Thursday, May 9, 2013

"Spontaneous Happiness" by Andrew Weil, MD

   For any of you that fall into the black funks -- what I call my dips into depression -- like I do, "Spontaneous Happiness" is a godsend. In fact, the book is as much about fighting off depression as it is about courting happiness. I will admit at times it's a tough read, with lots of psychological lingo, and I've been plowing away for several weeks to finish it, but the results I'm getting in feeling less funk and more happy make the effort well worthwhile.
   First, let me say that none of the information in this book is mind-blowing new stuff and some of it is just common sense. But Dr. Weil doesn't take old concepts and simply repackage them with cutesy names, like "Harvesting Your Happiness Habits." I hate books that do that. What he does do is boil down tons of research on what makes people happy and what makes them depressed, puts it in terms average folk can relate to (for the most part), and then gives a comprehensive approach to finding more of your own "spontaneous" (meaning coming from within yourself rather than due to some external cause) happiness, and without gimmicks or prescriptions.*
   Second, even though I knew a lot of this information, I learned a lot too. For instance, I had no idea that antihistamines can trigger depression. When my last black funk started, I had been taking double doses of my allergy medication all day long because Missouri has been having a hellacious allergy season already. One of the scariest parts of feeling depression come on for me was not knowing what triggered it. That left me feeling helpless. I cannot stop taking my allergy meds, unless I want asthmatic bronchitis again -- no thanks! -- but at least I am more aware of how my meds are affecting my mood and trying to take the least amount that offers relief. Dr. Weil also offers tips about a lot of other meds, prescription and over-the-counter, that can cause depression and/or anxiety. Coffee is another depressed mood trigger for some people, from the highs and lows caffeine brings. I love coffee, would sip it all day long to keep me "up," and didn't think it affected me at all. But since I've cut back or switched to tea in the morning, I have been more mellow and focused, not so anxious and negative. I also learned about a supplement called SAMe, that can be a mood enhancer like St. John's Wort. I can't take St. John's Wort because of contraindications when taking birth control pills -- and believe me, nothing would make me more depressed than getting pregnant at my age, which I'll just say is over 45, so I'm not quitting my pills -- so knowing SAMe is an alternative is good news in case I have a black funk attack I just can't shake.
   "Spontaneous Happiness" also gave me a much needed refresher on doing simple things I know are good for me but I've forgotten about. Or got too lazy to do, more likely. So I've started meditating again, seeking out nature more (when the pollen isn't attacking me), intentionally looking for beauty in my world, and trying to smile even if I don't feel like it. He cites a study where subjects that smiled actually saw more humor in the activity they were made to do than the people who made a neutral or frowning face. I believe it -- when I smile, my mind feels less troubled (and a bonus, my wrinkles show less!). Plus people are a heck of a lot nicer to me when I smile at them, which doesn't suck since I work in public service and encounter a lot of cranky people. I'm also picking a mantra every day before work, something like "breeze" or "aloha" that's fun to say. Then when I start getting stressed and my "negative Nellie" mind starts chattering that I hate my job or want to kill someone (figuratively speaking, of course), I repeat my mantra until I settle down. And it works!
   There's a ton more information in the book, everything from using gratitude to the healing effects of light therapy, everything from the benefits of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to herbal remedies. Plus he offers "An 8-Week Program for Optimum Emotional Well-Being" and appendices with specific details on diet and lifestyle changes to make a getting-happier plan easier to manage.
   "Spontaneous Happiness" has made a difference for me. I'm not deluded to think I'll never have another black funk, but now I've got more options than staying in bed and ignoring the world to relieve it. Give it a read. Maybe it will help you as well.  

(* Dr. Weil does recommend psychiatric help, psychotherapy, and medication for people with major depression.)