Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Avoiding Sadness - the Five Point Plan

Being Sad

I have written several articles focussing on happiness, showing how and why we should be happy most of the time.  In this article I want to turn this on its head a little.  Instead of simply talking about happiness, let's think a moment about sadness.

Sometimes it may be appropriate to be sad.  In Ecclesiastes we are reminded that there is a right time for everything, including a time for being sad.  Solomon was renowned as a very wise man, and it is widely believed that Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes.  Whoever wrote it, there are some very wise words in this book, and you do not need to be a practising Jew or Christian to find it helpful. In chapter 3 we are told "there is a time to cry and a time to laugh, a time to be sad and a time to dance."  If, for example, you have just lost your life partner to cancer I really wouldn't expect you to get up and dance.  Having said that, you should know in your heart that your life partner would not want you to be sad, so the time for sadness should be very limited.

Usually, though, it is not at all appropriate to be sad.  Many people are often sad and cannot say why they feel this way.  They just do!  If this happens to you, don't despair - as I said, this happens to many people.


It is important to recognize whether you are simply sad or are suffering from clinical depression.  If the former I have some answers for you below in the five point plan.  If the latter you probably need some additional help.  Go and see your doctor.  Don't be embarrassed about doing this.  Depression is as much an illness as is cancer.  In both cases you need treatment or the illness may kill you.  The earlier you seek help the more likely something can be done about it.

Some very famous and successful people have suffered from, but also survived, depression, including (in no particular order):
  •  Actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, who has bipolar II disorder
  •  Boxer Frank Bruno, who has bipolar disorder which led to him being briefly sectioned under the mental health act.
  •  Actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who suffered from postpartum depression after the birth of her son Moses
  •  Actress and singer Kylie Minogue, who suffered clinical depression when she was diagnosed with breast cancer
  •  US President Abraham Lincoln, whose depression frequently made him feel completely inadequate and whose friends had to put him on suicide watch
  •  "Harry Potter" author J K Rowling, whose depression made her suicidal and had a course of cognitive behavioural therapy
  •  Canadian singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen, who credits his practice of Zen Buddhism with the cure of his depression
  •  British Prime Minister and Nobel Prize winner Sir Winston Churchill, who called his manic depression "black dog"
  •  Astronaut and Moon walker Buzz Aldrin
  •  Discoverer of gravity and the laws of motion, Sir Isaac Newton
  •  Comic actor Jim Carrey

Some of the symptoms of clinical depression include:
  •  Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, and believing your situation cannot improve and there is simply nothing you can do about it
  •  A loss of interest in hobbies and activities you used to enjoy
  •  Changes in sleep pattern (either oversleeping or an inability to sleep)
  •  Changes in appetite and changes in weight (usually a gain or loss of more than 5% in a month)
  •  An unusually short temper causing strong feelings of anger
  •  Reckless behaviour (e.g. binges of drinking, compulsive gambling)
  •  A feeling of listlessness and loss of energy
  •  Problems concentrating on anything or making important decisions
  •  Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  •  Unexplained headaches

If you have several of these symptoms, or even only one or two but to an extreme, it is very likely you have some form of clinical depression.  Remember that list of famous people who have similarly suffered with depression.  Recognize you are not alone.  Accept the fact that you need some help to deal with this just as so many of them did too and visit your doctor for advice before it is too late.  At the same time, with the knowledge of your doctor, try some of the techniques below.

The Five Point Plan

Whether you had a good reason to be sad but now that time has passed or you are sad but do not know the reason why, you should have a good armoury of techniques to counter this sadness.  This applies equally to people with depression and to those who are not clinically depressed but still sad.  The five point plan I am going to suggest as your armoury was originally proposed by the 13th century Italian monk, St Thomas Aquinas.  Although Aquinas was a Catholic priest these are not religious practices, so they are equally appropriate whether you are a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist ... or of no religion at all.

Thomas Aquinas suggests five simple practices to shake off your sadness:

  1. Treat yourself.  This is a practice I also recommend to anyone trying to improve themselves - reward yourself properly for each step forward you take.  I find, for example, it is a good way for students to study properly, rewarding themselves after, say, an hour of solid study.  But now I am not talking about a reward.  I am talking about giving yourself something you like for no other reason than that you like it.  This may be a few glasses of wine, a bar of chocolate, a visit to a concert ... the list goes on, and your choices from that list will be very personal to you.  Surprisingly, too many people find this exercise very difficult.  They feel guilty.  If there is a cost involved they feel it is a waste of money that should be used for something "more sensible".  Even if there is not a cost involved, they feel for some other reason that it is wrong to enjoy pleasure for pleasure's sake.  Rid yourself of that guilt feeling.  There is no need to feel guilty, as what you are doing is not frivolous.  You are treating your sadness in a way that may avoid the need for medication.  In fact, do not simply use this to treat sadness when it arrives, but use it as a way of avoiding the sadness in the first place.  Make it a habit to treat yourself in this way regularly.  Do it for no other reason than the fact that it is something you enjoy.  Just as you give gifts to the most important people in your life (at least, I hope you do!), give gifts to yourself.  Actually, if you get into the habit of doing this you will also find it will become more natural for you to give gifts to others.  As has often been said, in order to love others, first learn to love yourself.  And if you love yourself, why not treat yourself to lovely gifts?
  2. Cry.  Too many of us feel it is wrong to cry - especially men.  It is not wrong to cry.  Rather, it is wrong not to cry if you really are sad.  Crying allows you to release sorrow that will otherwise be bottled up inside you and will continue to hurt you until eventually you find a way to release it.  Why not release it right away by crying?  Cry even if whatever is causing you sadness is not really anything too bad.  By crying you can wipe that sadness away almost in an instant.
  3. Share your sadness with a friend.  Again, this is something it is often a lot easier for women to do than men.  But whether you are a man or a woman, sharing your sorrow will help relieve it.  If you have a life partner it is almost certainly best to share your sorrows with him or her.  Typically you will find a woman is better at reacting in the right way than a man.  Men tend to believe that if someone brings them a problem they are expected to find an answer to that problem.  Women, on the other hand, often want nothing more than someone sympathetic to share the problem.  Sometimes a husband trying to give an answer to the problem his wife has brought to him will be dismayed to find she seems to be ungrateful.  The problem here is that she wanted someone to understand, and by giving her what he believes is the answer the husband has made her feel he does not understand, and does not sympathise with her.  If you are a man and your wife is trying to share her sadness with you, do not initially try to give her an answer.  Instead, listen and hug her.  Let her share that sadness and show her you care.  Later, if there IS an answer (and often there is not!) you can suggest that answer to her.  But only after you have allowed you to share properly with you first.  Likewise, if you are a man you should realize that the purpose of sharing your sadness with your partner is not to try to get an answer.  Don't expect an answer, just a lightening of your burden as you share it.  And if you are a woman trying to share your sadness with a man, recognize he may not understand what reaction you need.  Perhaps you should preface it by telling him you have this sadness and that you need to share it with him, but you are not looking for an answer.  That way he will be better prepared to handle this in the right way.  If you do not have a life partner you should try to find some very good friends you trust enough to share your sadness.  Don't wait until you need to share - go out now and start looking for those real friends.
  4. Think about and immerse yourself in what I think of as Eternal Truths.  This will mean different things to different people, but it can include great music, literature, and art, as well as meditation and / or prayer if you find these practices helpful.  It can include walking in the countryside enjoying the great views and the reminder of how wonderful the world around us is, or viewing the night sky through a telescope and marvelling at the beauty and immensity of it all.  When you immerse yourself in these eternal truths you will find your sadness is rightly put in its place, as sadness is not an eternal truth.
  5. Enjoy a nice, long and luxurious bath and a good long sleep.  This really needs little more explanation.  A good bath and a proper sleep can work wonders!

The next time you feel sad for any reason, try this five step plan which was given to us eight centuries ago.  I think you will be amazed at just how effective it can be!

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