My positive psychology story started when I was introduced to the science six years ago. It’s where I first learnt about character strengths, and how, by using your top strengths in a new way each day, or simply by being conscious of using your top strengths to continually foster your wellbeing, that the nasties of depression, negativity bias, pessimistic thinking – whatever makes up the mix of our own personal languishing – can be avoided.
So with my long history of recurrent depression, I continually applied the science. Whenever I felt an emotional downward spiral hovering on the edge of consciousness, I’d be intentional and resourceful and strap on the armour of my top strengths. I’d grab my camera and look for beauty at a macro level: the dew on a gum leaf, the stamin of a white rose, the toothy smile of my dog, the tungsten glow of a candle. I’d take myself out of myself and look at life through a lens.
Or I’d watch a Ted Talk, tackle a crossword or play Scrabble on my phone. Have a relaxing bath. Read a book. Savour my morning coffee. Run. Listen to music. Find a friend to laugh with. Give a stranger a bunch of flowers. Write gratitude letters: to my children, to my best friend, to my husband.
It worked, time and time again. The black dog would heel, then silently slip away.
Given I was living proof of the benefits of positive psychology, I figured the science was worth pursuing at a deeper level, and wanted to help others who wrestled with depression build their resilience and conquer the beast like I had. In 2013 I graduated with a Certificate in Positive Psychology. My positive psychological life became my life’s work.
Then in 2014 I decided to dig deeper into the science by studying full time for a Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) at the University of Melbourne. I was honoured and excited to be accepted into such a prestigious program. My year of post-graduate study began!
It didn’t take very long for the excitement to wear off and the reality of the workload and high intellectual engagement to set in, and very quickly I began to feel overwhelmed. Learning and navigating the technology was complex, and the reading list was insurmountable. And as someone who’d failed miserably at maths in the 70s, I couldn’t get my head around statistics at the same rate as others who seemed to breeze through it.
In hindsight, I realise now that the study goals I set for myself were a little too grandiose as I struggled to keep up with the study demands; I even began to question my intelligence, believing I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was up against the academic knowhow of my fellow students. The pressure kept mounting; my thinking became fuzzy and insomnia once again reared its restless head. The more overloaded I became, the more incompetent I felt. Fertile soil for depression…
Needless to say, before long I was smack bang in the pits and fits of major depression. I couldn’t focus, couldn’t sleep, and couldn’t translate thoughts into words. There were many days that I simply couldn’t function: even showering took enormous effort. As did conversation. It took super human effort for me just to get through each day. I cried a lot.
The irony of the situation didn’t pass me by: me, a ‘master’ of positive psychology? What a joke. I felt like such a fraud.
As the months went on, and my depressive state continued to plummet, I questioned the science and research that validated positive psychology interventions as a treatment for depression. Over the years I’d read many studies supporting the theory. Hell, up until recently, I was living proof it worked! So why was I now such a failure at the thing I believed in the most?
Through all this, I continued to practice every proven positive psychology intervention I could find. I wrote gratitude letters, did random acts of kindness, played music to and from class, continued my daily yoga and meditation practice, journaled, jogged, walked, treated myself to massages. I even watched comedies.
Nothing helped. In fact, the interventions just made me feel worse, because I knew they were supposed to make me feel better – yet they didn’t. Little by little, depression robbed me of all pleasures: yoga, meditating, writing, baths, massages, laughing, crosswords, photography, Scrabble. Each precious nugget of my joyful past self was stripped away.
Fast forward two years, and I can say that at last, I’ve come out the other side. I’m back to my resting state of okay-ness. The journey was long and hard. It took many health-care visits, a plethora of vitamins and minerals, good and bad therapy, many trials of anti-depressant medication and some left-of-centre approaches before I finally stabilised. (In all of this, I still managed to successfully graduate the Masters program.)
I’ve learnt a lot on this journey. One thing I now know is that for me, major stress is the trigger for depression, which is borne from feelings of incompetence and insurmountable challenges. If I reflect on the darkest and most challenging times over the last few decades, always at the forefront is major stress: the birth of my twins, becoming a step-mother to six, and most recently, full time post-graduate study.
But the most profound thing I have learnt – after extensive research and reading – is that positive psychology interventions, though effective in improving symptoms of non-clinical and/or mild depression, are not as effective – or in my case, completely ineffective – for severe depression. ‘The majority of positive psychology and wellbeing interventions have all been conducted with the non-clinically depressed to the mildly depressed individuals.’ (Layous et al 2011). More specifically, of the 27 studies I researched of almost 6,000 participants, only two studies – totalling 70 participants – were experiencing severe depression. (I wish I’d known this sooner.)
It’s only now, after reaching a level of stability, that I can experience the benefits of positive psychology interventions, with the intention of feeling more than just okay. I no longer endure yoga or tolerate exercise: both are pleasurable. The beauty of the world – which used to be a colourful, miraculous and awe-inspiring place – has once again come into focus.
It’s time to get the camera out.