Remind Yourself to Smile, Laugh, Play

Richard O’Connor’s excellent “The Basics of Good Self-Care” includes three items which often don’t appear on depression-beating checklists: Spend some time every day in play; cultivate your sense of humor; pay more attention to small pleasures and sensations.

All good advice. These aren’t the only things or the most important things you can do to fight depression, but they’re valuable and worth including in your depression-fighting life strategy. I have condensed them into a simple personal reminder: Smile, Laugh, Play, Everyday.

People without depression might find it strange that one would need to be reminded to smile, laugh and play. But that’s the nature of the disease. Depression makes the world feel empty, joyless, blah. It strips away your natural impulse to find humor and joy in everyday life.

People with depression might find this advice annoying. Maybe someone who cares about you but who doesn’t really understand depression has suggested, “Couldn’t you just try smiling and being more pleasant?” As if it were that easy.

Just to be clear: I am not recommending that you make the effort to Smile, Laugh, Play, Everyday because it’s easy. I’m recommending that you make the effort precisely because it’s not easy when you’re depressed. It’s hard, but making that effort can yield surprising benefits.

A while back, Smash Depression looked at research into the use of Botox to treat depression. The study was testing the “facial feedback hypothesis”, which roughly posits that facial expressions do not just reflect our feelings but can actively influence how we feel. In other words, the physical act of smiling might make us feel better, while the act of frowning might make us feel worse. The researchers wondered if using Botox to paralyze a depressed person’s face to render it incapable of frowning might improve their mood. Sounds preposterous, right? But the results were positive.

I’m certainly not suggesting anyone try this at home. But there is good reason to believe that willing yourself to smile and laugh can have a positive impact on your mood.

When you’re depressed, smiling and laughing can feel artificial or even dishonest. Depression tricks us into believing that joyless pessimism is a realistic way of experiencing the world, that life really is empty and terrible and we’re only now seeing that truth. It’s important to remind yourself that depression lies. Smiling, laughing, irony, bemusement, appreciating simple pleasures — these are all perfectly realistic and appropriate responses to life. When we smile and laugh, we’re recognizing truths that depression tries to conceal. Joy is realistic.

So how can you encourage yourself to smile and laugh when you don’t necessarily feel like smiling and laughing?

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Here’s one exercise: brainstorm a short list of things that made you smile and feel good in the past. Seek one or two of those things out. It can be something very simple and frivolous. Calm your mind and remind yourself how that experience felt joyful in the past. Recognize and reject the depression impulse that tells you that you don’t deserve to feel joy. Just enjoy the moment and smile. Repeat as necessary.

Similarly, make an effort to expose yourself to things likely to make you laugh. Seek out good comedy, cultivate your sense of humor, notice absurdity in the world. It may sound obvious, but depression can sap your energy and will to experience pleasure. It’s worth making the effort.

We may associate play with childhood, but it’s important for adults too. Carving out time in your day for play and hobbies can make a big difference in fighting depression. The best forms of play are both creative outlets and active endeavors.

Physical exercise is absolutely essential to fighting depression. If you can find a form of exercise that feels like play to you, whether running or yoga or weightlifting or golf or basketball or rock climbing or whatever, the benefits grow enormously. You’re much more likely to stick with your exercise program, for one thing.

Artistic pursuits are great forms of play as well: drawing, painting, knitting, learning an instrument. Gardening and home improvement can be great creative, active hobbies if you enjoy them. Playing with pets can do wonders for your mood.

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If you spend too much of your life sitting and staring at glowing rectangles, make a point of developing forms of play that do not involve sitting and staring at glowing rectangles. That’s not a moral judgment on videogames and similar pastimes, just healthy advice. An extremely sedentary lifestyle may put one at risk for depression and anxiety, so it’s good to find ways to counteract that if you’re prone to depression.

Smile, Laugh, Play, Everyday. When you’re depressed, it can be hard to seek those things out. Depression might make you feel that it’s too much work, or that you don’t deserve joy in your life. Depression lies. Make the effort to embrace humor, pleasure and play as part of a balanced life.

(Dog photo by Andy.)

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