Six years ago, a fellow blogger, Elisha Goldstein, PhD of PsychCentral’s Mindfulness & Psychotherapy blog, introduced me to the concept of mindfulness. A clinical psychologist and bestselling author, he familiarized me with the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, whose Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program I participated in at our local hospital, with a certified instructor. Dr. Goldstein opened a whole new world for me, so I was delighted to spread the word about his newest book Uncovering Happiness and host an interview with him on my blog.
Therese: Your book is titled Uncovering Happiness. What do you mean by happiness?
Goldstein: That’s an excellent question as that term is thrown around quite a bit these days. The kind of happiness I’m referring to is what the Greeks call eudaimonic happiness, this is, a deeper, more meaningful type of happiness than, let’s say, the happiness you experience when you have a positive emotion after winning a pot of money. You might get swept up with the mental and emotional waves from time to time, but underneath it is this core sense of self-love and confidence in knowing that you can handle it and things are going to be okay.
It’s interesting; research shows that people who have a high level of hedonic well-being — simply, positive emotions — have a much higher pro-inflammatory gene expression than people with that core sense of eudaimonic well-being. Depression is associated with cellular inflammation.
So if we’re going to uncover happiness, we want it to be the meaningful and purposeful type.
Therese: In the years that you’ve been in the field, you’ve found a handful of what you call “natural antidepressants” that not only build resiliency, but also feed into this happiness. Tell us more.
Goldstein: Yes! This all started from my work in mindfulness as a path for relapse prevention with depression. In working with hundreds of people I came to find that mindfulness or awareness is a foundation, but there are other things that also seem to be supportive. I knew that many people who had experienced many bouts of depression seemed to struggle with conjuring an integral healing element — self-compassion. This is the understanding that we are suffering in a particular moment with the inclination to want to be kind to ourselves. It’s also the understanding that we aren’t alone in this struggle. When I started teaching techniques on how to strengthen this, it seemed to really be the scaffolding that others needed to make it come alive.
In my own life I’ve known that mindfulness and self-compassion are key ingredients in relapse prevention and feeling happier. However, the research is pretty clear why. We now know that mindfulness helps turn down the activity in the brain that’s associated with rumination — a key culprit in a depressive slide. We also know that having been depressed often means that you have low levels of self-compassion, and when we build self-compassion it generates antidepressant effects.
There are other key natural antidepressants that science and thousands of people’s experience attest to. For example, cultivating compassion for others helps us get outside of ourselves and creates an important left prefrontal shift of activity that’s been associated with resilience. Play has been shown to positively impact the cerebral cortex associated with cognitive processing, and having a learning mindset versus a performance mindset is a cornerstone for positive neuroplasticity [the ability of the brain to change and adapt].
Therese: One of the things I appreciate about your work is that you make complex concepts simple and practical. Can you share with us a practice that you’ve found helpful in breaking a bad mood?
Goldstein: Yes, happy to do this. But let me first say that there are many ways to break a bad mood, and the one to use will depend on the person. For example, if someone is in the midst of depression, mindfulness may not be the entryway, but other natural antidepressants that get us outside of ourselves may be a better starting point — like Play or Purpose.
For now let me give you something simple that is a mindfulness and self-compassion practice. The guiding mindset here is a learning mindset. This means don’t let prejudgments influence you here, and just be curious about what you notice. Play with this — you are a scientist of your own experience.
- Get in a comfortable position.
- Check in with your body: Is there any tension or tightness there, or maybe a heaviness or lightness? If there is any tension, see if this awareness allows you to gently soften it. If you aren’t able, that’s okay. The awareness is the most important piece.
- Place one hand on your heart and one hand on your abdomen. Be aware of the sensation of touch and also that this is an act of caring about yourself. Breathing in, sensing the caring touch that’s there, breathing out, letting be. Notice how this feels: Is it calming, agitating or soothing?
- Ask yourself, what is one thing in this moment that you are genuinely grateful for? If this is hard to summon, perhaps it’s simply your effort to take the time out of your day to do something for your own health and well-being.
There are many ways to break a bad mood and to encourage positive neuroplasticity that I discuss in the Uncovering Happiness. In this practice, sensing the feeling of the hands has the potential of turning the volume down in the mind. Also, underlying is the message that you are worthy enough to pay attention to. In other words, it feeds that sense of worthiness that is the opposite of the critic in our minds.
As we hold it all with a learning mindset, even the setbacks, we can learn to get better and better, transforming learning helplessness into learning helpfulness.
Therese: Thank you so much for taking the time out to share this and endorse it. I’ve read the book and consider it a treasure trove of information and techniques to foster peace of mind, and invaluable insight for those of us who are so often at war with our thoughts. Are there any last words of wisdom you want to share with us?
Goldstein: Thank you, Therese. I want to say that the science and practices that are available to us now translate into a strong story of hope. Having had depression in the past doesn’t mean you need to suffer with it in the same way in the future. The science will show you that you can literally shift activities in the areas of the brain that support resiliency, and reduce activity in areas that promote depression.
That’s the science. But I’ll tell you that nurturing your natural antidepressants will not only create adaptive neural shifts, it will go on to promote the necessary long-term healing from the trauma of depression.
Don’t let doubt hold you back, this is real and you can do this.
Originally posted on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.