Subscribe to HAPPINESS IS A SKILL, a bi-weekly newsletter devoted to helping people heal from depression.

menu

Back during my days of deep depression, one of my unconscious coping techniques was to put down the little things that brought other people joy. The phrase “that’s stupid” fell out of my mouth like a tick. Nothing and no one was safe. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge? Stupid. Just donate money without the attention. Disneyland? Stupid. The most miserable place on earth. Hobbyist birding? Stupid. Who cares about random birds?

This reaction, of course, came from a most selfish place. I couldn’t find joy in anything, and it pissed me off that delight seemed so easy for others. I never stopped to think that maybe they took responsibility for their own happiness and worked for their joy. It never occurred to me that maybe they had pain too, but that they didn’t let suffering define them as a person.

The ability to experience a glimmer of joy is a litmus test for your psychological state. When I work with clients in antidepressant withdrawal, one of the first things I ask them to do is to start noticing little flickers of creativity, joy, or clarity that tend to come up as the drugs leave their system. These nanoglimmers of light may be barely perceptible at first, as simple as a deep inhale of freshly ground coffee or noticing how your eyes linger on the details of a flower. For people working through depression and getting off antidepressants, these nanoglimmers signal the mind’s innate ability to stop the mental loops and detach from the physical weight of depression—even just for a moment.

In my experience, as the nanoglimmers grew from fleeting seconds into longer chunks of time, the use of the phrase “that’s stupid” faded from my vocabulary and gave rise to curiosity and spontaneity. Birding might never be my lifelong passion, but what did it matter if other people enjoyed it? Who was I to put it down when it had no impact on my life?

To let others do their thing without making it about you is a hallmark of healing. They are on their path. You are on yours. It may take weeks or months or years of hard work to grow one nanoglimmer into a life filled with joy, but noting the existence of a single nanoglimmer proves that it is possible. What you can do one, you can do again. With time, one can always become two.

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

Happiness Is A Skill was created as an outlet for me to reach the kind of people who email me every day. Ever since my Washington Post Article, “I spent half my life on antidepressants. Today, I’m off the medication and feel all right” became the #1 read piece on WaPo National the day it was published, my inbox likes to fill up with people who are struggling to get off their antidepressants or benzodiazepines. I respond to every person who contacts me, and often that correspondence leads to a longer conversation.

About 12 weeks ago, after one of these conversations melted two hours away from my day, it occurred to me that I was spending a lot of time saying similar things to lots of different people. Why not take all that information and distill it down into a digest that could reach lots of people at once? And so Happiness Is A Skill was born. There are two overarching themes of these emails. First, people are desperate to find relief from the pain of withdrawal, all while trying to process the anger they have for prescribed drugs and doctors that were supposed to help them. Second, they are looking for someone, anyone, who understands. Psychiatric drug withdrawal is an excruciatingly long and lonely process that you simply cannot relate to unless you have experienced it. It’s rare to encounter another person going through withdrawal in the wild because people in severe withdrawal probably aren’t leaving their house. (And those who are experiencing mild or moderate withdrawal are likely so irritable that they aren’t exactly projecting warm fuzzies.)

Until recently, antidepressant withdrawal was swept under the rug by psychiatrists and doctors, largely due to a lack of substantial research surrounding long-term use and tapering. (Antidepressants and benzos are designed, studied, and tested for short term use, i.e., weeks. There is not a single study on the effects of long-term antidepressant use, and yet 1 in 4 people on antidepressants have been taking them for more than 10 years.)

But in 2019, a group of American and British psychiatrists came together and urged national withdrawal guidelines to be updated after they “discovered” what many patients already knew: it is a hell of a lot easier to start taking antidepressants than it is to get off of them. In a systematic review of existing research, the authors determined that “nearly half of those experiencing withdrawal (46%) report it as severe, and that reports of symptoms lasting several months are common in many recent studies.”

The authors go on to say that their evidence directly contradicts the position of the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines, which state that “[withdrawal] symptoms are usually mild and self-limiting over about 1 week.” In short, this research shows that half of all antidepressant users will likely experience withdrawal of a substantially longer duration and severity than current guidelines recognize. Shockingly (to this American, anyway), the NICE guidelines were updated to reflect these findings, giving suffering withdrawal patients a smidgeon of validation. All this to say that the tides are changing. My article and others like it are finding space in mainstream media and a new cohort of psychiatrists and researchers are starting to take our claims seriously. But arguably the biggest contribution to bringing this issue to light is the new documentary, Medicating Normal. I had the pleasure of watching a screening a few days ago, and it both broke my heart and fed the fire within me.

A synopsis:

“Combining cinema verité and investigative journalism, Medicating Normal follows the journeys of a newly married couple, a female combat veteran, a waitress and a teenager whose doctors prescribed psychiatric drugs for stress, mild depression, sleeplessness, focus and trauma. Our subjects struggle with serious physical and mental side effects as well as neurological damage which resulted from taking the drugs as prescribed and also from attempting to withdraw. Says one psychiatrist, ’There’s not a chemical on the planet, to my knowledge, that can require years to tapernot Oxycontin, not crack cocaine, not heroin, and not alcohol. But psychiatric medications, any tapered patient will tell you, can take sometimes years if possible, at all.’ … [Medicating Normal] is the untold story of what happens when profit-driven medicine intersects with human beings in distress.”

Statistically, a good chunk of Happiness Is A Skill readers are taking some form of antidepressant or anti-anxiety/benzodiazepines like Xanex or Ativan. For those people, none of this is meant to scare you or bully you into getting off the drugs. You do you. However, if you ever do want to get off these drugs, I implore you to do your research and work with your doctor to create a slow, deliberate tapering plan. Doctors are not required to give patients informed consent when it comes to psychiatric drugs, nor are they well versed in safe withdrawal. It’s not their fault. The medical system simply doesn’t teach them how to take people off these medications. It is possible to wean off psychiatric drugs safely and with few side effects, but the techniques for doing so are being developed at a grassroots level by people who have experienced it, like me. For more information on safe withdrawal, check out SurvivingAntidepressants.orgMad In America, and the Inner Compass Initiative. You can also email me directly. Lastly, Medicating Normal is being screened virtually at several film festivals and hosted events. I would recommend it to anyone who is taking antidepressants or benzos, but I believe it should be required watching for all practicing psychiatrists and doctors. You can find tickets and upcoming screenings here.

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

Over the past six months, I have watched a curious trend develop amongst the people in my circle. Faced with a clear threat —COVID-19- two courses have emerged. First is the group that follows whatever rules and precautions that exist where they live but who also generally accept that COVID is a part of life. These are the people who went back to the gym when it opened, socialize within their bubble, and go to restaurants. Life is normal (ish).

The second group follows strict, often self-imposed rules. One thirtysomething friend of mine hasn’t left his house since March. Another makes sure never to miss the nightly news, so she can stay informed on the latest numbers. Still, another barricaded herself in the attic to keep distance from the family. They put these practices in place to keep themselves safe. They are running from the threat. And it’s been working. Until now.

The thirtysomething friend came down with a fever and a deep, dry cough. Coronavirus or otherwise, he asked himself, “How the hell did I catch something when I haven’t left the house?” The friend watching the nightly news experienced so much anxiety that she gave herself raging ulcers that ate through her stomach lining. And the acquaintance in the attic? She developed a lung infection unrelated to COVID but refused to go to the hospital because she was worried about catching COVID. The lung collapsed. She was hospitalized and left with a much bigger problem than the initial infection.

It is a most human act to focus on an outside predator, convincing ourselves that if we just get stronger or run faster, we will evade danger. But the process of protecting ourselves from an obvious beast can skew our perception. Fixated on a single threat, we lose our peripheral vision and are blindsided by an unexpected blow…even though signs were there all along.

At its core, this tendency stems from the brain’s inability to truly conceptualize its death. That’s all we’re doing right? Telling ourselves that if we stay inside, watch the news, and keep away from other people we will not die. Death is a scenario that will befall other people. But not us. Because we are in control.

Except, we will die. Yes, even you. Fixating on this one particular method of death is futile. Avoiding it does not eliminate the end result. It simply shifts the target.

Easier said than done, of course. Your psychology, risk tolerance, physical health, and life experience will dictate how you handle a crisis with so many unknowns. But no matter your particular brand of peccadilloes, it’s worth asking, what exactly are you running from? And what is happening around you, when you’re blinded by the chase?

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

Gratitude. Oh how I loathed that word for so many years. Throughout the depths of my depression, gratitude taunted me like a schoolyard bully sniggering at the poor kid’s hand-me-downs. What was there to be grateful for when my world was nothing but darkness and pain? Why be grateful for the basics of life — food, water, shelter, breath — when I didn’t want to live in the first place? How could I create a practice around something I didn’t feel?

It’s not that I didn’t try. For a while, I scribbled in a gratitude journal. Or as I referred to it, a fucking gratitude journal. When that didn’t work, I tried a gratitude jar, but all I wanted to do was shatter the thing against the wall. Then I tried reading some Stoic philosophy. And listening to Oprah. Nothing stuck. Gratitude, I determined, was for suckers or the anointed. I was neither.

Color me surprised when, in January of 2017, I stood in front of a lopsided fir tree growing just off the highway in Prague and felt a surge of gratitude so great, it warmed me down to my frozen toes. It’s like its needles reached into my heart and jolted me awake with the force of a defibrillator. I stopped cold in the middle of the sidewalk, turned, and stared like it was the first tree I’d ever seen. They grey highway and the grey sidewalks and the grey sky melted away, leaving nothing but the deep green tree swaying in the breeze. A sort of tingle twitched between my shoulder blades that flooded through my body — gratitude for life itself.

I went back to the tree nearly every day during my four weeks in Prague, trying to encode the flush of gratitude into my cellular memory. I worried that the tree was a beacon I might never find again, like I would leave the city and lose the signal. If I could only hold onto it and recognize it, I figured, maybe it would find me again.

And it did. Slowly but surely, it did.

When it comes to living a happy life, gratitude sits at the center of almost every teaching, philosophy, and religion. The Bible says, “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18.) The Buddha said, according to Kataññu Suttas scriptures, “A person of integrity is grateful and thankful. This gratitude, this thankfulness, is advocated by civil people. It is entirely on the level of people of integrity.” The Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius coined the phrase, “the attitude of gratitude” and the modern spiritual teacher, Ekhart Tolle, says that “It is through gratitude for the present moment that the spiritual dimension of life opens up.”

But for years, no matter what I tried, I couldn’t access it. Why?

Two things are at work here. First, gratitude is a feeling, not a reasoning. In my experience, it is impossible to access gratitude through the intellect alone, which is why my attempts at gratitude jars and journals failed. The practice was there but the embodiment was not, and without the physical and emotional connection, the reasoning was futile. This is the same reason why it’s useless to tell kids to clean their plates because there are starving children in Africa. Knowing that people are starving is at odds with the fact that the kid feels full, and the lesson does not sink in.

Second, gratitude is no match for grief, loss, or the untrodden path of phenomenal change. It is simply too delicate, too nuanced. The image of a flower tossed into the base of a waterfall comes to mind. Beauty and wonder crumble under thousands of pounds of force.

The waterfall could not thin and let gratitude shine through until I began to stabilize from antidepressant withdrawal and work through the grief — and subsequent depression — of losing my father. But once I finally felt gratitude, I learned to recognize it when it randomly showed up. After recognizing it a few dozen times, a practice allowed me to access gratitude on command. Only now does that gratitude journal serve its purpose.

Think of it as software. Until the software is downloaded onto the hard drive, the computer cannot access it. But you must format the hard drive to remove any corrupt data before the software can be downloaded, otherwise, the software will also corrupt. But once the hard drive is formatted and software is downloaded, the computer can run the program. It runs best when the hard drive is clear of viruses and clutter, but as long as you clean up the hard drive now and again and don’t let malware seep into the system, the software can run forever.

This is gratitude. It must first be felt before it can be regularly accessed, but it cannot be felt until the corrupt energy is cleared away.

Thus, the first step to healing and happiness is not “be grateful.” It’s to start clearing the corrupt files, one byte at a time.


From Productivity to Psychedelics: Tim Ferriss Has Changed His Mind About Success | GQ
From Productivity to Psychedelics: Tim Ferriss Has Changed His Mind About Success | GQwww.gq.com

I find few interviews to be truly worth reading, but this interview with Tim Ferriss is packed with useful nuggets about managing the mind and overcoming yourself. A quote: “The inescapable fact that if, at best, you tolerate yourself, and more often berate, hate, or criticize yourself, how can you possibly fully engage with others, accept and love them, and find peace of mind and life?”


The secret to happiness is simple: live like a Stoic for a week | The Independent
The secret to happiness is simple: live like a Stoic for a week | The Independentwww.independent.co.uk

What have the Romans ever done for us? Well, obviously the roads – the roads go without saying. How about guidance for how to live in the 21st century? That seems less likely, but in fact the last few years have seen a flurry of interest in the work of three Roman Stoic philosophers who offered just that.


Why you can smell rain
Why you can smell raintheconversation.com

The smell of rain, or petrichor, is one of the few sensory experiences that instantly transports me into a state of gratefulness. But why does that smell happen? This 2 minute read explains why.

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

After three months of closure, my gym in Vancouver re-opened on June 1st. Even though I’ve been a gym rat since 2013, the pandemic took a huge toll on my physical performance. Six weeks later, my workout capacity hovers around 40% of what it once was.

I see this deficit most clearly on an indoor rowing machine. The treadmill of canoes, rowing machines produce resistance thanks to air flowing through a flywheel. The wheel connects to a chain, and the combination of pushing with your legs and pulling the chain handle spins the flywheel. The faster you row, the faster the flywheel spins and the more resistance it creates. The amount of power you produce — measured in meters, calories, or watts — is displayed on a small screen, giving you instant feedback on each stroke.

Two ways to get the flywheel moving: brute strength or proper technique. In the past, I could muscle my way through at a reasonably respectable pace for someone built for ballet, not rowing. But thanks to a combination of three months off, nagging injuries, mid-thirties hormones, elevated base level stress, and extra glasses of pandemic wine, I have been forced to adjust my strategy. Pulling the handle like all hell just doesn’t work anymore.

Like most things that seem simple, rowing technique is complicated. Arms straight. Head neutral. Shins vertical. Heels lift. Push through the legs, then extend through the hips, then pull the chain. Legs, hips, pull, release, hips, legs. Don’t let the chain slack. Don’t hunch. Don’t lead with the back. Don’t bend the arms too early. Legs, hips, pull, release, hips, legs. Breathe. Legs, hips, pull, release, hips, legs. Repeat.

My goal is not to become a professional rower. It’s to get through the rowing portion of my afternoon workout so I can move onto the next movement. Focusing on every aspect of my rowing technique would be a waste of my time. Instead, I focus on one thing I can do to increase my efficiency: get the handle to the proper starting position, every stroke, every time. Focusing on the handle’s placement guarantees that 1) my stroke length will be as long as possible, which increases speed; 2) positions my back and legs to fire in the right order at the right time, which increases power; 3) keeps my mind zeroed in on one thing rather than 100 things, and 4) distracts me from how awful rowing is.

Why is this relevant to happiness? Because by focusing on one aspect of rowing technique, my power and speed are guaranteed to increase, thereby improving my overall performance. I don’t need to be great everywhere all the time. I just need to be a little bit better, repeatedly. Over time, this will translate into more strength and stamina…without breaking my spirit.

The same theory applies to happiness. It’s not about making sweeping changes and overwhelming the system with hundreds of new processes, only to beat ourselves up for failure. It’s about taking stock of your life and focusing on doing one thing right, every time that will set a stronger foundation for each process that follows.

For me, that one thing is staying off social media. Maintaining that boundary gives me greater emotional and psychological resilience, which means I am able to consume more meaningful information, brush off minor irritations, and more quickly bounce back from major roadblocks.

For my sleep-challenged partner, Justin, that one thing is making sure that he dims the lights in the apartment at least an hour before getting in bed. Keeping the lights down and the candles lit sets him up for a better night’s sleep, which means every aspect of the next day gets easier.

For my mother, that one thing is keeping the house clean. But instead of doing a big clean up once a week and then getting irritated as the week moves on and the mess piles up, she commits to tidying up two things every time she walks in a room. The result? The house is always well kept — in no time at all.

What is one thing in your life, when done right every time, that makes your day easier and lighter? Find it. Focus on it. Do it right. Every time.


How to Be Great? Just Be Good, Repeatably
How to Be Great? Just Be Good, Repeatablyblog.stephsmith.io

To create something great, we are told to take baby steps, put one foot in front of other, and take it one day at a time. We’ve heard these platitudes our entire life, but in the moment it can be hard to see how small changes add up to something bigger. We want to be great, now. In this piece, Steph Smith shows us that greatness is a myth. To be great, she argues, just be good enough…over and over and over again.


Jim Collins – Concepts – The Flywheel Effect

Jim Collins is a researcher focused on business management and sustainability. This excerpt, from his book Good to Great, highlights “the flywheel effect,” which states that in any great creation, there is no single defining action that leads to success. Instead, it is about making relentless, incremental progress until the flywheel gains enough momentum to turn on its own.


The secret to giving a compliment that makes people glow |
The secret to giving a compliment that makes people glow |ideas.ted.com

Struggling to find that one thing to do right each day? Try giving one person per day a heartfelt compliment. Educator and TEDx speaker, Cheryl Ferguson, shares how.

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

Yesterday, I was listening to a podcast with renowned couple’s therapist Esther Perel. She was talking about how couples were coping with the pandemic and said, “You can’t be feeling great in this moment. You can feel relieved. You can feel thankful. You can feel appreciative for what you have. You can feel humble. You can feel thankful to things, but you can’t feel great in this moment, because if you’re feeling great in this moment, you’re detached, you’re disconnected.”

The episode was recorded sometime in late March/early April, about three weeks into lockdown. Had I listened to it at the time, I likely would have agreed. How could someone feel great when the world was but an ominous shell of itself, with an air of fear and uncertainty thick enough to choke even the healthiest of lungs?

But in listening to Perel’s comment now, three months later, my thoughts on the matter are different. Why can’t we strive to feel great in this moment? And why are we encouraged to exchange our own well-being in order to stay plugged in to global suffering?

Because it’s important to stay informed. Because ignorance is dangerous. Because a good person cares about other people. Because it’s selfish to look out for number one. Because the world doesn’t revolve around you. Because people are dying. Because. Because. Because.

Happiness is a most rebellious act. To be happy, especially when others are not, is to break an unspoken human rule that equates thriving with selfishness. The Australians call this Tall Poppy Syndrome, referring to the expectation that a field of poppies should grow together. If one grows too tall, it needs to be cut down. In human terms, this means we celebrate the downfall of high achievers and shun those with enviable qualities. Poppies that stand out for doing well don’t fare much better than those that stand out for doing poorly.

But I feel guilty for being happy when so many people are hurting.

To tear down others for perceived happiness is a fundamental misunderstanding of happiness in the first place. It assumes that happy is a destination rather than a state of existence, and that choosing personal happiness is a callous blow to collective suffering. It is the guilt, not happiness, that emerges as the most selfish act. Guilt is what happens when we take someone else’s pain and make it about ourselves. It does nothing subtract pain, and instead doubles its existence while taking focus away from the issue at hand.

Think about it. How do you feel after a day when you’ve been wracked by guilt or have spent too many hours following the latest on infection rates or political incompetence or unrest? Are you left with the emotional capacity to answer the phone when a distressed friend wants to talk? How do you respond when your kid knocks over an heirloom and shatters it on the floor? What vice to you choose to numb the pain you just witnessed? How does any of this help you and the people around you?

But by pushing guilt aside and allowing ourselves to learn happiness—or strive for greatness—even in a time of anguish, we actually expand our capacity to help others who are suffering. We are able to more freely move between contentment and action, without getting tangled up in a collective web of pain.

So grow tall, break the rules, rebel with happiness. The world may not understand you, but now more than ever, it needs you.


Viktor Frankl on the Human Search for Meaning
Viktor Frankl on the Human Search for Meaning www.brainpickings.org

The Australian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor said of his experience in Auschwitz: “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.”


Consciousness Isn’t Self-Centered - Issue 82: Panpsychism - Nautilus
Consciousness Isn’t Self-Centered – Issue 82: Panpsychism – Nautilusnautil.us

Humanity has convinced itself that consciousness is an inherently human trait. But what if it isn’t? This is a fascinating read that focuses on the scientific search to determine all things—plants, stones, a fork—have consciousness.


Dealing with the guilt of privilege
Dealing with the guilt of privilegewww.rappler.com

I love the last line from this excerpt:

“The guilt that many have begun experiencing in this pandemic may be attributed to increased self-awareness of their advantaged position. As with any emotion, the feeling of guilt is valid and normal in light of a realization like this, but it is just as important to realize that being privileged, in itself, is not wrong. Privilege is often something that is given, not something that is chosen. However, what can be chosen is what to do with privilege.”

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