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Depression and self-obsessiveness

Tim Ferriss is one of those voices who I’ve paid close attention to in recent years.

It’s well over a decade since his Four-Hour Work Week catapulted him into the minds of millennials everywhere who were intent on finding freedom before retirement age, but his thoughts and work related to the area of mental health, and major depression in particular, is something else entirely and one that may well reveal him to a much larger and much broader audience — at any rate a much more diverse audience — in time.

He has spoken at length about how depression brought him to the brink of suicide in the past, and last year revealed he was part-funding of potentially revolutionary research in treatments for depression, based on studies of the effects of microdosing of psilocybin, the mind-altering compound found in magic mushrooms.

Ferriss spoke with Ryan Holiday on his podcast last week, and after kicking off by talking about dogs, Ferriss riffed on the antidepressant benefits of owning a puppy because it forced him out of his tendency to ruminate.

Caring for a puppy, at least if you do it well, takes your attention outside of any type of self-indulgent reflection / obsessive-compulsive rumination. I’m someone who has had a history of depression, which is being stuck in the past and being highly self-referential.

Depression is, I think, as someone who has experienced it a lot in life, very self-obsessive. So when you have something in front of you that requires and demands care or it’s gonna pee on your carpet every two and a half hours, like Molly my dog, it’s incredibly antidepressive because it forces a complete refocus.

A key element of cognitive behavioral therapy is to address rumination: the seemingly endless and unbreakable cycle of typically negative and, yes, self-obsessive thoughts of the depressive.

These thoughts are generally, although not always, focused on the past. Things that didn’t work out as well as they could. Things that might have gone differently. Mistakes made that have brought you to this point in time, and the inability to reverse the clock and change them.

Anxiety and depression: two sides of one coin?

Anxiety feels a bit like the flip side of the depression coin. Many people who suffer from depression also suffer from anxiety, and vice versa; it’s unclear where causality or correlation lie, but it’s well established that depression might cause anxiety and that anxiety might cause depression, in an ever-spiralling negative cycle that needs to be broken if life can be lived at all.

Anxiety is obsessing negatively about the future, and depression is obsessing negatively about the past and the present, and both hugely affect the present, where one or both can be totally debilitating. It’s not for nothing that the World Health Organisation describes depression as a leading cause of disability globally.

The most debilitating thing about depression

The most debilitating thing, however, might just be the thought that depression (or anxiety) are just an unavoidable part of who we are, and therefore an empirical fact that cannot be challenged or changed.

The way I think of it in my case: I have struggled for years with many bouts of major depression. But depression is not a part of me. A susceptibility to depression is. And that’s a very different thing.

As always, the recovery starts first with awareness, and secondly action based on that awareness.

The awareness is mostly already there — as Guru Singh has said, “If you’re depressed you’re paying attention” — and it’s the beating down of that awareness, the refusal to believe the things of which we are deeply aware, that can make us depressed.

The action can be a different task entirely. For us depressives, taking any action can often be a step too far, but finding a way to take even one small step, and finding our footing there before trying another, can have massive positive long-term benefits.

The far-reaching benefits of one small step

Taking even one small step forward shows us that taking a step forward is possible. And if we can take one small step, and follow it sometime soon with another, perhaps we can keep taking small steps until our condition is under control, or at least not a constant threat of inflicting cataclysm on our lives.

Doing something that doesn’t just encourage us to take a few steps forward, but forces us to — something like owning a puppy — can set the ball rolling in a way that might have far-reaching benefits in months and years to come.

Doing something that forces action upon us can lift us up and out of the self-obsessiveness for long enough to take a couple of these small steps.

 

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Embracing desire, letting go of expectation: A Stoic philosophy via Tim Ferriss, tennis and inner demons

I took up tennis this year. Joined the local club, showed up to a few social nights. Eventually, became sufficiently comfortable on court to put my name forward for a couple of entry-level leagues.

Me and tennis go way back, but it was a distant relationship.

For years I had wanted to play.

I’ve got vivid memories of childhood summers spent in front of the television, listening to John McEnroe’s verbal explosions, smiling at Henri Laconte’s brand of on-court crowd entertainment, watching — no, studying — Stefan Edberg’s serve-volley technique.

And falling a little bit in love with Gabriela Sabatini and Steffi Graf. 

My games were football: Gaelic and soccer. Team sports. I played no individual sport competitively, but to it I brought an individual’s mindset, an outsider’s sentiment.

So even in the team sports I found a way to the individual position: goalkeeper. The place where I would mark nobody, where nobody would mark me, where for long stretches of every game I would be alone with my thoughts. And the thoughts could become fears, and the fears could become demons.

Every match the gauntlet was thrown down: me vs my demons. I projected bravado, as much as I could. I hollered and roared and swore, so much that parents of young children half-jokingly admonished me for the sounds and the fury to which I’d just exposed their kids. Half-joking, but at least half-serious too. But through it all, the demons were there. Perched on my shoulder, their words pecking incessantly at my ear-drum.

When victory came, I celebrated it with relief. Relief that I had not screwed up, or that the screw-ups had not been costly.

When defeat came, I marked it with self-recrimination. Was there something I could have done differently? A step quicker in this direction or that? A different warm-up routine that might have allowed my body to get down to that low ball to my right? Finding the courage to say the right word at the right moment in the dressing room? I routinely blamed myself for everything that went badly, gave credit elsewhere when it went well.

Either relief or blame. No real joy, never any real joy.

After 20 years of the team environment of football, I was ready for something just for me. To test myself and my mind in something new, where I could let nobody down — at least, nobody but me.

The options: tennis, or golf, or mixed martial arts. 

Golf: a bit too much time and a bit too much expense. 

Mixed martial arts: Soon, perhaps. I can’t imagine going through life without exposing myself to martial arts. (An introductory Brazilian jiu jitsu class takes place far from me. I’ve marked it down for the near future. But I see BJJ and MMA as more for my mind than for competition, at least for now.)

So tennis it was.

I left aside the sense of class politics at play: within the past two weeks, one person has said to me, “I know a few people, put them in tennis gear and they wouldn’t say hello to you.”

The idle talk brings stoicism to mind. Stoicism has been speaking to me lately, and maybe it’s the ethos and philosophy I’ve been preparing for my whole life. With idle talk, I can listen to it, or I can ignore it.

Stoicism tells me ignore it.

Stoicism tells me that the thoughts and the words and the actions of other people are not important to me.

Stoicism says that the only important things are what I think and what I do.

Control the controllables.

There’s an air of Stoicism about Andre Agassi, the great former champion. His autobiography, Open, was quickly acclaimed as the best sporting autobiography ever written after it was published almost a decade ago, but I’ve only got to it this month. Wimbledon on the television, rackets out for club night, Agassi on the bedside locker: it’s been wall-to-wall tennis these past two weeks.

One of the heroes of Agassi’s book is his long-time coach and mentor, Gil Reyes, who educated him about what it means to be human, the afflictions of expectations and turmoil and possibilities and despair of being alive in the world.

We need, said Reyes, to see ourselves as part engineer, part mathematician, part artist, part mystic. We need to grind the cogs, we need to crunch the numbers, we need to channel our innate creativity and we need to embrace some higher power, whether it comes from God or Gaia or the universe or some place else.

And with all that, we need to find a way to be comfortable with all the contradictions that being part engineer, part mathematician, part artist and part mystic brings. Because life without contradictions and struggle and tension is impossible. 

The Stoics, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius and fellas like that, would approve, I think.

There’s an equation for happiness that has been doing the rounds on various Internet memes and discussion forums in recent years. I’m not sure of its provenance — it could well derive from ancient wisdom, Stoicism or otherwise — but it goes like this:

Happiness = Reality – Expectations

The equation appeals to the part mathematician in me. The attempt to try to find balance on either side of the equals sign is a noble one, even if it’s rarely possible.

Looking closely at the equation, it suggests the biggest challenge to happiness is expectation. That it is our expectations of reality, not reality itself, that make us unhappy.

One obvious option, then, is to lower our expectations. Critics of Stoicism might suggest that low expectations is a hallmark.

Tim Ferriss, a modern day Stoic, has a riff about the perception of the philosophy. “Stoicism? Well that sounds boring,” he says. “It might conjure an image of a cow standing in the rain. It’s not sad, it’s not particularly happy, it’s just an impassive creature taking whatever life sends its way.”

But that perception is not reality. Stoicism has been used as a tool and a guiding principle by some of the greatest minds in the history of humanity, from Roman emperors to American founding fathers to sporting greats, both in performance and in coaching.

In the Happiness = Reality – Expectations equation, becoming an impassive creature taking whatever life sends our way is a surefire way to lower our expectations to zero.

And if we find a way to do that, since reality is unlikely to be zero, then we can take pleasure and enjoyment in the smallest good things that come our way — “I didn’t get a speeding fine! Oh how wonderful!”, or “I am taking great pleasure in this raisin, bite by little bite”.

But the greatest minds in history would not approve of lowering expectations to zero.

Lowering our expectations to zero, while it might be theoretically laudable, is practically implausible.

By all means, we should not have expectations for outlandishness. Go into every competition expecting to come out number 1 against all-comers, and we’re almost certain to be so frequently disappointed that discontentment will become our norm.

So if (1) being happy with our lot is a legitimate aspiration (and I do believe that happiness — the true happiness of eudaimonia, not the transient material pleasure of hedonism — is the meaning and the point and the purpose of life) and if (2) lowering expectations to zero is implausible, or even impossible, what can we do?

It is, I think, to practise embracing desire while letting go of expectations. To have big ambitions and a clear, actionable plan to realise those ambitions, but to find a way to divest those ambitions of the expectation that they will become a reality. 

[An aside on ambition. Ambition can be two things: zero-sum or win-win. Zero-sum ambition, where your success depends on someone else’s failure, is not sustaining or sustainable. Win-win ambition is ambition with integrity, where your success is built upon someone else’s success before you, and where your success lays the foundations for the success of others to follow.]

The obligation to take action, the necessity to expect no particular outcome

We have one short and precious life. It’s obligatory for us on the one hand to aim big, taking action relentlessly so we do everything in our power to make those big ambitions a reality, and on the other to rid ourselves of expectations or entitlement to the outcome. 

We must lose ourselves in the daily minute process and the overall motivating purpose, and at the same time strip ourselves of the ego wrapped up in the twin impostors of triumph and disaster.

Desire is natural, and human, and resists the scalpel. Cut out the desire, and we cut out the life.

When we expect something, we are invariably left cold. We’re left cold when the thing we expect becomes a reality, because, after all, we expected it all along, so how can we take pleasure in something that was expected to happen? And we are colder if it doesn’t, because there is nothing to deadening as for things to turn out less than they were supposed to be.

When we desire something worthwhile, and when we can take action to bring ourselves to the place where it is achieved, but at every step of the way we take care to strip ourselves of ego-driven expectation, then we can truly, I think, become lost in the moment, driven by something meaningful, and fully completely at one with ourselves.

I desire a fast first serve, and I’ll work hard at getting it, but I’m not sure I have any expectation that it will ever become a reality.

And I suppose that’s a good thing.