As of April, l975, I had been severely depressed almost every day for thirteen years--which is quite unusual. Then I braced myself for one last attempt to get rid of the depression before giving up the struggle against it. In the process, I discovered the psychological mechanism that is the proximate cause of sadness and depression. That discovery enabled me to take advantage of a couple of insights about myself. Within two weeks I had banished my depression.
Since April, l975, until now (September, 1990) I have been glad to be alive, and I have taken pleasure in my days. I have occasionally even been ecstatic, skipping and leaping from joy, especially in the early years when relief of the pain of depression was fresh. Though I must still fight off depression, I have not lost more than a minor skirmish since then, and I believe that--if my family and community stay safe from catastrophe--I have beaten depression for life. When I wrote the first draft of this article in 1978 (I then put it away to be sure that my cure was not just temporary) I wrote that "Even if I am wrong and eventually I suffer a permanent relapse, these three years of happiness and freedom from depression would leave me grateful for my good fortune." The good fortune continues, and I am more grateful than ever.
When I say that I was depressed for thirteen years, I mean that except for some of the hours when I was working or playing sports or making love, I was almost continuously conscious of being miserable, and I almost continuously reflected on my worthlessness. I wished for death, and I refused to kill myself solely because I believed that my children needed me, just as all children need a father. Endless hours every day I reviewed my faults and failures, which made me writhe in pain. To dramatize the matter: As I look back now, I'd rather have a tooth pulled, and have the operation bungled, or have the worst possible case of flu, in comparison to re-living any one of those days feeling as I did then.
By "depression," psychiatrists and psychologists mean a state of mind in which you are 1) sad or "blue", and 2) have a low regard for yourself. This article explains the mechanism that makes a person sad. After you understand it you can alter the mechanism in a variety of ways that can alleviate sadness and depression. The mechanism does not by itself produce or explain low self-regard. But if you manipulate the mechanism properly you will not be pre-occupied and ravaged by low self-regard. Though this mechanism has been noted by others, its explanation had not been developed systematically and scientifically. The key elements have now been confirmed in experimental studies, however. And leading psychiatrists and psychologists agree that this is a sound way to deal with depression.
This is the mechanism that causes the sadness in depression: when-ever you think about yourself in an evaluative way--which most of us do frequently throughout the day-- your thought takes the form of a comparison between the state you think you are in, and some other hypothetical "benchmark" state of affairs. The benchmark state may be the state you think you ought to be in, the state you formerly were in, the state you expected or hoped to be in, or the state you aspired to achieve. The comparison will make you feel sad if the state you think you are in is less positive than the state you compare yourself to. Consider this formula:
Mood=Perceived state of oneself Hypothetical benchmark state
If the numerator in the Mood Ratio is high relative to the denominator--if the comparison is positive--you feel pleasure. If the numerator in the Mood Ratio is low relative to the denominator--that is, if the comparison is negative--you feel pain.1 And if you also feel helpless to change the situation or your thoughts, you will then feel sad. A continuation of this state of sadness hardens into depression.
The comparison may be with respect to many possible personal characteristics-- occupational success, personal relationships, health, and morality, for a few examples. You may compare yourself on several different characteristics from time to time. As long as the bulk of your self-comparison thoughts are negative over a sustained period of time, and you continue to feel helpless to change your situation, you will be depressed.
The most convincing proof that sadness is caused by the unfavorable comparison of actual and counterfactual situations is your own introspections. Check and you will observe negative self-comparisons prominent in your thoughts when you are sad--whether the sadness is part of a general depression or not. And there is now a good-sized body of technical studies showing that what are commonly called "negative thoughts" accompany depression and are unusually common among people who have a propensity for depression.
Only this analysis makes sense of such exceptional situations as the person who is poor in the world's goods but nevertheless is happy, and the person who "has everything" but is miserable; not only their actual situations affect their feelings, but also the benchmark comparisons they set up for themselves.
The sense of loss--which often is associated with the onset of depression--also is a negative comparison, a comparison between the way things were and the way they are now. A person who never had a fortune does not experience the loss of a fortune in a stock market crash, and does not suffer grief there from.
Before we discuss how you can manipulate the Mood Ratio in order to remove depression, let us compare this view of depression with the conventional psychological views of depression.
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