Living Well with Bipolar Disorder: Learning Optimism

Patient Expert

You may recall the 1966 film, "Born Free," based on the true story of Joy and George Adamson, who raised the orphaned lion cub Elsa to adulthood in the wilds of Kenya. In due course, the couple were given the choice of releasing Elsa back into the wild or sending her to a zoo. Elsa, of course, had no knowledge of the basics of surviving in the wild. The challenge in the movie was for Joy and George to teach her new skills.

We have been focusing a lot on the topic of happiness, lately. Why? Because it turns out to be a skill set that is as vital for our species to survive in the wild as feeding and sheltering ourselves. The catch is we are not very good at it, particularly those of us prone to depression (which takes in just about all of us with bipolar). Psychiatry and its related disciplines are fairly good at taking depressed people such as ourselves and "undepressing" us. Then what?

The major thing I observed in my seven years with support groups were individuals on the cusp of recovery who could not push through that final barrier to lives they considered worth living. What was going on? Yes, a lot of these people were still depressed and also dealing with other issues, but they were hardly incapacitated. Moreover, to a person they were all compliant with their meds and therapies, were smart about spotting their emotional triggers, and did not outrageously violate commonsense lifestyle guidelines.

Yet it was as if they could not survive out in the wild. So here they were, living in their own version of the human zoo - caged in their confining present, unable to escape their past, and fearful of their future. What was going on?

I do not profess to have any answers, but Martin Seligman's 2002 book, "Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment," got me thinking. Perhaps we're paying attention to all the wrong things. We tend to put all our energy into digging ourselves out of the hole or not falling back in. But we are rarely focused on that distant mountain we need to climb. Mountain? What's a mountain?

I vividly recall 11-and-a-half years ago when I finally sought professional help for my depression. My only goal was to be "undepressed." Once undepressed, I thought, I could fend for myself. Wrong, I discovered. I lacked the basic instincts for life in the wild. Put me back in that concrete jungle and I would get eaten alive.

For one, like nearly all of you, I inherited a vulnerable brain, more sensitive to stress and overload than most of the rest of the population. So, even on a level playing field I was going to get leveled. Once I got smart about this, I slowly acquired new skills, such as mindfulness. A lot of the recovery literature - and my own writing - focuses on these skills.

Then what? We learn to survive. But what about thriving?

Last week's sharepost took a first look at Dr Seligman's "Authentic Happiness" and its fundamental principle that we need to be aiming for lasting gratification rather than fleeting pleasures. Gratification typically requires effort, such as cooking a meal from scratch (preferably for the benefit of others, as well) rather than simply popping something in the   microwave.

This may not be possible when we are "depressed." But when we are "undepressed," it is vital we make the effort. If this means getting out of the house to go bowling, we go bowling. We don't sit home watching TV. Much easier said than done, of course, especially with the factory-reject brains we inherited. But the stakes are vital, the difference between our zoo-state of learned helplessness and our wild state of learned hopefulness.

There's a lot more to Dr Seligman's book. To briefly touch on one point:

It's obvious that people with pessimistic and optimistic world views think a lot differently, and Dr Seligman, himself, acknowledges that his own default setting is pessimistic. Pessimism, of course, has its virtues, and Dr Seligman jokes that it requires a pessimist such as himself to write on optimism.

First, optimism is not to be confused with our popular notion of "positive thinking." Dr Seligman, whose thinking is very much influenced by the cognitive therapy of Aaron Beck, sees no value in viewing events in ways that fly in the face of unpleasant reality. But optimists and pessimists do have totally different ways of assigning blame or credit to how events turn out.

For instance, an optimist who has a good day at work will internally credit his or her own efforts. The pessimist is likely to ascribe his or her good fortune to dumb luck. Conversely, if things go badly, the optimist will write off the disappointment to a bad day. The pessimist will shoulder all the blame.

Not surprisingly, by being adept in patting themselves on the back and rolling with the punches when the occasion demands, optimists fare better in all endeavors save one. That field is law. Lawyers, of course, are specialists in helping their clients avert disaster, which means they need to spot negatives that no one else sees. Natural pessimists, then, are born lawyers. (I have a law degree - I can vouch for this.)

Of course, lawyers have the highest depression rates of any profession or vocation, as well. Food for thought.

Much more to come ...