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When I began Happiness Is A Skill early in the pandemic, I imagined it as a space where I could freely share my tips and strategies for recovering from depression and antidepressant withdrawal. Sixty-eight issues later, I’ve decided it’s time to bring in other voices. As much as I’d love to pretend I have all the answers for everyone on the planet, the truth is that the first step to becoming a great teacher is being a great learner.

Happiness isn’t like riding a bike. You don’t learn it once and know it forever. It requires maintenance, and without practice, can slip away. When you return to it, weeks or years later, it can feel like you never learned it at all. I am deeply curious about how other people learned happiness, what techniques they’ve developed to keep themselves on track, and how they know they’re sliding off track in the first place.

I’ve reached out to a slew of people from all sorts of backgrounds. Even though we’re all in different situations, at the heart of it, I believe that depression and anxiety feels roughly the same for each individual, with varying degrees. If you’ve experienced either one, you know what it’s like to feel like your body is made of lead or for your heart to jump into your throat. You know what it’s like to lack motivation and curiosity, for the world to literally lose its color. You may not know how to recognize early patterns that signal an incoming bout of mania or melancholy, but learning to recognize those signals early is part of the practice.

Jenny Blake

This week, Jenny Blake (@jenny_blake), international keynote speaker and author shares her strategy for managing overwhelm—a feeling she is all too familiar with. After launching in 2016 as the top career pick by Axiom Best Business Books, Pivot: The Only Move That Matters Is Your Next One, by Jenny is now the go-to career development framework for forward-thinking organizations, pivoters, and entrepreneurs. Her next book, Free Time: Lose The Busywork, Love Your Business, tackles all that creates overwhelm in work and life: hustle culture, busywork, and overly-complicated systems.When asked to share a strategy to manage difficult or stressful times, Jenny said:

“As a highly sensitive introvert, sometimes the basics of family life—on top of running my own business—overwhelm me. I check my energy gauge to see if I feel like I’m drowning (as I did recently), treading water, or gliding and in flow. As much as I wish I could consistently be a good partner to my husband and dog mama to my two-year-old German shepherd within the constraints of my day-to-day and our WFH-household, sometimes I just need an escape. Booking a 3-night “staycation” or “workcation” in the city (I live in Manhattan) recharges me like nothing else. I know it’s not always financially feasible for everyone, and it can certainly feel like an excessive luxury (at first) to spend on room-and-board in one’s own city. But if I go into the trip with clear intentions (either deep rest, or deep work), I always come out with a renewed sense of self, feeling like it was a priceless investment.I got this idea from Cheryl Strayed and Maya Angelou, who said it was integral to their writing process.”

Two things stick out to me. First, Jenny stops to check in with herself before making any decision. Is she drowning, treading water, or gliding in the flow? Drowning signals a need to escape. Treading water is manageable, but it could also be a warning that an escape may be needed in the future. Gliding in the flow is calm, easy. All is well.

If she decides she’s drowning, she books a staycation and sets an intention. It’s not enough to mindlessly book a hotel and hope it works out. She creates a plan and sticks to it. After all, we can’t know if we’ve succeeded unless we’ve created parameters for success.

How could you take Jenny’s strategy and apply it to your own life? If a staycation isn’t on the menu, how about a solo hike or an overnight camping trip? Perhaps it’s about asking those around you for an hour a day, away from the kids. Or hiring someone to help you complete a project that’s been weighing on you, like cleaning the house or organizing the garage. Maybe the first step is simply asking for help.


Related resources: 

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Wanting

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The Ashton Manual: A guideline for withdrawing from psychiatric drugs

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After a marathon few months, I’m headed into a much needed hiatus from all things work. Until then, I wanted to leave you with a selection of books to help you mentally settle into these unsettling times. I ingest the wise words of others during troubled times always helps me re-center.

Here are 10 Books for a Happier You


I recommend this book all the time, including in recent issues of HIAS. If you are depressed or have a depressed family member, this is the one book I’d recommend over all others.

“There was a mystery haunting award-winning investigative journalist Johann Hari. He was thirty-nine years old, and almost every year he had been alive, depression and anxiety had increased in Britain and across the Western world. Why?

He had a very personal reason to ask this question. When he was a teenager, he had gone to his doctor and explained that he felt like pain was leaking out of him, and he couldn’t control it or understand it. Some of the solutions his doctor offered had given him some relief-but he remained in deep pain.

So, as an adult, he went on a forty-thousand-mile journey across the world to interview the leading experts about what causes depression and anxiety, and what solves them. He learned there is scientific evidence for nine different causes of depression and anxiety-and that this knowledge leads to a very different set of solutions: ones that offer real hope.”


Biology of Belief by Bruce Lipton, PhD.

Biology of Belief was one of the first books to bring the world of epigenetics and the power of thought to the mainstream.

“The implications of this research radically change our understanding of life, showing that genes and DNA do not control our biology; instead, DNA is controlled by signals from outside the cell, including the energetic messages emanating from our positive and negative thoughts.

This profoundly hopeful synthesis of the latest and best research in cell biology and quantum physics has been hailed as a major breakthrough, showing that our bodies can be changed as we retrain our thinking.”


The Emperor’s New Drugs by Irving Kirsh, Ph.D

“Do antidepressants work? Of course — everyone knows it. Like his colleagues, Irving Kirsch, a researcher and clinical psychologist, for years referred patients to psychiatrists to have their depression treated with drugs before deciding to investigate for himself just how effective the drugs actually were. Over the course of the past fifteen years, however, Kirsch’s research — a thorough analysis of decades of Food and Drug Administration data — has demonstrated that what everyone knew about antidepressants was wrong. Instead of treating depression with drugs, we’ve been treating it with suggestion.

The Emperor’s New Drugs makes an overwhelming case that what had seemed a cornerstone of psychiatric treatment is little more than a faulty consensus. But Kirsch does more than just criticize: he offers a path society can follow so that we stop popping pills and start proper treatment for depression.”


Anatomy of an Epidemic by Robert Whitaker

“In this astonishing and startling book, award-winning science and history writer Robert Whitaker investigates a medical mystery: Why has the number of disabled mentally ill in the United States tripled over the past two decades?

Interwoven with Whitaker’s groundbreaking analysis of the merits of psychiatric medications are the personal stories of children and adults swept up in this epidemic. As Anatomy of an Epidemic reveals, other societies have begun to alter their use of psychiatric medications and are now reporting much improved outcomes . . . so why can’t such change happen here in the United States? Why have the results from these long-term studies—all of which point to the same startling conclusion—been kept from the public?”


This book has changed the way I approach decision making and helped understand what is truly essential, as opposed to a shiny distraction.

“Essentialism is more than a time-management strategy or a productivity technique. It is a systematic discipline for discerning what is absolutely essential, then eliminating everything that is not, so we can make the highest possible contribution toward the things that really matter.

By forcing us to apply more selective criteria for what is Essential, the disciplined pursuit of less empowers us to reclaim control of our own choices about where to spend our precious time and energy—instead of giving others the implicit permission to choose for us.”


A more practical application of epigenetics (whereas Biology of Belief focuses on the science), It Didn’t Start With You explores how the traumas suffered by your family have a direct affect on you.

“The latest scientific research, now making headlines, supports what many have long intuited—that traumatic experience can be passed down through generations. It Didn’t Start with You builds on the work of leading experts in post-traumatic stress, including Mount Sinai School of Medicine neuroscientist Rachel Yehuda and psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score.”


The Power of Now by Ekhart Tolle

The Power of Now was the final piece in my puzzle of healing. I read it when I was in Prague, in January of 2017, and felt the shift occur as I read the book. It is one of those books that will be over the head of those who aren’t ready, but for those who are, it is transformational.


The Choice by Dr. Edith Eger

I believe this book should be required reading. It is astounding—for those who are ready to receive its message.

“At the age of sixteen, Edith Eger was sent to Auschwitz. Hours after her parents were killed, Nazi officer Dr. Josef Mengele, forced Edie to dance for his amusement and her survival. Edie was pulled from a pile of corpses when the American troops liberated the camps in 1945.

Edie spent decades struggling with flashbacks and survivor’s guilt, determined to stay silent and hide from the past. Thirty-five years after the war ended, she returned to Auschwitz and was finally able to fully heal and forgive the one person she’d been unable to forgive—herself.”


Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach

“‘Believing that something is wrong with us is a deep and tenacious suffering,’ says Tara Brach at the start of this illuminating book. This suffering emerges in crippling self-judgments and conflicts in our relationships, in addictions and perfectionism, in loneliness and overwork—all the forces that keep our lives constricted and unfulfilled. Radical Acceptance offers a path to freedom, including the day-to-day practical guidance developed over Dr. Brach’s twenty years of work with therapy clients and Buddhist students.”


Money is one of the great causes of mental anguish, and yet few people are willing to pick up a book and learn how to get out of debt, invest, and change the invisible scripts that run your monetary life. Whether you don’t think you have the income to save an extra $50/month or you don’t know what to do with your riches, I Will Teach You To Be Rich is as educational as it is entertaining.

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In 2018, after thirty-two years of relishing in perfect eyesight, a routine optometry appointment indicated that it was time for me to get glasses. My first question was, “What about contacts?”

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had strong reactions to tactile sensations. Mostly, I don’t like it. I pull away from touch, get little nauseated around pockmarked surfaces, and am picky about fabrics. The wrong type of sweater doesn’t just make me itchy, it makes me irate.

When the glasses hammer came down, I hoped that contacts or laser eye surgery would keep me from having glasses touch my face. But my eyes don’t tolerate contacts well, and I’m not a candidate for LASIK or PRK (something about odd shaped corneas.) Bespectacled I became, begrudgingly.

It was all manageable enough until covid hit and masks became the norm. I’ve loathed those pieces of scratchy cloth from the moment they arrived, not because of their (bizarre) association with political peacocking and righteous indignation, but because of the fury that rises with in me from having so much stuff on my face. The masks could be made of silk and I’d still want to burn every one of them.

Of course, they aren’t always optional—at least not where I live. I’ve gone through dozens of styles of masks, desperate to find one that doesn’t make me want to jump out of my skin when I have to put it on. The ‘ole surgical standbys are the least rage-inducing, especially if they’re black or white. (The blue ones make everywhere feel like a hospital.)

Overall, it’s been frustrating to step into anger every time I go somewhere with a mask requirement. Because there’s so much emotion swirling around the pandemic in the first place, I always assumed the irritation that arrived was connected to spending the last two years living in what can only be described as a clusterfuck.

But a few weeks ago, in a startling example of delayed logic, I had an epiphany: take off the damn glasses. My eyesight is strong enough that I can make my way through the world without specs. I may not recognize you in a crowd 100 feet away, but I can still make out the fuzzy brands of crackers on a grocery store shelf. When I simply removed the glasses obstacle, my anger evaporated.

For two years I’ve been hearing people say, “I don’t even notice the mask anymore,” to which I resisted the urge to punch them in the face. Now, I leave my glasses in the car peruse retail stores in peace. It’s been a revelation, I tell you. Such a simple solution, too.

It’s not always the destructive choices that that contribute to melancholy or anger. Sometimes, it’s a basic assumption you’ve learned to take as truth. In my case, the assumption was that my glasses were an extension of my body, always on me unless I was sleeping or showering. Because of that benign assumption, it never occurred to me that taking them off might actually beneficial. As a result, I spent almost two years fighting daily anger over something I was in control of all along.

My challenge to you, and a journaling prompt for those of you so inclined: Examine your life and look for opportunities to take off the metaphorical glasses. How might this contribute to inner overall peace and happiness?

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“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” – Victor Frankl

In a recent interview with Tim Ferriss, author and business strategist Greg McKeown talked about a concept he called, “The Lighter Path.”

The Lighter Path, in essence, is the ability to cultivate a spirit of hope and ease even in the most difficult of times. Its antithesis is not the darker path, but the heavier path; the path that creates more chaos, more hurt, more work.

scale and text overlay image for pinterest

McKeown developed this idea after his bubbly, chatty 14-year-old daughter, Eve, began to turn morose and awkward. Her personality change was originally written off as typical teenage behavior, but after Eve failed a basic physical therapy test, she was taken to a neurologist. Despite a battery of inconclusive tests, her condition worsened to the point where Eve could no longer talk or write her own name.

brooke siem in the tulip field image with text overlay for pinterest

“Everything came back negative, sort of good news, but bad news because you’d have no idea what’s going on,” McKeown said. “And she is fully on the way to becoming comatose and then dying in a coma…this is the stuff that agony is made of, right?”

McKeown realized that despite his daughter’s grim condition, he had two choices: he could take the lighter path and make this already awful situation easier on himself and his family, or, he could take the heavier path and make it more even more difficult.

In a crisis or as a response to trauma, the heavier path is tempting and easy to fall into. It starts with complaining or trying to solve the problem through sheer effort. Focusing all that energy on one person or problem can take the air out of the room for everyone else, leading to destroyed marriages and families.

“All of these things weren’t just hypothetical,” McKeown said. “They were right there. There was that opportunity.”

The lighter path, though, creates a space of trust and hope. While it “doesn’t feel super light,” it is lighter than the heavier path. And in times of crisis, we need all the help we can get.

McKeown said, “We would get around the piano and we would sing. We would read together at night. We would do the small and simple and even enjoyable things. And so, what was at times agonizing, but could have been seriously worse, even, was actually punctuated with joy.”

Despite never getting a formal diagnosis, Eve McKeown fully recovered. Though her story creates a poignant container to explore the idea behind light and heavy paths, it’s important to note that we don’t need a crisis to choose the lighter path.

Take a moment and think about the topography of your life. Are there any burdens, grudges, or transgressions you haven’t forgiven? Are you in a constant state of anger and defensiveness over the injustices of the world? Is there clutter, literal or figurative, that simply makes life harder?

All of this leads to a life lived on the heavier path. To become aware of the heaviness and to consciously choose to rewrite the stories around this heaviness—that is the work. That is your job. And it isn’t all or nothing. Removing even 20% of your psychic drag could have a huge impact on your life.

Start small. Maybe it’s saying “no” to a draining project, smoothing things out with an old friend who voted for the other guy, or pausing before you write a knee-jerk text message that’s sure to cause more chaos.

Simply ask yourself, before you make a choice, “Does this have to be difficult?”


image of Fuckit Bucket™ products

Need a little giggle? Order one of my Fuckit Buckets™.

Look, we know that life is a special sort of disaster right now. Your closet is your office, the kids are still at home, and still your mother-law is calling you fat again. Let this little charm be a reminder that sometimes you have to chuck it in the Fuckit Bucket™ and move on!

Get your own Fuckit Bucket™

After 15 years of depression and antidepressants, my mission is to help people find hope in the name of healing. My memoir on the subject, MAY CAUSE SIDE EFFECTS, publishes on May 10, 2022. Pre-order it on Barnes & Nobles, Amazon, or wherever books are sold. For the most up-to-date announcements, subscribe to my newsletter HAPPINESS IS A SKILL.


Coming September 6, 2022

May Cause Side Effects

Brooke’s memoir is now available for preorder wherever books are sold.

This is a heart-rending and tender memoir that will start conversations we urgently need to have. It’s moving and important.

Johann Hari, author of New York Times bestseller Chasing the Scream and international bestseller 
Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression—and the Unexpected Solutions

More articles from the blog

see all articles

September 23, 2022

The Flowering of Human Consciousness

read the article

September 16, 2022

Three Weeks

read the article

September 9, 2022

Wanting

read the article

September 2, 2022

The Ashton Manual: A guideline for withdrawing from psychiatric drugs

read the article

Part I—The History of Chemical Imbalance Theory
Part II—The Flaws of Chemical Imbalance Theory
Part III—Pharmaceutical Advertising & Chemical Imbalance Theory


At this point in our journey, you’re probably coming around to the idea that the chemical imbalance theory is flawed at best and an outright lie at worst. Although it’s been disproven over and over again and that patients who think a chemical imbalance is the cause of their depression actually have worse treatment outcomes, pharmaceutical advertisements and lifestyle and health websites continue to push the narrative.

Why?

The chemical imbalance theory is unique in that it scratches a specific itch for pharmaceutical companies, doctors, and patients. Pharmaceutical companies need the chemical imbalance theory to peddle their product. They can’t manufacture a pill to erase the lingering, emotional effects of childhood trauma or an unfulfilling life, but they can produce a “biological answer” to a “biological problem.” Someone prone to blood clots takes an anticoagulant. Someone prone to depression takes an antidepressant. The language lends itself to storytelling; the patient a damsel in distress, the drug a regal prince.

This myth wouldn’t survive, however, if people weren’t buying it. It’s easy to understand why people flock to the pharmacy. When people are in pain, they need help. Immediately. Unraveling the emotional ball of knotted yarn is a long and messy process made longer and messier by a bungled healthcare system, a cultural inability to tolerate discomfort, and a social system that doesn’t support people through drastic life changes. A $30 bottle of generic venlafaxine and the assumption that it’s all gone wrong thanks to a chemical imbalance is much easier to swallow.

man shouting into a speaking tube and text overlay

Besides, patients aren’t supposed to be the expert. They aren’t following the words of Dr. Thomas Insel, former Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, who explicitly stated in a 2007 Newsweek article that “a depressed brain is not necessarily underproducing [neurotransmitters.]” Instead, people are influenced by media (advertisements) and experts (doctors.) When both of these institutions are steering them towards a chemical “solution,” why shouldn’t they follow the advice? After all, isn’t “asking your doctor” the right thing to do?

But why are doctors, the experts who are supposed to rely on science, so willing to indulge the chemical imbalance myth when overwhelming, decades-long research does not support it?

The knee-jerk reaction is, of course, money baby! Though the days of outright paying doctors to prescribe specific, brand-name medications are long gone, physicians still receive kickbacks from pharmaceutical companies. It’s even considered public information and can be viewed on OpenPaymentsData.CMS.com. But with the plethora of generic psychiatric drugs available (and that the average per-physician payout, in 2015, was only $201), I don’t think money is the driving factor for psychiatric drug prescription.

A more robust hypothesis is that the chemical imbalance theory has helped destigmatize mental illness, enabling patients to “come out of the closet” with their depression. In theory, if people aren’t afraid to speak up about their private struggles, they are more likely to seek help. This hypothesis is further bolstered by the fact that insurance companies require a diagnosis before they will pay for treatment claims. Treatment for a “bag marriage” or “childhood sexual abuse” is not covered. But treatment for Generalized Anxiety Disorder or Major Depressive Disorder is fair game.

To be labeled with a psychiatric disorder implies that something abnormal has gone wrong in the body and that returning to a state of “normal” is the reasonable thing to do. The chemical imbalance theory fits this narrative and creates a simple way for doctors to explain a complex problem under the time and financial constraints dictated by health insurance. The line between truth and fantasy might be blurred, but if the patient is getting help, does it matter?

Given the 30% rise in suicide rates from 2000 to 20016 despite a 400% increase in antidepressant use and an overall decrease in mental health stigma, I’m going to say that yes, that line between truth and fantasy does matter.

But the blame can’t fall fully on the prescriber’s shoulders. Even the most well-read and researched of the bunch can only operate on the information they’re able to find.

And as it turns out, the game is rigged from the start.

Next week, we’ll dive into publication bias. Or rather, how the pharmaceutical industry legally sells you a two-headed coin.


image of Fuckit Bucket™ products

Need a little giggle? Order one of my Fuckit Buckets™.

Look, we know that life is a special sort of disaster right now. Your closet is your office, the kids are still at home, and still your mother-law is calling you fat again. Let this little charm be a reminder that sometimes you have to chuck it in the Fuckit Bucket™ and move on!

Get your own Fuckit Bucket™

After 15 years of depression and antidepressants, my mission is to help people find hope in the name of healing. My memoir on the subject, MAY CAUSE SIDE EFFECTS, publishes on May 10, 2022. Pre-order it on Barnes & Nobles, Amazon, or wherever books are sold. For the most up-to-date announcements, subscribe to my newsletter HAPPINESS IS A SKILL.


Coming September 6, 2022

May Cause Side Effects

Brooke’s memoir is now available for preorder wherever books are sold.

This is a heart-rending and tender memoir that will start conversations we urgently need to have. It’s moving and important.

Johann Hari, author of New York Times bestseller Chasing the Scream and international bestseller 
Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression—and the Unexpected Solutions

More articles from the blog

see all articles

September 23, 2022

The Flowering of Human Consciousness

read the article

September 16, 2022

Three Weeks

read the article

September 9, 2022

Wanting

read the article

September 2, 2022

The Ashton Manual: A guideline for withdrawing from psychiatric drugs

read the article

As I sit here on this gloomy spring morning, the tentacles of a migraine still latched onto the left side of my head, I am reminded of the phrase, “Do as much as necessary and as little as possible.”

wooden doll building wooden wall and text overlay

I first heard this phrased used around physical training. Think of an Olympian, for example, who has a finely tuned workout schedule designed to create gold-medal worthy results. She can’t back off and do less, otherwise, she risks her performance. She also shouldn’t do more, even if she’s capable of it, because doing more interferes with the rest and recovery necessary to perform at a high level. She doing both as much as necessary and as little as possible to reach her goals.

The idea is that doing more for the sake of doing more isn’t beneficial. That extra energy has to go somewhere, and if you’re not careful, that untamed energy leads to overuse and destruction.

Case in point: a Sunday night migraine that bleeds over to Monday because you broke your “no work on Saturday, under any circumstances, because you need to force yourself to rest so you don’t get sick” rule.

“Do as much as necessary and as little as possible” is tricky, though. Not only does it go against the “hustle harder” mantra that has so dominated our culture over the last decade, but it also gives those without much…shall we say, gumption, a route to laziness.

Take parenting, for example. I know one couple who, in all likelihood, will push their kid to take the SATs twice (and the ACTs twice, for good measure), even if the first go around yields scores strong enough to get the kid into her school of choice. I also know another couple whose neuro-typical seven year old can’t read or write his own name, but because they feed the kid and plop him in front of Zoom school for an hour a day, they’ve rationalized that they’re doing what is “necessary” to keep CPS off their back.

Both scenarios are recipes for different types of destruction. The SAT kid doesn’t need to expend more energy when the goal has already been met. Doing so will only lead to unnecessary, and prolonged anxiety, self-doubt, and shame. Meanwhile, the illiterate seven year old doesn’t even have a shot because of his parent’s fundamental disregard over what constitutes “necessary” parenting.

Ultimately, what is “necessary” is subjective and meaningless without clear goals or expectations. Get clear on what you want and what it takes to get there, but stop once you cross that line. Any effort beyond what is required is a liability.


Need a little giggle? Order one of my Fuckit Buckets™.

gold the fuckit bucket charm

After 15 years of depression and antidepressants, my mission is to help people find hope in the name of healing. My memoir on the subject, MAY CAUSE SIDE EFFECTS, publishes on May 10, 2022. Pre-order it on Barnes & Nobles, Amazon, or wherever books are sold. For the most up-to-date announcements, subscribe to my newsletter HAPPINESS IS A SKILL.

Coming September 6, 2022

May Cause Side Effects

Brooke’s memoir is now available for preorder wherever books are sold.

This is a heart-rending and tender memoir that will start conversations we urgently need to have. It’s moving and important.

Johann Hari, author of New York Times bestseller Chasing the Scream and international bestseller 
Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression—and the Unexpected Solutions

More articles from the blog

see all articles

September 23, 2022

The Flowering of Human Consciousness

read the article

September 16, 2022

Three Weeks

read the article

September 9, 2022

Wanting

read the article

September 2, 2022

The Ashton Manual: A guideline for withdrawing from psychiatric drugs

read the article

I find myself writing to you today from a rather odd place. There is pressure surrounding a particular issue in my personal life, and I can feel my inner world preparing for the earth to crack open. This isn’t unexpected, and the details don’t matter. But it renders a newsletter about happiness as a skill rather paradoxical, or so I first thought.

When I woke up this morning, I wondered what I could say to you when there is a distinct layer of fear and anxiety draped over my own life. I thought about sharing a TED talk, or a poem, or an excerpt from one of the many books I’ve read over the years. I wanted to default to the wisdom of someone else in hopes that they could offer guidance. For both of us.

pinteres blue orange image with text overlay

But as I forced myself into a short meditation this morning, for no reason other than when I want to meditate the least is exactly when I need it most, it occurred to me that although there is a blanket of tension pulled over my heart, underneath it all still beats the pulse of overwhelming gratitude. I get to feel all of this, the good and the bad and the scary and the magnificent.

This has happened, in this capacity, once before. Back in February, I rescued a six-year-old mutt, Bella, from a not-so-great situation in Sacramento. That first bitter cold night, I took her out for a quick walk before bed. She was skiddish and insecure, her little tail like Velcro against her soft belly. Just fifty feet from my front door, a male neighbor came out of his house, clearly drunk and/or high. Bella barked, and the neighbor came toward me. There was another bark, a pull at the leash, then slack. When I looked down, all that was left of Bella was an empty collar. I searched for her until my hands went numb, but she was part of the darkness.

She had only been with me for four hours.

When I got into bed that night, I thought about how my house is surrounded by the Nevada desert. In all likelihood, she was somewhere in those hills. If a coyote didn’t get her, the cold sure would.

The pain and guilt of it all left me in a state of shock, and still, I wrapped the covers around me and thought if something like this had to happen, I’m so grateful I at least have a warm bed to feel it in. Whenever my mind circled back to the thought of my scared little dog, alone in a strange place, I forced myself back to a place of gratitude. A soft bed. A house I love. A mom who drove across town, at midnight, to help me look for Bella.

I awoke at 3am, a faint sound of barking rousing me from sleep. Dumbfounded, I went to the front door. A winter wind pushed the door open and a flash of white and tan scurried past my feet. Somehow, despite being lost for hours in a place she’d never been, Bella found her way back home.

And now here I am again. The waves of life crashing in, steady gratitude providing the foundation underneath.

This, to me, is why we do the work. It’s why we practice happiness as a skill, every day in a million little ways. But the catch-22 is that in the midst of preparation, you can’t know what you’re preparing for. You have to trust that because you’ve put in the emotional work, that because you practice happiness when the seas are calm, you will be able to handle tsunamis. Because the waves of life will always come.

And if you’re lucky, you’ll realize what a gift it is to get to experience it all.

Need a little giggle? Order one of my Fuckit Buckets™.

three images of the fuckit bucket collection



After 15 years of depression and antidepressants, my mission is to help people find hope in the name of healing. My memoir on the subject, MAY CAUSE SIDE EFFECTS, publishes on September 6, 2022. Pre-order it on Barnes & Nobles, Amazon, or wherever books are sold. For the most up-to-date announcements, subscribe to my newsletter HAPPINESS IS A SKILL.

may cause side effects a memoir book picture and author brooke siem

More articles from the blog

see all articles

September 23, 2022

The Flowering of Human Consciousness

read the article

September 16, 2022

Three Weeks

read the article

September 9, 2022

Wanting

read the article

September 2, 2022

The Ashton Manual: A guideline for withdrawing from psychiatric drugs

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This week, I wanted to draw attention to the work of Andrew Huberman, an American neuroscientist and tenured professor in the Department of Neurobiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

Huberman specializes in the visual system and how it affects brain development, neuroplasticity, and neural regeneration and repair. Our eyes, as it turns out, have two functions. In addition to helping us read, see colors, and identify objects, our eyes are one of two primary systems (respiration is the other) that help tell our brain whether to be relaxed or alert.

The most obvious example of this is how we use our eyes to communicate the time of day. Our eyes perceive changes in light and therefore, our brain tells our body to awaken or become sleepy through an “aggregation of neurons” that dictate things like metabolism (are you hungry?) and movement (do you want to be lying down?) This is why sleep experts recommend shutting off harsh lights and avoiding screens toward the end of the day. When your eyes perceive the light, it triggers wakefulness in the body instead of sleepiness.

pinteres image with text overlay

The eyes also have a direct impact on our inner state. Our pupils contract when we’re relaxed and dialate when we’re focused or under any kind of stress, good or bad. For example, when you’re staring out over a beautiful coast or vista, your pupils get smaller in order to let you take in the breadth of your surroundings. This panoramic vision opens our window to the world, literally making it look bigger, which leads to stress reduction. This is one of the reasons why we feel so good in nature.

Conversely, our pupils dilate when we’re focused or stressed. Now we see the world through straws, the peripheral fields of our vision narrowed. When the visual field shrinks, according to Huberman, it triggers an increase in alertness. In a negative experience, that alertness is called stress, anxiety, or fear. In a positive experience, it might be called flow, excitement, or infatuation.

Like breathing, this is usually autonomic. Or rather, we don’t have to think about how our pupils adjust to see, just like we don’t have to think about breathing to stay alive. But just like we can hijack respiration and use breathing to our advantage, either because we’re blowing up balloons or because we’re practicing breathwork techniques in order to manage stress, we can also direct our gaze to influence our state of mind.

When we’re in a state of anxiety or negative stress, we can cue our brain to calm down by forcing ourselves to expand our field of view, to literally see the bigger picture.

Huberman said in a recent podcast, “If you look forward and you expand your field of view, so you kind of relax your eyes so that you can see as much of your environment around you as possible to the point where you can see yourself in that environment, what you are doing is turning off the attentional and, believe it or not, the stress mechanisms that drive your internal state towards stress.”

In short, to help keep stress levels down throughout the day, look around. Take breaks from staring at your computer to look out a window or check out the patterns in your ceiling. And if you’re having a bout of anxiety, force yourself to see a literal, bigger world.

Need a little giggle? Order one of my Fuckit Buckets™.

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After 15 years of depression and antidepressants, my mission is to help people find hope in the name of healing. My memoir on the subject, MAY CAUSE SIDE EFFECTS, publishes on September 6, 2022. Pre-order it on Barnes & Nobles, Amazon, or wherever books are sold. For the most up-to-date announcements, subscribe to my newsletter HAPPINESS IS A SKILL.

may cause side effects a memoir book picture and author brooke siem

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The Ashton Manual: A guideline for withdrawing from psychiatric drugs

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One of the pitfalls of depression is that because it tends to come in waves, the habits we gather while we’re feeling okay often fall by the wayside when we’re feeling rough. And while I’m a huge advocate of forcing yourself to maintain those habits during times of darkness, I know that sometimes, it’s just not possible.

Luckily, we live in a time where technology is literally at our fingertips. There’s a lot of junk in that app store, but there are also a handful of stellar apps that can help hold your hand through the waves. Here are a few of my favorites.

Created by game designer Jane McGonigal, SuperBetter is an app that builds resilience. Born after a traumatic brain injury left McGonigal suicidal, SuperBetter brings the concepts of gaming into real life. For McGonigal, this meant accomplishing Power-Ups like putting on socks and establishing Allies with friends and family to help her achieve her Quest of returning to a normal life.

The game is fully customizable. If you are battling Depression as your Bad Guy, accomplishing little tasks like drinking a glass of water, walking the dog, or getting up off the chair and moving around all generate points that count toward your win. Over time, these accomplishments create change on a neural level, leading to an overall more positive state.

screen shot of superbetter application home screen

MoodMeter is an aesthetically pleasing, data-driven app designed to help you track and shift your day-to-day mood. This can be especially helpful for those suffering from depression because depression is the great manipulator. One dark day can feel like it erases ten days of progress, but if you have visual data that proves you are ultimately on the upswing, it can be easier to manage those dark days.

screen shot of mood meterapplication home screen

Drawing on 40+ years of research and clinical experience by psychiatrist Dr. David Spiegel, Reveri is a digital hypnosis app designed to create immediate relief from pain, stress, anxiety, sleep problems, and more.

Hypnosis is a tricky word often associated with quack therapists or stage shows. But in this context, it’s more of an imagination tool that helps kick the mind and body into a state of active rest. It is a state of highly focused attention, where distracting thoughts are decreased and the mind becomes more open to new ideas and perspectives.

Each exercise takes about 10 minutes and can be treated like a daily meditation. The one caveat is that because the app is new, it can be a little buggy. But given the team of people behind it, including neuroscientist Andrew Huberman and technologist Ariel Poler, it’s likely these issues will sort out over time.

screen shot of reveri application home screen

Need a little giggle? Order one of my Fuckit Buckets™.

gold the fuckit bucket charm

may cause side effects a memoir book picture and author brooke siem

After 15 years of depression and antidepressants, my mission is to help people find hope in the name of healing. My memoir on the subject, MAY CAUSE SIDE EFFECTS, publishes on September 6, 2022. Pre-order it on Barnes & Nobles, Amazon, or wherever books are sold. For the most up-to-date announcements, subscribe to my newsletter HAPPINESS IS A SKILL.

More articles from the blog

see all articles

September 23, 2022

The Flowering of Human Consciousness

read the article

September 16, 2022

Three Weeks

read the article

September 9, 2022

Wanting

read the article

September 2, 2022

The Ashton Manual: A guideline for withdrawing from psychiatric drugs

read the article

For most of my life, I struggled with the assumption that people with letters after their name were not only smarter, more powerful, and more successful than me, but that the research they create is gospel. I’m not sure when or how this seed was planted, but it’s lead to a lifelong feeling of inadequacy—especially throughout my twenties. Doctors and scientists were busy saving lives and stumbling across eureka. Meanwhile, I made silly cupcakes for a living and couldn’t afford health insurance.

Assuming that all doctors and research belonged on a pedestal is also part of why I so easily accepted their mental health diagnosis. I knew I was depressed, but what did I know about how to fix it? A doctor told me that my brain was broken and that the pills I was taking did not have any major side effects. Who was I to question someone who spent 12 years learning how to identify and treat my exact problem? It is only since getting off the antidepressants that I’ve begun to understand how complicated, political, and often corrupt the medical and research system actually is. And this isn’t conspiracy. Bad science exists in every discipline—The Guardian even has an entire vertical dedicated to it.

While researchers are adept at sorting out bad science from the good, regular folk rarely know the difference, which can lead to a plethora of misinformation and ill-informed opinion. But I’ve learned a few basic strategies to help us plebians suss out the good from bad when it comes to mental health research. This is by no means a foolproof or comprehensive list, but it’s a start.

Where to find research papers:

pinterest graphic with text overlay on blue background

PubMed is a free search engine that primarily accesses the MEDLINE (Medical Literature Analysis and Retrieval System Online) database of research on life science and medical topics. It allows you to sort by a variety of matches, including author, publication date, and journal. It also has a nifty search feature that will only give you results that include free full text. Unfortunately, the full text of many research papers are hidden behind paywalls, which leaves the average person stuck with nothing but abstracts.

Google Scholar is…well, the Google of research. Whether you’re looking for research on antidepressants or conifer trees, Google Scholar is the grand poobah of scientific information. However, because Google Scholar is a search engine and not a subject-dedicated database (like PubMed), Google Scholar strives to include as many journals as possible, including junk journals and predatory journals. These predatory journals are known for exploiting the academic publishing business model, not checking journal articles for quality, and pushing agenda even in clear cases of fraudulent science.

All this to say that before a paper is read, the reader needs to do a bit of due diligence to make sure that what they’re reading is legitimate. Even then, we can’t be 100% sure. Case in point: Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent research claiming that vaccines cause autism.

I know, I know. The number one rule in research is: don’t use Wikipedia as a source. Any old geezer (including you) can log on to Wikipedia and change an entry (any entry) to say anything and everything, which means that Wikipedia is riddled with errors and should not be referenced as truth in a research paper or reported article. But since we’re not reporting for the New York Times, Wikipedia is a good place to start because of the references listed at the bottom of each Wikipedia entry. The Wikipedia page on Antidepressant Discontinuation Syndrome, for example, links directly to 27 different sources on the topic.

But sourcing research is only the first step. With so much junk science out in the world, it’s imperative to learn how to identify the good from the bad. Here’s how:

Check the Citations

Google Scholar is one of my favorite ways to source research, but because Google Scholar is a search engine and not a curated database, articles published in known predatory journals may pop up in your search results.

pinterest graphic with open book and text overlay

The quickest way to determine if the article is legit is to check the “Cited by” number at the bottom of the search. If an article has multiple citations, it means other researchers are referring to the research in their own articles, which indicates legitimacy. It’s rare that articles are cited thousands of times like Eugene Paykel’s excellent study “Life and Depression: A Controlled Study.” With 1495 citations, Paykel’s study is the research equivalent of a New York Times bestselling book. But according to academics, even mid-single digits are enough to assume the research isn’t bunk.

Journal Ranking

While citations are a great place to start, they benefit from time in the system. Paykel’s article has been around since 1976, which means it has nearly half a century of research built upon it. New research won’t come with shiny citations, so you need to look at the journal it’s published in to see if it’s legitimate.

Academic journals are ranked for impact and quality by a system known as the H-Index. The H-Index is determined by the number of publications and citations. Higher H-Index indicates a higher ranking. However, note that the H-Index is not standardized across subject areas, so you can’t cross-compare across disciplines.

Find journal rankings by googling the name of the journal and the word “ranking.” The Scimago Journal & Country Rank (SJR) should be one of the first Google results, and that will show you the H-Index of the journal in question.

For layman’s purposes, the H-Index doesn’t matter too much. Think of it like the college system. Harvard isn’t the same as Iowa State, but that doesn’t mean that Iowa State isn’t capable of producing good citizens (and we all know question marks who graduated from top-tier universities.) The top journals produce great work, but there is still plenty of meaningful work to be found in smaller journals. A low ranking isn’t necessarily a problem, but no ranking is a problem. Junk publications and predatory journals won’t have an H-Index, so if a publication you’re reading doesn’t have a rating, run far far away.

Crosscheck Beall’s List

If the journal article doesn’t appear on the SJR, your predatory journal spidey sense should go off. Cross-reference the journal against Beall’s List, an archive of predatory journals created by librarian Jeffrey Beall. The sheer number of journals listed on Beall’s List is astounding, and it’s easy to see how naive readers could be duped.

Need a little giggle? Order one of my Fuckit Buckets™.

gold the fuckit bucket charm

After 15 years of depression and antidepressants, my mission is to help people find hope in the name of healing. My memoir on the subject, MAY CAUSE SIDE EFFECTS, publishes on September 6, 2022. Pre-order it on Barnes & Nobles, Amazon, or wherever books are sold. For the most up-to-date announcements, subscribe to my newsletter HAPPINESS IS A SKILL

may cause side effects a memoir book picture and author brooke siem

More articles from the blog

see all articles

September 23, 2022

The Flowering of Human Consciousness

read the article

September 16, 2022

Three Weeks

read the article

September 9, 2022

Wanting

read the article

September 2, 2022

The Ashton Manual: A guideline for withdrawing from psychiatric drugs

read the article

Healing Depression through Factual Optimism

How do we find happiness when we are still depressed or in antidepressant withdrawal? We don’t. At least, we don’t aim for big changes. Instead, we go for getting it right 51% of the time. If we quantify happiness onto a scale that ranges from 0% happy to 100% happy, every decision we make alters our position on the scale. If we can get our life to a 51% Lifetime Happiness Average, our choices are validated by default.

The goal isn’t to reach 100%. On some days, 80% can seem like a stretch. Fifty-one percent, though, is almost always doable. And at 51%, we’re winning.

Little Changes Bring Big Results

Quantifying emotions helps us remain grounded and make decisions rooted in reality, as opposed to the reality created by the chatter in our heads.

If we have one “good” day a week, we are at 14% happiness. By making small changes to bring us to two good days, our happiness average rises to 28%. To hit 51%, we need to have average 3.6 “good” days per week.

To set ourselves up for more good days in a week, we apply the 51% theory to individual decisions.

pinteret graphic for blog post the fifty one percent, or, factual optimism

As long as each singular decision falls at 51% or higher, it puts us closer to our overall 51% Lifetime Happiness Average.

Decisions are based not on logic, but on how they make us feel. When we are faced with a situation, take a moment and simply ask, “Where does this decision fall on the scale? How do I feel when I think about it?

If the decision feels like it will bring 51% Happiness, go with it, even in the absence of logic or practicality. If we don’t know the answer, wait and gather more information. Patience is often the difference between 49% and 51%.

The beauty of the 51% Theory is that all decisions become easy decisions. Even difficult decisions are easy decisions. They may still carry immense consequence, but once the 51% threshold is crossed, nothing else matters. At 51%, we are already ahead. Make the decision and go.

It only takes a 1% shift to create momentum that can change your life. At 49%, we’re still struggling against the current. At 51%, we’re moving with the river.

When in doubt, make a graph!

The 51% Theory is not finite. If, over too many days, a particular decision that started off at 51% or higher begins to fall, something needs to change. If a situation falls to 40% or so, that’s the time to get curious. Is the drop tied to your emotions or external logistics? Did the situation change or did you change? Is the effort involved in getting it back to 51% worth your time?

When you don’t know the answer, focus on a situation’s effect on the overall average. Since the goal is to hit 51% over the course of your life, a situation that sits around 45% for a few weeks only incrementally lowers your overall average, whereas a situation that sits at 5% for a few days can be intense enough to bring the whole average down. The lower the situation on the Happiness Scale, the higher its priority. If I have you nail in your foot, don’t focus your energy on the splinter in your finger. Even if you have 10 splinters in your finger, it’s the single nail is causing the bigger issue. But over and over again, people focus on the splinters while ignoring the giant, rusted nail in between their metatarsals.

In years of implementing factual optimism, my life has changed dramatically. I wanted to see a visual representation, so I made a graph:

chart presenting happines average in 2016

This isn’t a true lifetime representation, of course. My father died in July 2001, when I was 15. Anything before that seems arbitrary since my childhood definition of “happiness” was whether or not my mom packed an Oreo in my lunchbox.

I was a typical teenager until my father passed, so I give 2001 a 35%. The “peak” in 2008 was thanks to a debauchery filled final semester of college that was quickly squashed with the reality and uncertainty of moving to Manhattan on my own. Overall, I estimated around 2.75 good days per week in 2008. I opened my bakery in 2011 but by 2013, I was lucky to get one good day per week. I implemented the 51% Theory in 2014, and by 2015, my day to day massively improved.

The Lifetime Happiness Average only tells a broad story. It’s more interesting to break down by year:

chart presenting lifetime happiness average

As you can see, 2016 was an emotional mess. In February, I made a decision based on the 51% Theory to leave my life in New York City travel around the world. Because one life altering decision apparently wasn’t enough, I also decided to get off the cocktail of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety pills that I’d been taking since my father passed away. Both of these decisions barely squeaked in at 51%, and I ended up creating a perfect storm of logistical and emotional hell that was extremely painful and even more expensive.

Even though the immediate consequences of these two 51% decisions created five of the worst months of my entire life, the after effects are proving to be worth as high as 86%. That’s six good days per week — the highest I’ve ever averaged.

In the depths of those five months, I reminded myself (and was reminded by others) that I made those decisions because of that 1%. Even though 49% and 51% feels similar in the moment, that 1% is the tipping point that creates momentum for positive change. At 49%, you’re still struggling against the current. At 51%, you’re moving with the river. And at the end of our life, however many days away, we can look back and say to ourselves, “It was all worth it. Fifty-one percent of the time, everything was beautiful.”


Need a little giggle? Order one of my Fuckit Buckets™.

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After 15 years of depression and antidepressants, my mission is to help people find hope in the name of healing. My memoir on the subject, MAY CAUSE SIDE EFFECTS, publishes on September 6, 2022. Pre-order it on Barnes & Nobles, Amazon, or wherever books are sold. For the most up-to-date announcements, subscribe to my newsletter HAPPINESS IS A SKILL.

may cause side effects a memoir book picture and author brooke siem

More articles from the blog

see all articles

September 23, 2022

The Flowering of Human Consciousness

read the article

September 16, 2022

Three Weeks

read the article

September 9, 2022

Wanting

read the article

September 2, 2022

The Ashton Manual: A guideline for withdrawing from psychiatric drugs

read the article

When I started Happiness Is A Skill, I did it for two reasons. First, I wanted to have an outlet to talk about mental/emotional health and antidepressant withdrawal without enmeshing myself in social media. The topography of those niches on Twitter is a nightmare, and I couldn’t bring myself to swim around in that muck.

Second, I had just landed a literary agent and we were prepping to send my memoir on antidepressant withdrawal out to publishers. I hoped that by starting a dedicated newsletter, I could keep my writing mind from getting rusty while also creating an outlet for my book’s key audience.

Well, I’m thrilled to announce that my memoir, MAY CAUSE SIDE EFFECTS, will be published by Central Recovery Press in September 6, 2022! (And I didn’t even have to go on Twitter to make it happen!)

may cause side effects book pinterest image with text overlay

I’d be doing a happy dance over here, but frankly, I’m pooped. The news came through a few weeks ago, and because we chose to aggressively push for a Spring 2022 release, it’s been a whole lot of stress and frenzy in a short period of time.

I thought I was handling it all relatively well until I got struck down by an ocular migraine on Saturday night. Migraines, for me, are always a sign that I am wound too tight with the sort of existential tension that only seems to get worse when you “relax.” The solution isn’t necessarily to do less, but to change the fundamental process.

And so, Happiness Is A Skill is going to go in for a facelift. As much as I’ve enjoyed what I’ve created so far, it’s time for it to evolve so it can better support the book and the withdrawal/depression recovery community without taking added energy out of me.

The newsletter may look a little sparse over the next few weeks, but rest assured that it’s because I’m tinkering away in the background, getting ready to bring Happiness Is A Skill to a bigger audience. HIAS is going to be an integral part of my book’s release, so it’s not going anywhere.

To everyone who actually reads this every week, thank you. Artists need audiences in order to justify continuing their craft. I couldn’t have gotten this far without knowing real eyeballs were looking at what I was creating. And while my newsletter is child’s play compared to my book, both in scope and polish, it has been such a safe place for me to explore over the past year and a half.

Thank you for being a part of it so far, and thanks for sticking with me through this period of readjustment and growth.

I can’t wait for you to see what I have planned.

Need a little giggle? Order one of my Fuckit Buckets™.

the fuckit bucket gold silver necklaces

After 15 years of depression and antidepressants, my mission is to help people find hope in the name of healing. My memoir on the subject, MAY CAUSE SIDE EFFECTS, publishes on September 6, 2022 Pre-order it on Barnes & Nobles, Amazon, or wherever books are sold. For the most up-to-date announcements, subscribe to my newsletter HAPPINESS IS A SKILL.

Coming September 6, 2022

May Cause Side Effects

Brooke’s memoir is now available for preorder wherever books are sold.

This is a heart-rending and tender memoir that will start conversations we urgently need to have. It’s moving and important.

Johann Hari, author of New York Times bestseller Chasing the Scream and international bestseller 
Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression—and the Unexpected Solutions

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September 23, 2022

The Flowering of Human Consciousness

read the article

September 16, 2022

Three Weeks

read the article

September 9, 2022

Wanting

read the article

September 2, 2022

The Ashton Manual: A guideline for withdrawing from psychiatric drugs

read the article