Depression, digging out, and pursuing happiness

"Whatever the Weather" by monettenriquez via Flickr

First: Defining “feeling depressed” vs. “depression”

This is a sensitive topic, and for a number of reasons, I nearly didn’t publish this post. But I feel like it’s an important subject, so I’m going to proceed, albeit with a couple of caveats.

I define “feeling depressed” as having feelings of sadness or general negativity for a short time. Feeling depressed is a completely natural experience when it follows major events of stress or loss. Having depression generally means you have been experiencing these symptoms for longer than two weeks, and they’re showing no signs of improving. For this article, I’m going to hand-wave a bit and say “depression” to refer to both, short of diagnosed, clinical depression.

If you know or believe you are struggling with clinical depression, do not pass go, declare TL;DR on this post and seek out a professional (or a loved one who’s smart enough to tell you to seek out a professional).

The unspoken epidemic

Depression is a rarely-discussed topic, except among close friends, behind closed doors. Which is sad, because it seems to affect a very large cross-section of developers I’ve talked with, and being able to talk about depression is an important step in dealing with it.

Recently, I’ve made a series of life-changing decisions, the unintended consequences of which triggered a bout of depression that I’ve struggled with over the last few weeks.

And depression is a son of a bitch. It makes things that I can normally deal with easily look impossible. It robs me of the will to do things that make me happy. I feel as if I can’t talk to anyone about it: not my friends, or even my wife, as none of them deserve to be burdened with my problems.

I have felt the effects of true, physiological depression before, the kind that makes you understand why people choose to end their lives. This episode was nowhere near that in severity, but it’d been getting steadily worse for long enough to worry me (and those who care about me).

The “coping bucket”

A friend suggested this metaphor: Everyone has a “coping bucket”, filled with the all-important stuff you use to cope with difficulties. Each time you deal with something difficult, you draw from that bucket. Rest, joy, laughter, etc. help fill the bucket, bit by bit. But when it’s drained, there are no reserves to handle tough situations, and reaching the bottom can be pretty dire. The end of your reserves can feel like the end of the world.

Pessimism can lead to depression

About a year ago, a close friend recommended the book Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman. I think it’s an important book and you should immediately go buy it, but the gist is that pessimistic thoughts are a precursor to depression.

When something bad happens, pessimistic thoughts tell you:

It’s personal: It’s your fault, so take some responsibility.

It’s pervasive: It affects all areas of your life. It must indicate a deeper problem.

It’s permanent: The bad thing lasts forever. There’s nothing you can do about it.

The problem is that in much of modern society, taking credit for good things in your life is considered egotistical (when it is actually optimism) and taking “responsibility” for limitations is considered humility (when it is often pessimism).

So the person who shoulders responsibility for flaws and shrugs off praise is deeply pessimistic, and at extremely high risk for depression. For me and a lot of other developers I know, that may sound familiar.

So when things do go wrong, it’s important to take a minute to stop and look for reasons it’s not personal, pervasive, or permanent.

Examine the environment: It’s not personal

This most recent bout came immediately after I’d drastically changed my environment, and I’d pretty carefully constructed my old one to optimize for happiness. Now, I had brand-new stressors and triggers, but none of the support structure I’d previously had to cope with them.

But instead of realizing this, I immediately internalized – personalized – these feelings. I was sure that these feelings were my own fault, and this line of thinking only served to deepen my depression. But as soon as I realized that external factors were most likely wreaking havoc on my emotional state, I was able to de-personalize the way I was feeling. For me, de-personalizing is the moment I stopped spiraling down and realized there was probably a way out.

Checking environmental factors and changing them is step 1. When you first realize that you’re feeling depressed, a change in scenery is highly recommended. Go spend some time with loved ones. Visit someplace that makes you feel calm. Talk to some friends. This buys time and distance to start thinking long-term.

Changing Actions: Refilling the bucket

After reflecting a bit, I decided to look broadly at the areas of my life and break down the things that make me happy. These are not ideals or even values, they’re observations. They’re leading indicators of my personal happiness, things that tend to precede happy periods of my life.

  • Going on dates with my wife
  • Reading to my kiddo
  • Chatting or going to lunch with my friends
  • Thinking about people I’m grateful for
  • Making something and sharing it
  • Pair programming
  • Writing about things that feel important to me
  • Taking my family to sporting events
  • Going for walks with someone (or by myself)
  • Going to developer conferences and meetups
  • Helping people understand their intrinsic capabilities
  • Educating myself through books & courses
  • Running outdoors
  • Taking time off of work to do things with my family
  • Making people laugh
  • Talking with loved ones
  • Fearing something and then doing it anyway

The thread running through these is that they help reset my perspective. It’s easy to become myopic when confronted with one’s daily battles. Doing the things above help me decouple my sense of self-worth from the wins and losses of daily life.

Avoiding “false positives”

There are some things that, while not necessarily bad, are easy choices that leave little room for the things in the previous list.

  • Staying up late to catch up on my Instapaper or Twitter backlog
  • Watching very good television (The West Wing is my current addiction)
  • Staying late at work to knock out one more solution or have one last conversation
  • Eating whatever I want
  • Worrying about and analyzing the behavior of others
  • Staying up on all the latest news
  • Needing to be “the best” at everything I try
  • Indulging that inertia-based feeling of “I’d rather not, at least not right now”
  • Taking the “safe” route when confronted with risk

I’ll often do the things on the second list when I’m depressed. For others, their second list may include drinking or other activities that act as a temporary distraction from problems. These things seem in the moment like they’ll help you refill the bucket, but often, they actually drain it, with interest.

Reserving judgment: it’s not pervasive

But I have to be careful: beating myself up for dropping the ball and trading away so much of the important stuff is a form of “pervasive” pessimism: the idea that I’m messing up in some areas, so I must not be capable of doing anything right.

The truth is, I’m doing great at some of them, and I’m letting others slip. In order to make this non-pervasive, I had to give myself permission to fail in some areas (or even most areas) without judging myself, and just commit to making small, incremental improvements.

Digging out: it’s not permanent

I’m largely on the other side of this most recent bout. Many of the difficult situations remain, but much of my ability to deal with them has returned. It wasn’t permanent, even though it felt like it might be.

And to me, that’s the biggest problem with depression: is that it feels permanent, and it’s enormously tempting to assume that it is indeed permanent and to just give yourself over to utter despair. I describe it as feeling like I’m stuck at the bottom of a deep well, the light’s so far away you can barely see it, and there’s little hope of climbing out.

But perhaps the most important thing is to realize that this “stuck” feeling is not permanent, that it’s not as deep as you think, and the worst will pass and you’ll again have the strength to climb out.

Growing the bucket

Your actions can refill your “coping bucket”, but changing your thinking can actually grow the size of the bucket.

So to start, I’m going to add more of the things that make me happy to my schedule (and defend it vigoriously), but I’m also going to try to be aware of and re-examine pessimistic thinking.

And most importantly, I’m going to lean on friends and loved ones. It’s because of the advice of one friend in particular that I was able to see a light at the top of this particular well, and I’m enormously grateful.

Again, I need to qualify this with the fact that I am not a psychologist, and that if it’s been a few weeks or longer, you ought to seek out the help of someone who does this professionally. These are just my experiences. I’ve had luck with this strategy so far, and I will keep you posted on how it works out for me long-term.