This is the second article about the 5th Annual Bristol Happiness Lecture that took place at St George’s Hall, Bristol, UK on 18th May 2010. The lecture addressed the topic of Positive Psychology Responses to Depression. The first article described the keynote speech by Miriam Akhtar about the PE Kit. This article reports on the rest of the meeting, especially the keynote by Dr Chris Johnstone, an National Health Service addictions specialist and author of Find your Power: A Toolkit for Resilience and Positive Change.
The master of ceremonies for the evening was Dr Phil Hammond who has an unusual dual career: he practices medicine when he is not a stand-up comedian. Hammond was of course a past master at weaving the themes of the evening together into a creative blend of risqué jokes, black humor, and serious messages about how individuals can use techniques from Positive Psychology to overcome depression. I’ve never laughed so loudly or for so long about such an unfunny subject.“Hands up anyone who studied emotional mountaineering at school?” was Dr Chris Johnstone’s opening question. Had we been taught how to overcome low, negative or otherwise troublesome emotions? Not a single hand went up. Nevertheless said Chris, it is possible to learn how to become more resilient and to find your power. He started by impressing upon us that low mood is completely normal; expecting to sail through life without experiencing any negative emotions is not normal. Ups and downs are part of life’s rich pattern. It’s persistent low mood that gets in the way of doing a job and living a normal life that needs to be addressed.
Chris invited us to reflect on our beliefs about resilient people. For example do you have a belief that some people are born with resilience in their DNA and that you were not? Thinking “I am the way I am, and I cannot change so I might as well get used to it,” is static thinking, what Carol Dweck calls a fixed mindset. Chris stressed that even if we’ve been dealt a duff hand in life, we still do have choices about how we play those cards.Rewriting your Resilience Story: Chapter 1 – Escape from The Pit
One powerful technique is to imagine your journey from depression to well-being as your own adventure story, starting with Chapter 1 (your personal “Escape from the Pit”), and proceeding through Chapters 2, 3, 4 and so on as you try different self-help strategies and reach your ultimate goal, whatever that might be. The beauty of this narrative technique is that you are the hero of the story. It puts you in charge of your life and gives you a sense of always moving forwards. Since you can add as many chapters to your story as you like, you might want to try different strategies, to be curious, and to see what works. Plus you can carry on telling and re-telling your resilience story until it works for you the way you want it to.
Medication-Free SSRIsTo figure out what we can do to escape from The Pit in Chapter 1, Chris invited us to think of a time when we’d been through a difficulty, and then to reflect on what we did to overcome it. He presented us with the medication-free Self-help SSRI model, as follows:
- S –Strategies: What did we do to overcome the difficulty? Activities might include problem solving, challenging your own static thinking, seeking help from others, or exercising.
- S – Strengths: What character strengths helped us overcome the difficulty? These might include courage, determination, creativity, patience, sensitivity, and so on.
- R – Resources: What other resources did we draw on? These might include family and friends, helping agencies, restorative environments, supportive communities or self-help books.
- I – Insights: What did we learn from this experience and from our response to it? This could be something like “Resilience is learnable,” that accepting support from others can be helpful, or that depression is caused by a complex combination of different risk factors rather than the fault of one person or one event.
Depression and the 4Ps
Talking about the different risk factors for depression, Chris said in his experience as a medical practitioner, people frequently look for causes and often blame themselves. Thoughts like “I’m rubbish,” “If only I were more like so-and-so,” or “If only I could do XYZ,” are commonly assumed to be at the root of depression, when in fact they are more likely symptoms. According to Chris, depression is a complex issue with multiple causes, and helping people understand what factors in their lives contribute to it is a useful exercise. Often clinicians use the 3Ps model to explain depression risk factors.
Knowing that we are not to blame for depression can help us stop the vicious downward spiral in which self-blame makes us feel bad, and feeling bad then makes us blame ourselves more. Taking a Positive Psychology approach we can add a 4th P: Protective Processes i.e. those individual Self-Help SSRIs which shift focus from what’s wrong to what’s strong.Chris asked us to think of mental health in terms of rowing along in an open boat, where mental illness is the possibility of crashing the boat onto the rocks. What’s important here, he said, is not just that we will occasionally bump into rocks, but that the likelihood of bumping into them is increased if the water level (i.e. our resilience level) is low. Finding your power, that is, learning how to boost your resilience, is an essential step towards sustaining your mental well-being.
The 5th Bristol Happiness Lecture 2010: Positive Psychology Responses to Depression was a tremendous occasion, a vote in favor of our readiness to be open about mental ill-health, to engage with the debate, to share experiences and most of all to look for practical ways to overcome it and to flourish. Miriam Akhtar and Dr Chris Johnstone were a formidable double act – both expert in their respective fields and accomplished speakers, yet both with an ability to engage, entertain, and connect with a diverse audience. And the event was a sell-out, every one of the 500 seats in St George’s Hall in Bristol was taken, the audience appreciative throughout and judging from the final applause, keen to learn about Positive Psychology, to take it and apply it to improve their own lives.
Johnstone, C. (2006). Find Your Power: Boost Your Inner Strengths, Break Through Blocks and Achieve Inspired Action. Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
Johnstone, C. (2010). Find Your Power: A Toolkit for Resilience and Positive Change, 2nd Edition. Permanent Publications