Don’t Worry, Be Happy!

With all due respect to Bobby MeFerrin’s hit song, somethimes it just isn’t that easy.

I got to thinking on this the other day when I saw a news artcile about a class that helped to re-train people to “think happy” to overcome depression (sadly, I can’t find it again to provide a link). Like any other news article, you had to take it with a grain of salt: the journalist, of course, was not an expert on the topic, and could only report the most superficial aspects of the class; the people interviewed were the ones who benefitted most from the “treatment;” and the subject itself is hugely complex … no one who knows anything at all about depression would be fooled into thinking this would be any kind of breakthrough for everyone that suffered from it. But it’s good that some find it helpful. At least that many can find some relief.

However, I also find it somewhat discouraging. By and large, people just do not understand depression and the peole who suffer from it. Here is a disturbing, and very sad link from a depressed young man that sums it up rather well. His family doesn’t understand, and he feels trapped and lost. I don’t think a “happy class” would help him.

One of the causes of depression (and I emphasize, just one of them), is what the medical community describes as a cognitive disorder. To put it in simplified laymans terms, it’s not being able to think straight about certain things. I believe that everyone on the planet suffers from one degree of cognitive disorder or another. It stems from the way the brain learns things: cause and effect create a pattern, and you remember it. If it repeats enough, your mind and your psyche treat it as established fact. But we don’t always learn things that are completely reflective of reality.

A relatively benign example of this is the way some sportsman get attached to specific clothing, like their lucky socks. The guy wears this pair of socks, and he wins his race, or his game; he doesn’t wear them next time, and he loses. Next time, he happens to be wearing them, and he wins again. On a lark, he wears them next time, and wins. Now, the pattern is set: if he wears his lucky socks, he’s going to win. It becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy in that the very act of putting on those socks bolsters his confidence and makes him feel better about his chances to win. It gives him that extra kick that often is the difference between winning and losing. If it goes on, he may truly come to believe it is the socks themselves causing the win. I call that a benign example, because I don’t believe most atheletes with a “lucky” article of clothing really think it’s the clothing; it’s just something to laugh about. But some really do believe it, and that can get very dangerous for their mental health. It’s patently, demonstrably false. Even the times they lose while wearing the item get explained away; they are no longer entirely sane regarding their lucky item.

A far less benign example is paranoia. Something bad happens to a person, and they discover (or perhaps it was obvious all along) that a “friend” caused it deliberately and maliciously. Let’s say this same person grew up in an abusive home, and such betrayals are part of the warp and weft of his character. He may have escaped becoming paranoid if he grew older and found some people that he could genuinely trust, but it didn’t happen. Now, every time he even thinks there is a possibilty of something bad coming down, he immediately starts looking for the person who is causing his trouble. A co-worker he admires neglects to say hello when passing him in the hall: the other may have been preoccupied, or mentally engaged in any number of innocent distractions, but our subject can only think, “uh-oh, I better watch out for so-and-so … he’s plotting something against me.” It’s the pattern his mind set, and it doesn’t help a bit that he was justified in forming the pattern in the first place. Betrayals did happen. But not every suspicious act constitutes such a betrayal, nor is every unpleasant event spring from one. But the paranoid is no longer capable of considering that, not really.

This ties into depression when a person develops an entire set of cognitive disorders that make the suffered feel trapped and hopeless. They might think, “I’m fat, and no one likes me” (no consideration for the fact that quite a few fat people have friends and loves all the same). They may think, “Mom always said I was worthless, and now I lost my job. I guess she was right.” Pehaps they don’t even make the connection anymore to what Mom said … they believe themselves the are worthless, and the loss of a job proves it. There could be any number of reasons they lost that job that have nothing to do with their worth; it may be that they really didn’t measure up to performing the way they needed to … but eiether way, it has no bearing on their actual worth as a person, it just seems that way to them. And nothing they do can break them of the mental habit of looking at themselves this way, so they become depressed.

Which leads me to the whole point of this getting-rather-long entry. Can training on being positive and thinking “happy” help someone stuck in that kind of a rut? Well, it depends on how deep they are in it, and just how many things in their life they are not seeing straight. Some like D. Karrow clearly can be helped, and was helped. But what if an extended depression has actually altered your brain chemistry? Or there is a physilogical factor (like post-partum depression)? Again, it varies on the case and the individual, but there is a good chance that what worked for one person may not work for the next. And, the worst of scenarios, what if the disorder has become so severe, they are incapable of seeing any sort of reason in the matter? What if our paranoid is so paranoid, he is truly convinced that every person that reaches out to help him is reaching out to strike at him in some way? That the “happy class” is really just a ploy to seperate him from his money? How do you deal with that?

There is only one way out: the sufferer has to realize they can’t “see straight” and they have to get help. They need to get to the place where they recognize they must have an outside view of their own lives, or they are never, every going to crawl out of the morass their mind has dropped them in. Sadly, a great many people never get there. Some remain functional, many do not. And some, like my old friends, die of it.

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2 Responses to Don’t Worry, Be Happy!

  1. Rob says:

    TypeKey makes me grouchy, but I’ll register to leave a comment since apparently you don’t want email.
    I’ve been thinking in the last few months about this and wonder your opinion… I’m a Christian and believe (because I’ve experienced it myself) God can, will and does “touch our hearts” and give us (through his Spirit) fruits like peace patience etc… but that doesn’t seem to address congitive disorders, does it?
    Personally I haven’t experienced much of the transformation Paul speaks of in Romans 12:2 (the closest verse I can find to the topic at hand). I’d like my thinking straightened out (I’m just fine but could be better) and yeah… have been thinking about needing to trust man versus God.
    Nice blog post!

  2. DaveH says:

    I only use Typekey to keep the spam down to a dull roar. As it is, the blog software deletes 1000’s (no exaggeration) of trash spams in the form of trackbacks a week; I can’t imagine how bad it would be with open comments!
    Since you asked my opinion, I’ll give it strictly on an opinion basis, since I hardly consider myself an expert. I think the Bible verse you are looking for is in I Corinthians 10:5, specifically the part that says, “bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (the rest of the verse is good too). How can you do that if your mind has been falsely trained by emotional experiences? And how can you experience spiritual transformation if your mind is not seeing the things that promote it clearly?
    This is a dangerous and slippery ground to try to cross, because historically Christians (true ones and otherwise) have been right in the forefront of those causing cognitive disorders with false and distorted teachings. One of the surest ways to develop distorted teachings is to isolate yourself … which is also one of the easiest ways to nurture a cognitive disorder. Your best defense is to discuss how you view things with people of like faith who you trust, and hopefully you can all help each other to sort out the way you view your lives and to understand your faith.

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