It’s a classic, a 1980 classic. Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David Burns has come up a few times as a reference over the years. Some have described it as cognitive behavioral therapy for the masses. Despite being easy to read, it’s long at 700 pages long. However, it’s packed with good information that can help people find a way to accept and process their problems.
My Problems Are Real
At the heart of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the idea that the drivers for many people are the way they think about their problems. That is that the is problem – not whatever they’re thinking about. Some who come to the precipice of CBT declare that their problems aren’t their thoughts. Those are fine. Their problems are real. It’s hard to argue that someone who is unemployed without any prospects, homeless, and hungry doesn’t have real problems. There are real problems. However, many of the problems we face aren’t those sorts of problems. The kinds of problems most of us lament are how much we like our job – or whether we have a stable romantic relationship. They’re concerns to be sure, but they are the kinds of things where our perception really matters.
Pick your favorite author. In Paradise Lost, Milton said, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” Shakespeare, in Hamlet (Act 2, Scene 2), said, “for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Mark Twain said, “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, most of which never happened.” In short, what we think about life and our circumstances is of critical importance.
There’s no doubt that depression is a problem. It’s incredibly common. (See The Noonday Demon.) It’s also implicated for suicide risk. (See Suicide Over the Life Cycle.) Certainly, there are pharmaceuticals for depression – any many people are on them – but, as Warning: Psychiatry May Be Hazardous to Your Health explains, they’re not without risks. Other strategies, like CBT, may not seem like much, but the impact of CBT is much longer lasting than medications, which need to be continued to see the effects.
Burns argues that people with depression are suffering from a problem with processing the signals that are coming to them. He makes the analogy of a radio that isn’t tuned well and is picking up static. (This is unfortunate, because it both dates the reference and limits the audience, since too few people today have ever listened to an analog radio that’s slightly out of tune.) However, Burns’ analogy has a different meaning that people today struggle with.
The short version is they spend too much time listening to negative thoughts and not enough time focusing on the positive things that are happening in their world. In Hardwiring Happiness, Rick Hanson has a methodology for changing how much time we think about positive versus negative thoughts. You need that, because once you get sucked into the depression vortex, it starts minimizing your desire to listen to the positive and literally biases you towards thinking more things are negative. (See Capture.)
It starts with the belief that you can read minds. You believe you know what others are thinking – about you. (See Mindreading for the reality of our abilities.) Added to this is the belief that you’re a fortune teller. You can foresee the future – a future of misery for you. It extends into the belief that if you feel it, it must be true. As Lisa Feldman Barrett argues in How Emotions Are Made, we don’t always put the pieces of emotion together well. From a neurological standpoint, the difference between thought and emotion is indistinguishable. Our emotions are based on our thoughts (cognitions). (See Emotion and Adaptation for more.) In short, our emotions aren’t credible witnesses to what is really happening.
We somehow slip into the magical thinking of a child who fears that, because they thought something should happen, their thoughts were somehow made manifest in reality. There’s a Twilight Zone episode with this theme from decades ago. It’s been a common belief following a loss. A parent is killed in an accident, and the child believes that it’s because they were angry and thought that they’d be better off without the parent. It, too often, can make grief malignant.
As adults, we recognize that our thoughts and our emotions don’t have the power to transform reality. This is painfully obvious as you watch a mourning mother or father beside the coffin of their child. Both are unified in their strong desire – even wish – that their child will live again, but the most powerful of emotions and desires cannot change the reality of the situation.
A common misconception and perspective is that you’re only as good as what you can do for others. Instead of being an heir to the inherent value of human life, you’re somehow excluded and must earn your worthiness by your works. This is, of course, false. Every human life is valuable, and this remains true for all humans – regardless of the things that they do.
The lack of worth is sometimes used as a justification for suffering. You don’t deserve suffering. It’s not some karmic consequence for your lack of value. It happens. Life isn’t fair. Good people suffer. However, there’s no need for you to inflict additional suffering on yourself by taking the suffering on.
A different way to think about this is what a beloved friend might say about you and to you in your suffering. Instead of “you deserve it,” you’re likely to hear that they’re sorry, you’ll get through it, and they’ll be here to help.
Believe in Yourself
Your beloved friend believes in you – and you should, too. We become burned out (see Extinguish Burnout) and hopeless (see The Psychology of Hope) when we can’t believe in ourselves or our capacity to get things done. We forget that we’ve made it to this point in our lives. We’ve encountered and conquered innumerable challenges. We may have the scars to prove it but we’re also here.
Too often, we believe that “anyone could have done it” or “it wasn’t that special.” The problem with this thinking is that it minimizes what we have accomplished and deprives us of the awareness that we can accomplish good work. But maybe you’ll think that you are “just average.”
The Horrors of Being Average
We dream of being famous or a hero. Whether it was being an astronaut or a firefighter or a baseball player, our childhoods are filled with dreams of what we can be. Society and our parents reinforce the message that we can be whoever we want to be. We can, with hard work and determination, accomplish anything. Part of that is the protestant work ethic – and it doesn’t always work out. (See The Black Swan.) Part of it that is the inherent desire to be something special. It’s something that Chuck Underwood, in America’s Generations, explains that many – particularly Generation X – have lost.
More striking to me in my reading is the story of Ralph told in Work Redesign. Ralph, after pushing against the system and getting struck down, decided to shut down and stop trying. He resigned himself to being a part of the system rather than apart from the system. The decision was irreversible. Even when given new opportunities to be special and lead, he resisted. He’d succumbed to the horrors of being average – but that was better than the idea that he could have succeeded but gave up too early.
The truth is that all of us are special in some way, and it may or may not be rewarded by others. In a town 30 miles away, there is a man who is enamored by trains. He lives for the model trains he built – and he built a business from it. If you don’t live close or if you’re not into model trains, you’d never know that one of the largest model train businesses in the US is run from a little nondescript store in Atlanta, IN. To some, he’s amazing – but for most, he’s average in his own way, and that’s okay.
Love Not Required
For some to be happy, they must have someone with whom they’re in a romantic loving relationship. It’s the stuff of fairytales. If you want to be happy, you have to pair off and live happily ever after. However, as Anatomy of Love points out, the story is more complicated than the fairytales would have you believe. There’s even room for the idea that you don’t need a romantic relationship to be happy. It’s possible that you can be happy just as you are.