for No. 1. They sweep their own wishes and desires under the proverbial rug, all the while attending to and ministering to the needs of others. If compassion and kindness are virtues to be lauded, why don't we start by being compassionate and kind to ourselves? It's only when we first look out for our own personal needs that we can then take care of the needs of others. So go ahead, take that sick day at work, plan your next mini-vacation, switch careers, get out of that bad relationship, ask a family member to pitch in at home, or teach your children to fend for themselves... it's okay to be selfish!
Is it really essential that we know the nitty gritty details of what's going on in the world at all times? Does it make us feel any better or improve our lives in any tangible way? The humongous information overload we experience on a daily basis from television, Internet, radio, movies, magazines, newspapers, iPhones, etc. is rapidly turning us into a frenzied, harried, emotionally-insecure society, unable to relax and find peace within. A 2010 study published in the <em>American Journal of Preventive Medicine</em> declared that TV watchers were more likely to be anxious and depressed than their non-TV watching counterparts. Likewise, numerous studies have indicated that people who watch less TV are happier and more engaged in life than avid couch potatoes. Sounds about right, doesn't it? And if you think about it, why should we concede control over our mental well-being to the 24-hour news cycle, with its sensationalized rhetoric and incessant chatter? I don't mean to suggest that we throw away our TVs or laptops or never go to the movies (entertainment has its own psychological value after all), but media overexposure may be contributing more to our low mood than we as a society are consciously aware. Let's try ignoring our gadgets and gizmos every once in a while... we just might have to find something else to do with our time!
True friendships, the kind that sustain the test of time and space, are precious and few and most of us will be really lucky if we can count them on one hand throughout the course of our entire lives. Perhaps the sooner we accept this reality the less likely we will be to feel disappointed or despondent when people don't measure up to our grand expectations. Let's try to move beyond the constant need to be surrounded by an endless stream of people and things; let's learn to be happy and content on our own. This may be the single most important skill we can develop in cultivating true inner happiness. Of course, we can't deny our inherent social natures, and humans will always have a need for one another -- but quality always trumps quantity, and spending time with the wrong kinds of friends or acquaintances just to fill a void may actually end up doing more harm than good. Are you worried about being alone if you pare down your friend circle? As Dr. Wayne Dyer so wisely put it: "You can't be lonely if you like the person you're alone with." Brilliant!
Always remember that you are the lovely round peg and the square hole is any job, profession, person, relationship or experience that doesn't feel quite right to you. You can jam the peg into the hole and try to make it fit, and sometimes it even manages to get wedged in there pretty darn good, but not without considerable discomfort and heartache to the peg (you). You will be so much happier and at peace if you develop the fortitude to wait patiently, choose wisely, question broadly, and only accept good things into your life that are truly worthy of your time and energy. And it's never too late to start along this path -- whether you're 30 or 70. Your reward will be a life well-lived and a sense of freedom and liberation that only comes to those willing to experience life on their own terms... you can do it!
Author Sam Harris talks about the absence of neuroses as a key to happiness.
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