This article is taken from Dr Vernon Colemans Health Letter. It gives general material and opinions for information only and is not to be considered an alternative to professional medical advice. Readers should consult their family doctors or other qualified medical advisers on any matter relating to their health and wellbeing.
Why Anxiety And Depression Are Over Diagnosed And Over Treated And How Most Cases Of Both Can Be Safely And Effectively Treated Without Drugs
The medical profession, and the international drugs industry which pulls its strings, spends more and more money but sadly seems to do less and less good.
The incidence of big killers such as cancer and heart disease is increasing and infectious diseases are coming back with a vengeance. Despite the expenditure of vast amounts of money there are virtually no major areas of medicine in which doctors can claim to have made any significant progress in the last half a century.
The treatment of mental disease is no exception.
Anxiety and depression are today wildly over diagnosed and over treated with usually inappropriate, often ineffective and frequently dangerous products.
I have absolutely no doubt that, generally speaking, doctors treating these two conditions do far more harm than good. Electro-convulsive therapy, psychosurgery, drugs and frequently self-serving psycho-analysis (often built upon unproven, unprovable theories and a wildly over-exaggerated faith in the significance of long forgotten, often imagined, irrelevances) can, and do, cause great and sometimes lasting distress. We may pride ourselves on having progressed from the days when mentally ill patients were tied up and beaten, but regrettably I believe that the treatments most doctors dish out today are frequently just as irrelevant and hazardous as the treatments favoured a century or two ago.
Serious Side Effects
If the drugs doctors were handing out for anxiety and depression were harmless then the current epidemic of overprescribing would not matter so much (though it would still be a significant factor in the cash crises faced by private and state health care services everywhere).
But these drugs are certainly not harmless.
Potentially serious side effects are commonplace and addiction is a constant worry with many drugs in this general category. Given the hazardous nature of the treatments usually prescribed for mental illness the over-diagnosing of disease is a significant and serious problem.
A Profitable Growth Area
The statistics clearly show that mental disease is on the increase, with the number of patients with mental illness needing to be admitted to hospital rising by 10% every decade. Between one in seven and one in eight individuals will, at some stage in their lives, suffer from mental illness regarded as severe enough to warrant their admission to a mental hospital. This very real growth in the incidence of serious mental illness is however, merely the tip of a much larger iceberg.
The majority of patients regarded as requiring treatment for mental ill health are treated at home with drugs. For decades now the treatment of patients with mental illness has been one of the biggest growth areas in medicine.
There are several reasons for this.
Frustration And Dissatisfaction
The first reason is that frustration and dissatisfaction are now much commoner than at any time in history. We take pride in our allegedly civilised and so called sophisticated society but our complex and ever changing world is constantly creating new pressures and stresses.
Most of us are totally dependent on other people and quite unable to control our own destinies. If someone elses motor car breaks down on our route to work then we will be late. Frustration (a major cause of stress, anxiety and depression) is inevitable.
Fear, jealousy, suspicion, socially inspired ambitions and endless layers of guilt are mixed together to create physical disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome, asthma and high blood pressure as well as mental disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Fear is commonplace and widespread but so are greed and dishonesty (a fact which will probably be confirmed by anyone who has bought or sold a house recently).
Aggression is now widely regarded as a fine and essential quality for success and millions of women are suppressing their innate gentleness and femininity and struggling to acquire male-like toughness in order to succeed in a harsh and cruel world. The ultimate purpose of living now often seems to be simply to keep living. We spend much of our energy struggling to find ways to live longer and forgetting to live the lives we have.
We are constantly vulnerable to the lies of the pseudoscientists and the media manipulators whose agendas are so well hidden.
Life is now so complicated that only the specialists understand what is going on in any particular area of life. Finding the truth is nigh on impossible. Perception is now everything.
We look at where we are going but rarely at where we are. We are encouraged to think always of the joy that will come tomorrow (for example, when we retire) because this distracts us from the pain and disappointment of today.
Self satisfied and ignorant teachers kill creativity and teach their students to imitate. Originality is punished as dangerous and subversive. Children are trained not to do what they want (or are good at) but what others want them to do. We are all taught to distrust our own opinions and to respect the voice of authority.
We are in such a hurry that we never get a chance to talk. We live monotonous and shallow lives, constantly hurrying but for ever wondering where all the time went: we go through life as spectators.
People who care about what they do are regarded as eccentric. We are taught to be afraid (and even ashamed) of emotions and passions even though there is clear evidence to show that suppressing emotion is a short cut to stress related illness such as anxiety and depression.
Many people have completely lost their faith in the future of mankind. The world is increasingly seen as a dangerous and violent place. We have no privacy. Ugliness is all around us and contaminates our lives so that we suffer spiritually and aesthetically.
Large corporations, ruthlessly and deliberately polluting the planet, are run by men and women who have all the sensitivity and sense of responsibility of rude and thoughtless house guests. We have created a world in which we are strangers to ourselves; prisoners of the expectations of others.
Millions feel isolated and lonely. Old, simple truths are constantly being replaced with new, complex, half truths.
The bottom line is that although the human soul is fragile it is constantly subjected to great strain. And it frequently cracks.
Expectations Have Risen
The second reason for the increase in the number of patients requiring treatment for mental illness is that expectations have risen dramatically in recent decades.
We are encouraged to believe that we do not have to accept ups and downs in life. In the bad old days ups and downs were regarded as being as inevitable in life as they are on a fairground roller coaster. But doctors and journalists (encouraged by the drug industry marketing experts) have made us believe that we do not have to put up with the inevitable vicissitudes of living in the late twentieth century.
The result is that unhappiness and disappointment are no longer acceptable variations on the everyday pattern of life. I have heard people say I feel really depressed today when they mean that the world isnt going quite their way.
Ive also heard people say: I dont understand why I feel like this. I have a wonderful home and a lovely partner. I know I should be happy but Im not. And so I feel guilty about not being happy.
The third reason for the rise in the number of people being treated for mental illness is that the drug industry long ago targeted anxiety and depression as two of the most profitable areas for future growth.
Treating anxiety and depression offers two big commercial advantages. The potential number of patients who can be diagnosed as suffering from one or both of these conditions is virtually limitless. And these are both long term, chronic conditions. Once a patient is started on treatment it is likely that he or she will stay on it for months or years to come.
Drug companies love diseases which affect lots of people who will never be cured: through such disorders they can make big profits.
And so the drug companies have encouraged their marketing aides (family doctors) to prescribe anti-anxiety and anti-depressant drugs virtually on demand.
(Sadly, doctors dont take much persuading when it comes to handing out drugs. It is a lot easier and quicker to write out a prescription for a new wonder drug than it is to talk to a patient, find out what is wrong and offer support, encouragement or advice.)
Anxiety Is No Longer Fashionable
A decade or two ago the fashionable diagnosis to make was anxiety. Millions of patients around the world were given benzodiazepine tranquillisers (such as Valium and Ativan) for a whole host of conditions which could be classified under the general heading of anxiety.
Since the late 1980s the benzodiazepine tranquillisers have been out of fashion and the well documented addictive problems associated with these drugs have meant that drug companies (and therefore doctors) have had to look for an alternative marketing ploy.
In 1988 I predicted that depression would be the new fashionable diagnosis and that doctors would soon be flooded with information about new anti-depressant drugs. That is exactly what has happened.
One Of The Fastest Growing Diseases In The World
If, a few years ago, you went to see your doctor complaining that you felt miserable and down in the dumps he would have probably prescribed a harmless tonic, chatted to you for twenty minutes and told you to try and get out and enjoy yourself a bit more. The chances are that you would have left the consulting room reassured and comforted.
Today, if you go to see your doctor and complain that you feel vaguely under the weather he will probably diagnose you as depressed. There is an excellent chance that he will then start you on one of the many new powerful chemicals now available.
Up until recently depression was a fairly uncommon disease. Just a short while ago the value of world wide sales of all anti-depressants and similar drugs was below a billion dollars a year.(Shared out among the worlds drug companies thats small change hardly worth bothering to take to the bank).
But things have changed and today depression is one of the fastest growing diseases in the world. Sales of Prozac alone have reached around $2 billion a year. Millions of people are now labelled as suffering from depression. And, strangely enough, the boom in the diagnosis of depression has coincided with the development of special, new, expensive, chemical anti-depressants.
My very real fear is that the diagnosis of depression is now often being made when patients are simply rather miserable or unhappy or generally fed up with their lives.
Patients who would, a year or two ago, have been described as sad are now diagnosed as being depressed and are, consequently, being treated with powerful drugs.
Why Are Doctors Making This Diagnosis So Often?
Doctors are diagnosing depression more often because the drug industry (which now controls medical education and, therefore, the prescribing habits of doctors) wants to sell more anti-depressants. Despite the hazards known to be associated with their use the majority of doctors seem happy to prescribe them by the bucket load.
My fear is that the drugs which are now being prescribed with the enthusiasm which was shown for the benzodiazepine tranquillisers in the 1970s (and, by many doctors, for patients with remarkably similar non specific I-feel-miserable-but dont-know-why symptoms) may turn out to produce massive problems of their own.
I am prepared to accept that people with real depression, who suffer such symptoms as constant crying, an inability to sleep, a total feeling of worthlessness, a loss of appetite, suicidal tendencies or other serious symptoms of a genuine depression, may benefit from sophisticated, caring, professional help and may sometimes even be helped by taking drugs. And I recognise that some cases of depression may be caused by physical or biological factors which may be of significant, even predominant influence. (Though I am generally sceptical about the value of many anti-depressant drugs).
However, although I have absolutely no doubt that there is more sadness, despair, and unhappiness in our society than there has ever been in any previous society I strongly suspect that many of the patients diagnosed as suffering from depression may well be sad (and suffering from the disorder which I call The Twentieth Century Blues) rather than clinically depressed, and may need help of a different kind.
Better Mental Health In Three Hours (Or Less)?
I believe that instead of automatically dosing all their unhappy patients with powerful and potentially hazardous chemicals, and attempting to tackle a vague and ill defined disease, doctors should be encouraging more of the sad, the despairing and the unhappy to try to tackle the specific causes of their unhappiness, their anxiety or their depression themselves.
It can be done. In this edition of VCHL I have outlined my plan and my advice for finding some sense in an increasingly unpleasant and hostile world.
None of the solutions offered here are complex or expensive. None require years of psychotherapy or bucketfuls of vitamin pills. But if just one of the tips or thoughts Ive included here helps you then this special edition of VCHL will have been well worth writing.
The best solutions, it seems to me, always appear simple when youve found them.
Anxiety And Depression: Common Causes And Simple Cures
It is often believed that there are two main types of depression.
The first type is caused by some internal malfunction; a chemical or electrical imbalance within the brain.
And the second type is caused by a clearly defined external problem (unemployment, a divorce, bereavement or some other major personal crisis). Patients suffering from depression for which no clear cause can be found are neatly slipped into the first category.
I dont believe that depression (or, indeed, anxiety) is quite this simple. Sadness is not always (or even often) caused by uncontrollable chemical changes in the brain. Nor is it frequently caused by specific problems or life crises. It is most often a result of a general feeling of dissatisfaction, disappointment and frustration.
We live in a world which is already complex and which is getting steadily more complex by the day and I believe that the conditions which we often describe as anxiety and depression (along with some other troublesome and significant mental disorders) frequently develop because the individual concerned can no longer cope with the barrage of pressures and problems to which they are repeatedly subjected.
Expectations are raised and then left unfulfilled. Feelings of pointlessness and a sense of general despair about the way the world is going are commonplace.
Frustrations, disappointments, toxic stresses and an apparently unending sequence of problems over which the individual has little or no control are common causes of the condition now often officially (and profitably) labelled depression.
The first step, therefore, should be to examine and dissect a depression (or anxiety state) so that instead of struggling to tackle a vague, amorphous, ill defined sense of depression it becomes possible to assess all the influences and factors which might be responsible for the depression and to then tackle each specific cause of the unhappiness.
Understanding the underlying problems may lead to a non-pharmacological cure which will work far more effectively than drugs (and last longer) because it offers a fundamental solution which strikes at the very root of the problem instead of merely papering over the cracks.
Chaos Is A Natural State
One huge problem is that many of us spend our lives struggling to keep control over the small worlds in which we live. We do not understand that uncertainty, unpredictability and chaos are natural states and so we must inevitably fail in our efforts to keep control over our immediate environment. Our failure leads to guilt, confusion and despair. We try harder to take control. We continue to fail. The guilt, confusion and despair grow and various shades of anxiety and depression are inevitable.
A century or two ago it was possible for a family or a community to have a good deal of apparent control over their lives.
Food, clothing and shelter were the three priorities. People grew their own food, made their own clothes, collected their own fire wood and were responsible for building and repairing their own homes. If they fell ill they looked after one another.
Expectations were low and people were largely independent of other communities. They were constantly subjected to the stress of finding food and staying alive but these basic problems were largely under their own control.
The uncertainty, the unpredictability and the chaos were provided by nature in the form of such hazards as storms and droughts.
Things are very different now. We are all dependant on huge numbers of other people most of whom we do not know and will never meet. Our super-sophisticated society has led to specialisation and so we have lost control over our own lives.
Trains are late, workmen dont turn up, machines which we have learnt to regard as indispensable break down and so on. Every time we deal successfully with one problem another problem appears. We go to bed at night pleased that we have conquered some real or perceived threat and wake up the next morning to find out that life has come up with a new problem even more worrying than the last one.
It has long been recognised that change is a source of stress and yet in our world change is the only constant. What was fashionable yesterday will be laughably out of date by tomorrow.
Whats new? is much more commonly asked than Whats best? We are subjected to an endless variety of fashionable trivia. We are constantly encouraged to think of the future, and to plan ahead as though we can control our ultimate destiny.
The only way to get through these endless crises is to accept the fact that uncertainty and chaos are normal and to deal with life on a day to day basis as a series of short term problems.
A Lonely And Frightening World
I was walking through London the other day when my hat blew off and flew over a railing. I could see the hat but didnt think I could reach it. I needed something with a hook on with which to retrieve it and so when an elderly man strolled along, twirling a walking stick, I politely stopped him, explained what had happened and asked if I could borrow his stick for a moment.
The man looked at me, looked at my hat and then, having clearly decided that there was no advantage to him in helping me, shook his head and walked on. If you wouldnt help because he was frightened I might steal his stick, or even attack him with it, that too is sad.
(I retrieved my hat but had to kneel down on the wet pavement, poke my arm at full stretch through the railings and drag my hat through a tiny gap.)
I relate this incident, not because I think it is particularly exceptional (I know it isnt) but because I think it is, sadly, symptomatic of the society in which we live. It is hardly surprising that depression and despair are so commonplace when we live in a world where strangers refuse to help one another even when the cost to themselves will be minimal or non existent.
The only way we can protect ourselves against this type of behaviour is to build up and treasure our relationships with our close friends and loved ones. Taking care of our relationships with our loved ones is an essential part of protecting ourselves from the sense of isolation and loneliness which pushes so many people into depression.
Distrust, Despair And Suspicion
Success and failure are both scorned and kindness and understanding and sympathy are too often regarded as signs of weakness rather than strength. When there is a background of distrust, despair and suspicion it does not take much to create a deep feeling of unhappiness and dissatisfaction with life and the world.
Look at the faces of the other passengers next time you are travelling on a suburban train or bus.
At best you are likely to see a great deal of indifference. At worst there will be outright hostility.
Try smiling at a stranger, or simply making eye contact, and the chances are high that they will turn away.
Much the same is true of shops, offices and restaurants. Almost everyone is in a hurry to be somewhere else, doing something else. Vehicles in nose to tail city traffic jams seem to be all involved in funeral processions.
Everyone seems to be thinking about where they would like to be, rather than where they are. Everyone rushes by as though hurrying to a meeting that is going to save the world.
During a three lane motorway hold up recent I tried a small experiment: I smiled benignly at the several dozen motorists whose vehicles I slowly passed (or whose vehicles passed mine). Not one motorist returned the smile. Quite a high proportion looked at me as though I was mad. One woman (after looking away) quickly wound up her window.
Without a sense of humour such behaviour would make anyone feel depressed (let alone paranoid).
Dealing with and overcoming this constant background of hostility and indifference is not easy. But it has to be done if we are to retain our sanity.
It probably helps to know that we all suffer the same way. The hostility and indifference is not personal.
Making an effort to build up slight but significant relationships with the people we meet regularly is important. (Smile at all the people you see every day and eventually one or two of them will smile back. Before you know it you will be on nodding terms.)
The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum
There once was a time when (at least some) politicians were honest and honourable and led from the front: inspired by personal beliefs and a sense of duty. There was a time when politicians would resign in disgrace and embarrassment if found guilty of wrong doing or poor judgement. That time has long gone.
Todays politicians react rather than act and believe in expediency rather than integrity. Modern politicians are followers, not leaders, and they adapt their policies (if that is not too grand a word) to fit what they think are the requirements of the mass of the people, or what they believe will be the best interests of themselves and their corporate sponsors. (There was an excellent, if light hearted, example of the way politicians follow rather than lead during the recent football World Cup. At the end of one important match I watched with amusement as a leading world political figure followed the crowd around him as though playing Simple Simon. After the crowd around him clapped he started to clap. After they climbed onto their seats he climbed onto his seat. Every movement he made mimicked the crowd around him. He always followed and never led.)
Modern politicians may start out with ideals, principles and convictions but they gradually convince themselves that they have to be pragmatic and practical in order to achieve power.
Once they have the power they continue to prevaricate, partly because they are used to it, partly because they have left their principles so far behind that they have forgotten what it means to do something solely because you believe it is the right thing to do, and partly because they have fallen in love with the trappings of power, prestige, fame and success all of which they are desperate to retain at any cost.
Politicians excuse their failure to act by claiming that if they did act they might prejudice their political careers neatly and conveniently forgetting the fact that their original reason for acquiring political power was to be able to do the very thing they are now saying they cannot do because it might jeopardise their position.
Political parties used to have ideals and principles. Without those essential ingredients all that is left is layer upon layer of half truths and downright lies.
Todays politicians sell the power and responsibility they have been loaned to the corporate sponsors with the deepest pocket.
Government departments are run not for the people but for big business. Health departments work for drug companies. Agriculture departments work for farmers and food companies. Defence departments work for armament companies.
The great political leaders (Lincoln, Churchill and de Gaulle spring to mind as examples) didnt follow polls or focus groups or devote themselves to telling everyone what they believed they wanted to hear. They didnt employ hordes of scriptwriters, advisers, make up artists and campaign consultants. They didnt have image advisers and they didnt have their teeth capped or their hair dyed. They did have ideas, beliefs and a philosophy to offer.
It is hardly surprising that the honest, sensitive, thoughtful citizens who do care tend to feel demoralised and despondent and to lose hope in the future.
When footballers behave badly on the field no one is surprised when the fans behave badly on the terraces and in the stands.
When politicians behave dishonestly it is hardly surprising that the nations they lead become devoid of courage and moral fibre. When politicians do what they think they can get away with, and are driven solely by a need to be re-elected, when they take no notice of what they have promised and are unconcerned with what is right or wrong, it is hardly surprising that there is a general feeling of spiritual malaise.
Political integrity may seem a long way away from endemic social depression but it isnt. And taking drugs or blasting electricity into brain tissue isnt going to deal with depression which is even partly caused in this way.
The solution is to live your own life, to be loyal to those whom you care about but not to expect your country to love you because it wont. Regard tax paying as unavoidable protection money paid to a bunch of gangsters and plan your life so that you are as independent as possible. And however corrupt the politicians may become you must always keep your spirit alive. Do not allow yourself to be frightened into silence over things you care about.
The truth is the one weapon which will eventually control the politicians. The truth terrifies modern politicians just as much as sunlight terrifies Dracula.
Speak out on topics you care about. The politicians will ignore you today. And they will ignore you tomorrow. But eventually the truth will win. It always does.
What Were You Doing On April 8th 1994? (You Cant Remember? So How Come You Can Remember What You Were Doing When You Heard About JFK?)
Can you remember where you were when you heard that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated? When Neil Armstrong first stepped onto the moon? When you heard that Elvis Presley had died? When John Lennon died? When you first made love?
If you have ever had a brush with the law I bet you can remember everything about it. Memories of birthdays, weddings and funerals remain with us in some clarity. We can see what happened as though watching it on video. Surprisingly small details of important days remain in our memories for years. You can probably remember the first time you kissed and held someone who is today close to you.
Significant moments in our lives make a mark on our memory because we concentrate fully on what is happening. We live those moments with great intensity and so everything that happens stays with us. Things seem to happen at half or quarter speed.
But most moments in our lives flash by without our really being aware of them. We only live at full power on rare occasions. Most of the time we fly through life in a semi conscious state, only concentrating on what is happening with a very small part of our brain. With the rest of our brains we are either thinking of something that has happened in the past or thinking about something that might happen in the future. Or we are simply not thinking of anything at all.
What a waste!
People who live without thinking about what they are doing become trapped in unlived or half-lived lives. They go through the weeks and the years without ever focusing on where they are at any particular moment.
By always focusing on the future (or the past) they fail to get the most out of their lives and consequently they never arrive anywhere that they want to be.
Edgy, Nervous And Irritable
Dreams are a vital part of everyones life. But if you spend all your time dreaming about the future then you will never live the present properly and your chances of achieving the future you dream about will be dramatically reduced.
If you spend your days planning for the future and worrying about what might happen tomorrow, next month or next year then you will miss out on the life you are living. Before you know it your life will be over and you will have missed out on the real joy of living.
I have met people who could never truly enjoy something they had looked forward to for months because when that occasion arrived they were already looking forward to something else and worrying about what might go wrong with that.
Constantly postponing happiness means that we become edgy, nervous and irritable.
If you want to know what youre missing watch small children playing. Children are very good at enjoying the good moments in their lives. They look forward to birthdays, holidays and Christmas but when those good times come they know how to enjoy them. They dont wake up on the first day of a summer holiday worrying about what theyre going to get for Christmas.
If you learn to pay attention to each moment in your life then you will get far more from your life. You will be living your life to the full and far better able to take advantage of every opportunity and experience which comes your way.
(Are you really concentrating on what you are reading at the moment? Or is your mind only half here? Are you thinking about something else you should be doing? Or are you worrying about something that has happened?)
Try to focus on these lines with as much intensity as you can muster. Concentrate hard and exclude all other thoughts from your mind.
(If anything comes into your mind, and interrupts, write it down so that you can think about it later.) By experiencing each moment in your life with some intensity you will also become far more aware of the ways in which you are damaging your physical and mental health.
Instead of meandering through life in a job you hate or a relationship which isnt ever going to give you any real satisfaction (and ending up miserable and depressed) you will be far more likely to take action that will be liberating and allow you to live your life to the full.
Many people go through life hardly ever getting out of first gear. They meander along from day to day, hardly ever truly awake and aware of what is going on around them. Only on rare and special occasions (such as the death of someone significant or a birthday, wedding or funeral) do they wake up and become alert and alive. (The death of Diana, Princess of Wales, made a huge impact because it woke many people up and made them think.)
Because they go through life without really waking up to what is going on around them such individuals ignore the messages their bodies give them.
They never listen to their bodies and so never take advantage of their bodypower. They never listen to their minds either. They close their hearts and souls to the injustice and cruelty in the world around them never speaking out against things they know are wrong.
Your life will become more intense and more enjoyable if you learn to pay complete attention to each moment. Consciously and knowingly experience where you are, what you do and how you feel. Let yourself go. Dont worry about trying to control the present or the future.
Once you become aware of your life and the way you are living it you may need to make changes.
We often shut off our awareness of the world outside because we simply cant bear the reality which surrounds us.
When you become truly aware of the world around you then you may suddenly discover that you have acquired the strength to stand up for yourself, to turn away from bad relationships or to leave a job you hate.
Make Your Own Destiny
We arent born naturally unhappy.
We learn to be unhappy.
Many people become miserable (and depressed) because their lives are virtually devoid of joy.
This is hardly surprising because it is hard to stay cheerful if you spend every waking hour doing chores which you hate.
Take a cool look at the way you spend your life.
Are you doing what you want to do with your life? How much time do you spend doing things that you hate? How much time do you spend doing things that you enjoy? Is your life meaningful? When your life comes to an end will you look back wishing that you had spent your time differently? If you knew that you had only one year left to live how would you spend it?
If you spend your days doing things you hate would it be logical for you to feel anything other than depressed?
Dont Ignore Today Because You Are Thinking About Tomorrow
We have more things and more comfort than any other civilisation in history. But depression and unhappiness are probably commoner than in any other civilisation.
Our society values material acquisitions more than anything else. We are taught that we will only find contentment by increasing our level of consumption.
Happiness comes with a bigger house, a bigger car and more expensive clothes.
And so we are pushed to go through our lives acquiring expensive stuff which we may neither really need nor truly want.
Our goals become materialistic instead of personal.
We forget to live because we believe that we will only truly be happy when we have achieved another goal. But when will we know when we have enough?
Will $50,000 be enough? What about $500,000? $5,000,000? $ 50,000,000?
And if we are driven only by the happiness we think we will find when we have reached a certain goal what will we have to look forward to if we ever do have enough? (And if we admit that we will never have enough then we are admitting that we are dooming ourselves to permanent disappointment and frustration.)
As Maurice Sendak said: There must be more to life than having everything.
Constantly Postponed Happiness
We are encouraged to think that we will be happy when something happens in the future. We decide that we will be happy when we give up the job we hate, when the kids leave home, when we get a promotion, when we lose weight, when the business begins to take off, when we have a new car and so on. But if you are constantly postponing happiness when will you ever give yourself a chance to be happy?
Life is only really present in the here and now. Life isnt in the future because the future isnt yet here. And it isnt in the past because the past is gone.
Practice Random Acts Of Kindness And Senseless Acts Of Beauty
I am told that this phrase was originally thought up by a Californian called Anna Herbert. She was the woman who began paying the toll on a bridge for cars behind her and planting wild flowers on ugly plots of land.
Practising random acts of kindness is easy to do. There are plenty of opportunities. The person (or animal) who receives your kindness will feel good and so will you.
Limit Your Input Of Sad News
I restrict my exposure to TV news. And I do not buy newspapers every day. I no longer expose myself to a daily diet of misery. This is not because I am disinterested in the problems of the world I fight for the things I believe in and I read enough news magazines and news agency summaries to know about the important things going on in the world. (And I read journals, books and reports from around the world on health care so that I make sure I keep up to date in the area of health and can help you keep up to date through VCHL too.)
But I know that I can only cope with so much misery and sadness.
I protect myself because if I allowed myself to be subjected to a constant daily diet of misery and horror I would not be able to cope or have the strength to fight for the things in which I believe.
I dont know whether there is any more violence or horror in the world today than there was five hundred years ago. I suspect not. But that is an academic and irrelevant question. The point is that modern communications methods make these horrors available to us all on an hourly basis. At any one time there are around forty wars going on around the world. All these wars and the accompanying horrors are brought into our homes through the magic of television.
Modern communications techniques mean that you and I receive more information every day than our ancestors had to cope with in years.
Our brains are constantly hurrying to process information. When human beings are overexposed to information and stimulation they become anxious, violent and mentally ill.
When much of that information is depressing and disturbing the response is even faster.
Naturally, the more sensitive and thoughtful the individual the greater will be their potential susceptibility to this type of stress.
(The people who do cruel things do not feel bad about anything much. If they were the sort to feel bad they would not do the things they do. In our world the sensitive suffer for everyone while the ruthless simply go from strength to strength because they genuinely dont care and dont suffer.)
The modern media enables us to expose ourselves to many horrors and injustices about which we can do nothing. Television gives us instant access to other peoples pain.
But however much we care we cant fight against every injustice in the world.
I believe that one of the reasons why so many people do not seem to care these days is that they are protecting themselves by deliberately staying aloof and not allowing themselves to respond to what they hear about.
People numb themselves and suppress their emotions in order to survive.
They become unfeeling because they are overexposed to horror and they simply cannot cope. They close their eyes and their hearts to protect themselves (and because the horrors they see and hear about are endless they do not believe they can do anything that will make a difference).
We Feed Our Children Violence
Many people have become so immune to awful news that they need strong stimulation to make them sit up and take notice.
The growth in and popularity of documentaries and dramas based on violence, crime and miscellaneous horrors is a symptom of the new need for constant excitement and stimulation.
People who are unmoved by genuine tragedy are naturally unmoved by what they see on their TV screens even if it includes real live human beings being arrested or being treated in hospital.
Television chat shows used to be vehicles for movie stars to tell engaging anecdotes; these days they are full of angry people talking without shame or embarrassment about their unhappy sex lives, sharing their hostility for their neighbours and blaming their parents for their misery.
And I have a suspicion that the popularity of realistic horror movies among young people these days is merely a sign of the fact that they have become immune to ordinary fears and terrors.
The horror movies that were popular a few decades ago would not frighten todays teenagers in the way that they frightened my generation.
Todays teenagers and children need new horrors to stimulate their deadened imaginations.
We feed our children a constant diet of horror, abuse and violence and then express surprise when they become violent themselves.
If you want to stay alert but sensitive to the worlds problems then I suggest that you too limit your exposure to news programmes.
Limiting your exposure to the daily diet of horror and injustice will enable you to retain the strength to do what you can to fight for truth and justice.
In my experience the real news junkies the people who seem to take the greatest interest in world events and who watch every available news bulletin even when on holiday are the people who do least towards trying to improve the world.
Spend More Time Doing Things That Make You Happy
Do you even know what makes you happy? Do you know when you are happy? How many moments of happiness did you have last week?
You have to make time for happiness. You have to be ready for it. And you have to work at it.
When the good times come you have to make a real effort to enjoy them; to look around and take notice of the world so that you can savour and remember your happiness (and use it to keep you going when the times get rough).
Ask yourself these four simple questions you might find the answers illuminating.
What in your life gives you most fun? How much time do you spend doing it?
What in your life gives you most pain? How much time do you spend doing that?
Learn To Ask Yourself Why?
The best, simplest and least asked question in the world is Why?
Why do you want a better job? Why do you want to save money? Why do you want to move house? Why do you want to buy a holiday home?
Only when you ask yourself Why? will you know what you really need and what you are prepared to do for it.
Most people earn and spend without ever asking themselves Why? They blindly sell their time (which is the same as selling their lives) for money which they spend on things they neither want nor need.
Ask yourself Why? more often and you will learn more about yourself and what you are doing.
But be warned. Asking yourself this simple question can be unnerving.
You may get answers.
And if you have been going through life for years without knowing where you were headed (or why) then you may find the answers you get rather startling.
Assess all the influences on your life and ask yourself how these things contribute to your life and your potential for enjoyment and satisfaction.
Consider each influence and ask yourself: Should I discard it or give it more of my energy?
Save Time And Labour By Not Using Too Many Time And Labour Saving Machines!
No one does one thing at once any more.
Everyone is in such a hurry that they have to do several things at the same time.
People drive to work listening to the news on the wireless and using the telephone to make routine calls. They have business meetings over breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Why are they saving the time? Is what they are doing worth doing at all?
Are they focusing on anything they are doing?
Are they obtaining enjoyment or satisfaction from any of these things?
I suspect not.
Mobile phones are great for keeping in touch but I have seen two people sit in a restaurant and eat a meal while both talking to other people on their mobile phones.
They werent aware of who they were with or what they were eating (and they certainly werent living memorable moments) because they were both constantly talking to and presumably thinking of someone else.
Used properly mobile phones can be a boon. But they can be a burden too. Mobile phones mean that there is nowhere to hide. (The easiest way to use them is to keep them turned off. Check your messages when you want to. When I told one editor that I kept my mobile phone turned off most of the time I thought he was going to have a fit.)
We have become novelty junkies.
I constantly meet people who are surprised that I do not use e-mail. But why do I need e-mail? The fax machine sends out letters almost instantaneously. How much faster than almost instantaneous do I want to send mail?
Technology is worshipped endlessly and pointlessly and people are swamped with information (and information technology) which they neither need nor want.
People use new technology not because they need it or because it is genuinely useful but because it is there.
I have tried using the Internet but I found it slow and cumbersome and tiresome and ineffective.
I dont believe it can ever be as secure or as confidential as using the fax machine or the much derided snail mail.
You dont have to use the technology just because it is there or fashionable.
New technology is often slow and it often goes wrong and it is consequently a major cause of unhappiness, frustration, dissatisfaction and depression.
Beautiful Or Useful?
We change our cars and our shoes not because they dont function but because they are either not fashionable or not impressive enough.
To earn the money to pay for these fripperies which we dont really need we give our time (the most valuable and only truly finite possession we have) doing things we dont enjoy doing. Have we all gone stark raving mad?
I know a man who has a very small lawn. But he has an expensive petrol driven lawn mower so that he can cut his small lawn in style. Every time he gets the mower out of his garage he has to spend an hour fiddling with it to make it start. Because he no longer gets any exercise from cutting his lawn he now keeps an expensive exercise bicycle in his garage so that he can keep fit.
Modern artefacts are so often poorly made, badly designed and faulty that frustration and disappointment are more common than delight and pleasure.
Our society encourages the mass production of mediocre, shoddy products. Manufacturers have forgotten that quality should be inherent in the making of something; they assume that quality can be provided with a label.
Real quality is not fashionable and yet life with no quality is no life.
On a practical level it is worth remembering William Morriss advice. We should ensure that our homes contain things which are beautiful or useful or both.
Look around at the stuff you have surrounding you which is neither beautiful nor useful.
Then work out how much of your life you spent earning the money to pay for it. How much stuff do you really need to be happy?
You never gain something but that you lose something, said Henry David Thoreau.
Constantly changing tastes, new fashions and endless technological wonders may fuel the economy but they also create deep dissatisfaction, great sadness and, ultimately, great waves of depression.
Value Your Time
Time management has become a widely accepted phrase. There are probably university courses in it.
People of all ages buy organisers and schedule their lives to the minute.
I have a window between 11.47 and 11.53, the busy executive/housewife/schoolchild will say.
Hardly anyone hangs out and has spontaneous fun any more. We are encouraged to fill every moment of our lives in the mistaken belief that by doing this we will create more happiness for ourselves and succeed in fighting off the malaise which they feel growing.
But does all this time management really mean that we get more out of our lives?
I dont think so.
People rush about being busy but what are they busy about? How much of it really matters? Just being busy isnt anywhere near enough. And it certainly isnt a recipe for happiness.
(I am delighted to say that this obsession with time management has not yet become universal. I walked into one of my favourite Paris cafes the other day and was greeted with a broad smile of welcoming recognition by the waiter. It was a hot day but I had been walking quickly because I wanted a little exercise. I have been walking too quickly! I explained, wiping a few beads of sweat from my brow. The waiter gave me a gently admonishing look. You should take your time and enjoy what you see as you walk through the city, he told me.)
Stick To Your Principles
A magazine recently listed a well known writers ten pieces for advice for young people.
One piece of advice was never to do anything solely as a matter of principle.
How terribly sad.
No one whatever their age should keep quiet when something is happening of which they disapprove.
It is true that telling the truth may not do your career much good but what is a career worth if you have no professional integrity?
If we make choices and decisions based on what we believe (rather than what is convenient or popular) we have the pleasure of living life on our terms.
Sadly, we are all under constant pressure to betray our principles.
We are constantly encouraged and rewarded for editing our honest feelings.
We say things we dont really mean because we dont want to offend someone. We hide our feelings if we think they may cause embarrassment to others. We keep quiet when someone is criticising a friend because we dont want to make a fuss or cause trouble. We are tempted to do this so often that it becomes second nature. We end up denying our identity and integrity.
If we dont speak out against people who do things that are wrong then we are as guilty as the people doing the things we know are wrong.
Before you worry too much about what will happen if you speak out ask yourself this question: What is the worst that can happen? What is the bottom line?
I know a number of people whose lives are miserable because they are treated badly by their bosses. None of them ever dare defend themselves because they are frightened that they will be sacked.
But is being sacked from a job you hate and which has taken your integrity and therefore your identity really such a bad thing?
Never Do Another Days Work In Your Life
If you must compromise your values and hide your beliefs in order to do and keep your job then you are betraying yourself. And true happiness will always be out of reach.
I once had a letter from a vegetarian who worked in an abattoir. She told me off for writing something critical of abattoir workers and claimed that she had to do the job she did in order to feed herself and her family. She admitted that she hated her job but insisted that she had no choice. Its a good job, she said. It pays well.
I didnt believe her self justification then and I dont believe her now.
Of course she had a choice.
She chose to work in an abattoir because the pay was better than a job doing something else.
If doing your job means that you have to deny your beliefs every day then you will be living a lie.
Every day, when that woman went to work, she abandoned her beliefs and her self respect. Depression, under those circumstances, is almost inevitable.
If you define work as something you dont enjoy doing but do solely for money then the secret of finding happiness (and limiting your exposure to anxiety and depression) must surely be to go through life doing as little work as possible.
The way you feel when you are doing something you really want to do is how you should feel when you are working.
If you can manage this then you will work better (and probably more successfully) and your life will be smoother.
Finally: Remember That You Are Dying!
If you knew that you were going to die in twelve months time would you change anything about the way you live your life?
Would you do anything differently?
If you have answered yes to either of those questions then you should think carefully about the way you are living your life now for the truth is that we are all dying. We just dont know when.
Why put off living your life the way you would like to live it until the moment when you know for certain that the end is near?
Dont keep all your hopes for your retirement. Who knows what will happen before then. Take your retirement now in small stages; enjoy your life.
We tend to do many things out of habit. We do things because other people tell us to do them (and it is easier to do them than to say no).
We should do things because doing them gives our lives more quality than not doing them.
Be prepared for the worst, do your best, relax and see what happens.
Take a break when you are doing something that is difficult. Do not be ashamed to enjoy yourself and take pleasure.
Find some inner calm and peace by being aware of who you are, what you are and what you want.
You should live your life the way you want to live it not the way that will satisfy advertisers, politicians or neighbours. Ask yourself what you think your life is for, what you want out of life and where you are heading.
And are you satisfied with the way your life is going?
Do not reach the end of your time full of regrets, remembering that you have wasted most of your life doing things that you only did because other people wanted you to do them.