I have experienced many levels of depression: Dysthymia, Major Depressive Disorder, mild, and suicidal. I almost died from my last suicide attempt 20 years ago. But for most years since then I have been happy. And I achieved this by taking many small steps.
Today I use over 50 techniques that reduce depression, increase happiness or both. (Negative and positive emotions are controlled by two different systems.)
This may sound overwhelming, but it isn’t. I started using these techniques over years, not at once, and each is quite small.
For example, one thing I have done almost every day for the last 33 years is write down the good things in my life. This is amazing considering I’m easily bored! But I enjoy it and it makes me feel better.
It started in 1983 when I told my psychologist my worst habit was focusing on the negatives – in me, my life, my past, and potential future. She suggested writing down the positives, so I would notice and remember them. This small habit has HUGELY improved my mood.
And not just mine. A study found doing it daily for one week reduced depression immediately AND increased happiness for six months. 1 It also improves sleep. 2
A year earlier I was struggling with what seemed like vast expanses of time each day after a severe depression. The book Cognitive Therapy of Depression suggested planning just one small action or goal for each hour, activities that brought me joy and confidence.
I found this so helpful I still do it today! I don’t plan every hour, but I do have a detailed list, down to cleaning my teeth, in the order I will do it. This technique has got me through more relapses than I can count!! Instead of getting stuck in bed, where my negative thoughts multiply and make me feel worse, I keep active and so have experiences that make me feel better.
This method is highly effective in reducing depression, according to 16 studies of 780 people. 3 There is also some evidence that it increases positive emotions and well-being. 4
The last small thing is funny videos. I watch them regularly and don’t consider it a time-waster. That’s because research by Barbara Fredrickson shows a few minutes of a funny, uplifting or calming video (like waves on the beach) can make people feel better. 5
The effects build over time. Feeling good makes people more open to new ideas and taking action. This leads to more positive emotions in an ‘upward spiral’. 6
These good feelings don’t have to be large, like falling in love. Small moments of joy most days lead to more joy and less depression overall. 7 So small things are incredibly powerful.