Why I am working on becoming a happier person

We are use to the idea of training our physical bodies to become physically fit. There are distinct things we can do to become a stronger and healthier person- eating the right foods, exercising regularly and consistently are the obvious things that come to mind. By applying the Law of Process I can make huge changes to my physical health. That is certainly well established and uncontroversial. But can I actually train myself to be an overall happier person? Shawn Achor, a teacher of positive psychology at Harvard would give an emphatic yes. If you have not yet seen this entertaining 12 minute video (introduced in the last post) I would encourage you to do so.

In all my training to become a psychiatrist I do not recall a single lecture or class on dealing with the positive in life rather than the negative. To illustrate this, according to Martin Seligman between 1967 to 2000 there were the following number of psychological abstracts on the following subjects:

What do you think makes you happy?

The 12 minute video below is a talk given by Sean Achor, who is an American educator, author and speaker. It is both entertaining and funny while at the same time challenges our assumptions as to what are the factors that can truly make us happy.

One of Achor’s main points is the importance of mindset to increasing our potential for happiness, productivity, creativity and energy. This flies in the face of  much of formal education which seeks to focus on what is called “the cult of the average”. 

What is the most complex object in the universe?

You can make a pretty strong case for saying that the human brain is the most complex object in the known universe. 

Human brain imageIt contains 100 billion nerve cells (called neurones). Each of these neurones contains a vast electrochemical complex and powerful micro-data-processing system. As complex as each cell is it would fit on the head of a pin!

In the last 150 days of intra-uterine life, the brain is apparently developing neurones at the rate of 580,000 a minute! Each neurone connects to another neurone through anywhere between 1,000 to 10,000 synapses.

New brain connections are created every time you form a memory.

You can even make a case for saying that the number of potential  inter-neuronal connections in one human brain is significantly  more than the number of atoms in the known universe (see Wonder Filled Bold Humility part 2).

More than 650 people attempted to set a new Guinness world record on 22 February 2014 when they created the largest image of a brain made out of people in Liverpool’s University Square.

The participants donned ponchos of different colours to represent parts of the brain (red for the frontal lobe, blue for the parietal lobe, orange for the occipital lobe, green for the temporal lobe, yellow for the cerebellum, purple for the brainstem and spinal cord). The record attempt was led by Tom Solomon, head of Liverpool University’s Institute of Infection and Global Health, in aid of World Encephalitis Day.

Here are some interesting facts about your brain:

9 reasons why you could be feeling down. Particularly #4

We all have times when we feel down or deflated.

depressed-older-ladyFor a clinical diagnosis of depression, doctors consider nine specific symptoms. Major depression is diagnosed from persistent low mood and loss of interest or pleasure in usual activities along with at least four of the other symptoms for at least two weeks. (See Is The Rate of Depression Actually Increasing or Not?)

But whether depression is classified as major, moderate or minor, as far as the individual is concerned its all major. Rather like all minor surgery if it is happening to you personally then it is major surgery! (See the 4 minute video I Had A Black Dog).

A helpful way to look at the forms and varieties of  low mood is as a spectrum of causes that may or may not be inter-related to each other.

  1. It can be  a symptom of something else- for example a side effect of a serious illness or a minor illness like the flu.
  2. It can be a reaction to life events like a relationship breakdown, a sudden bereavement or losing a job.
  3. It can also be an illness in its own right when there is a biochemical imbalance in the brain. This is the one that doctors have tended to focus the most on and includes conditions like bipolar affective disorder or manic depression.

In terms of causes, it is important to appreciate that we are holistic beings with a body, mind and spirit aspects that inter-relate with each other.

Could your lifestyle be getting you down? Part 2

It was the early 1990s. I was just starting as a trainee psychiatrist. She was one of the first patients with depression who I was responsible for. At the time I was a junior doctor on a six month rotation getting experience in a busy outpatient clinic. I had about 20 minutes to evaluate how she was doing, review her diagnosis and decide on treatment options. But this particular lady  just did not seem to be getting better in spite of all the different medications and therapies that were being tried.

depressed-older-ladyI remember going through her history and treatments feeling something was not quite right. I must have been about the fourth or fifth doctor she had seen in the previous two years. I finally had to say to her, ‘Is there something that we are not aware of or are missing?’

Then she dropped the bombshell.


Could your lifestyle be what is getting you down?

Stephen Ilardi is an Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Kansas. The 20 minute video below presents an interesting perspective on depression. The main emphasis is on how our modern sedentary lifestyle is incompatible with good mental health.

For what might appear to be a negative subject it is actually very enlightening and even uplifting!

Professor Illardi’s video presents a strong case for re-evaluating how we manage our lives. In particular I will highlight the following observations:

What are the forms of Major Depressive Disorder?

Major Depressive Disorder is a crippling condition.

In the severest form, as well as a greater intensity of the symptoms mentioned in the classification system called the DSM  (see Is The Rate of Depression Actually Increasing or Not?), there can also be what are called psychotic symptoms in the form of delusions and hallucinations.

photo copy

A delusion is a firmly held fixed belief that is out of keeping with the person’s social and cultural background. It is held with strong conviction despite evidence to the contrary. Types of delusions that are present can relate to feelings of worthlessness, guilt or persecution. So called delusions of reference are that insignificant remarks, events, or objects in one’s environment have personal meaning or significance.

A hallucination is a perception in the absence of an external stimulus that at the same time has the quality of a real perception. Hallucinations can manifest in many forms. Examples include voices when no one is present or seeing things that are not actually there.

It is important to mention that psychotic symptoms are not always a feature of mental illness and can be present at the time of waking up or going to sleep, as well as when very tired.

It can be helpful to distinguish between 4 forms of MDD:

“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. Security does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than exposure.”
~ Helen Keller
US blind & deaf educator (1880 – 1968)

Rick Warren and the secret anguish of Major Depressive Disorder

Rick Warren is the founding pastor of one of the largest churches in the United States with an attendance of approximately 20,000 every week. He is also the author of The Purpose Driven Life book which has sold over 30 million copies. In 2005 Time magazine named him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. In 2006 Newsweek called him “One of the 15 People who make America Great.” For someone with such outer success he has attracted both great appreciation and great antagonism.

However, Rick and his wife Kay have for many years carried a heavy burden. They have been through an experience no parent should every go through. On 5 April 2013 their younger son Matthew committed suicide after a long battle with Major Depressive Disorder.

The short 4 minute video below illustrates something of the deep pain and anguish they have had to carry for several years as well as the extreme emotion of coming to terms with Matthew’s death.

This is the letter that Rick and Kay Warren wrote to their congregation at Saddleback Church immediately after Matthew’s death: