Before we commence with the festivities, I wanted to thank everyone for helping my first book become a Wall Street Journal bestseller. To check it out, click here.
We all want things to just be normal again.
But in this year-that-will-not-end, life has felt like some sort of gypsy curse. A quantum superposition of malaise. The spring was all of us just standing around slack-jawed, wondering what the universe had planned as a third act for this prank show we call “Nowadays.”
And currently we’re still a herd-and-a-half away from herd immunity, understandably restricted from many things like socializing which we count on for happiness. We’re frazzled, there’s a low hum of anxiety underneath everything we do, and we can’t even go to Olive Garden.
Luckily, we are starting to acclimate, accepting it all as just another episode of the COVID-19 Variety Hour. Problem is, many of us are not acclimating in a good way. Our positive daily routines are screwed up and COVID is throwing Miracle-Gro on our bad habits. Doomscrolling online, endless TV binges, aimless web surfing or far, far worse things are replacing constructive activities that promote true joy and productivity.
I’d argue that the limitations of COVID and lockdown are mimicking depression: we engage in fewer rewarding activities, ruminate on stresses we can do nothing about, we don’t see friends as frequently, and often unconsciously replace good habits with short-term soothing behaviors that keep us stuck in a rut. Now it’s not actual clinical depression — filled with more melancholy than a Lana Del Rey breakup — but our current limitations mimic characteristics of depression, and we’re all feeling the effects. It’s like having your soul deep fried.
In one way or another many of us are unconsciously hitting the “pause” button on the remote, trying to wait this out until “real life” starts again. Sorry, but we cannot take a mulligan on 2020. We need to be safe and keep others safe but we cannot act like this life is not real life. (Your gym might give you credit for missed months during the pandemic but life won’t.)
So what’s the best way to proceed, given the current could-not-be-further-from-ideal situation? It’s called “Behavioral Activation Therapy.” (Yes, the acronym for the solution to our COVID-induced unhappiness is “BAT.” I know what you’re thinking. Don’t say it. Bat jokes stopped being cool in April.)
The gist of Behavioral Activation Therapy is we gotta do happy to feel happy. Often, we wait until we feel right to do what’s right. Nope, BAT says it’s the complete opposite. Instead of our mood changing what we do, we need to change what we do to fix our mood. This may not sound like the “lazy” way to an awesome life but changing your feelings directly can seem impossible when the world has gone inferno. Altering how we act is easier.
And BAT is legit. In head-to-head studies it matched CBT-style strategies (the most battle-tested system out there) and was even as effective as meds.
The acute outcomes of patients who received BA were comparable to those who received antidepressant medication, even among more severely depressed patients. Patients assigned to BA tended to stay in treatment longer than those assigned to pharmacotherapy. BA was also superior to CT in the acute treatment of more severely depressed patients. There were no differences among treatments for the less severely depressed patients.
The book we’ll be getting the skinny on is Behavioral Activation for Depression. It’s a manual for therapists but it’s solid for us (at least as good as the many texts on ADD I haven’t finished).
Maybe you’re not feeling the pandemic pinch as bad as others. Good for you. But BAT isn’t just a Hail Mary pass against our COVID-induced pseudo-depression; it’s actually a path to a better life for all of us, all the time.
Let’s get to it…
The first principle of BAT is “The key to changing how people feel is helping them change what they do.”
BA is a brief structured treatment for depression that aims to activate clients in specific ways that will increase rewarding experiences in their lives. All of the techniques of BA are used in the service of the fundamental goal of increasing activation and engagement in one’s world. Toward this end, BA also focuses on processes that inhibit activation, such as escape and avoidance behaviors. BA is based on the premise that problems in vulnerable individuals’ lives reduce their ability to experience positive reward from their environments, leading to the symptoms and behaviors that we classify as depression.
Psychologists like to say that in cognitive therapy “the head teaches the hands.” You rationally work through your issues to change problematic behaviors. But in BAT, it’s the reverse: the hands teach the head. Engage in the right activities and good feelings will follow. So instead of asking for a new brain for Christmas, we need to think “outside-in.”
Now the critical peanut gallery will oversimplify this: “Oh, he’s just saying you just need to do more fun stuff. That’s all.” And they’re as entitled to their wrong opinion as anyone else. “Just do fun things” is definitely a pithy summary and it’s also fantastically unhelpful. It’s the equivalent of baseball advice like, “Just take the bat and hit the ball.” Totally true but I won’t be seeing you in the major leagues anytime soon. (Look, I don’t write thousands of words here to explain something that could be summarized in a sentence; that’s what business books are for.) Ever say “Wow, that felt good, why don’t I do that more often?” or “God, why do I do this? I’m always miserable the next day?” That’s the issue we’re talking about.
In real clinical depression people feel punished by life, so they do fewer things. This reduces pain but it also reduces the good things that lift us up. It’s like getting food poisoning so you decide you’ll make sure that doesn’t happen again by eating nothing at all. Not a good solution. We need positive reinforcement from the things we do. Activities that produce emotional compound interest in life.
The great psychologist Marsha Linehan once said that “emotions love themselves.” They perpetuate themselves. Moods create momentum. That’s why we often wait around for good ones to drive us toward positive behavior. Problem is, the current negative mood does just the opposite and then we end up worse off or at least saying, “Where did the day go?” Waiting for emotions to make things better during COVID is like asking pyromaniacs to put out the fire.
What often happens for people, however, is that they respond to these primary problems with behaviors that keep them stuck. As an individual stops engaging in activities that were once pleasurable, engages in escape or avoidance behaviors, or responds mostly to behaviors that bring immediate relief from annoyance despite future adverse consequences, such actions become secondary problems in and of themselves… Such avoidance provides short-term relief but maintains depression over the long term, both because rewards are not experienced and because stressors in life become worse over time.
As Winston Churchill once said, “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.” We can’t wait until we feel better to act. We need to act now to break the cycle of our feelings. This is how we bootstrap happiness.
(To learn more about how you can lead a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
The problem we often run into is picking good behaviors when that rationalization engine we call a brain is consumed with stress. Exercise is good and heroin is bad but in the middle there it can get kinda gray. So what’s the litmus test?
Marie Kondo says the key to tidying up is asking if something sparks joy. Toss what doesn’t, keep what does. Marie and I aren’t fully on the same page but it’s a good start. So think of me as a much larger Marie Kondo with a much deeper voice. We’re gonna evaluate our activities by pleasure and mastery.
“Pleasure” is vital but we want the kind that is a life-net-positive and not an emotional payday loan with a 3500% interest rate that leaves you even more stressed than you were yesterday. We’re looking for that deeper satisfaction we get from truly meaningful, noble activities like relationships, exercise, and reading Eric’s book.
And “Mastery” doesn’t just mean painting Picassos or conquering Central Asia. Think of it as a feeling of accomplishment. Yes, cleaning out the garage sucks but afterward you get the satisfaction that you actually achieved something and gained 10 points toward your Adulting merit badge.
Work can be fulfilling but, sadly, many are unemployed right now. But work’s not the only source of mastery. As research by Harvard professor Teresa Amabile has shown, progress in goals that are meaningful to you is incredibly satisfying and motivating, whether it pays the bills or not. (If you want to see coffee come out of my nose, ask me if I write these long blog posts “for the money.”)
And we need to balance the two. Working hard for a while is good. And all-out leisure time is important too. Research shows the latter promotes coping, and good god we all have some stuff to cope with right now.
Leisure activities in particular have been shown to lead to well-being in adolescents, adults, and the elderly by increasing coping abilities in the face of life stressors, including daily hassles (Caldwell, 2005).
Short-attention-span-critical-peanut-gallery says: “Okay, I’ll do the stuff that brings pleasure and mastery. Good. Done.” No. Bad. Stop. Go no further. We are often terrible at choosing what makes us feel long-term happy and productive.
Yes, I’m about to give you homework. Sorry. As you go about your day, rate your activities on a 1 to 10 scale in terms of pleasure or mastery. This isn’t hard. C’mon, you know being judgy is fun. It’s “Hot or Not” for activities. Use the notes app on your smartphone.
Got some rankings? Good. Now do pattern detection. What scores high? (Calling friends?) What scores low? (Reading the news?) What leads to even more good things? (Starting the day right?) What makes everything go to hell in a hurry? (Reading even more news?)
You want to find those naturally reinforcing behaviors that keep you on the right track. And when you have to do stuff you don’t love so much, you want to see what aspects you can tweak to make them more pleasurable or more masterful to keep the emotional momentum going.
And ask those around you for insight. As Nobel Prize winner Thomas Schelling once said, “The one thing a person cannot do, however brilliant they are, is write up a list of things that would never occur to them.” The people around you may know what affects you better than you do because, ummm… they often have to deal with the consequences.
Knowing the mistakes you usually make is the pro-est of protips in life. You want to start developing a “Rulebook of You” that can guide your behavior to happiness and fulfillment.
(To learn the two-word morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
Knowing what works for you and what doesn’t is a game changer. But all positive things are not created equal. You need to know your priorities. And the ratio of pleasure to mastery that works for you. And how to deal with the problem of competing goals…
What do you want out of life? What’s important to you? If I asked you that 5 minutes ago your mind would go totally blank. But now you have a list with hints. A cheat sheet to your life. Use it.
Values cannot be completed, only routinely honored. Goals, on the other hand, can be achieved. Values are ongoing. (“Staying in shape.”) Goals can be completed. (“Go running today.”) So you want to regularly translate values into goals and occasionally check in with your values to make sure you’re on track. You overcome conflicting goals by prioritizing your values. If friends are more important than rest, you stay up late talking to a friend who is dealing with problems.
Look at your rated list of activities and ask, “What are my values and how do I translate them into specific goals?” A lot of this work is probably already done but you want to expand or tweak your goals based on what you now know works for you.
And what makes a good goal? They should be challenging but do-able. Make them specific and measurable. Don’t define them by a negative (“watch less TV”), instead find replacements. Start small and be realistic. Work from where you are at (jogging one mile), not where you think you “should” be (running a marathon after 4 months of a couch-centric life.)
And focus on the activities and goals that provide that all-powerful positive reinforcement. Am I feeling better about myself long-term after I do this? Am I doing things I will look back on and be proud of? You want things that reward you and make you want to keep doing them.
Yes, like Pavlov. You are now Pavlov. (Note: you’re also Pavlov’s dog.)
(To learn more about how to make friends as an adult, click here.)
Okay, we got the big picture stuff of values and goals down. Now we have to get granular. And we have to obey…
We have calendars all backward. We use them to schedule errands, appointments and relatively unimportant stuff while leaving joy and accomplishment subject to fate. Wrong. Schedule what’s important. Schedule your pleasure and mastery. Yes, happiness lives in your calendar.
Tolstoy once said, “Life consists of penetrating the unknown, and fashioning our actions in accord with the new knowledge thus acquired.” So turn your happy-productivity list and your new goals that embody your values into a schedule.
When we choose in the moment, we often choose badly, especially in moody, stressful times like the COVID now. Remember: emotions love themselves. Don’t rely on just “knowing” what you need to do. Knowing and doing are not next-door neighbors. I don’t even think they have each other’s email address. So schedule the things that matter. Specific times, specific places, specific durations. The more specific and concrete a goal is, the more likely you are to do it.
BA therapists encourage people to begin acting from the “outside-in.” We ask people to experiment with acting according to a goal, as opposed to acting according to a mood. Engaging in activities that once brought pleasure or a sense of accomplishment or that solve problems can improve mood and reduce life stressors over time. A core part of BA is to begin to act, even when mood and motivation are low, rather than waiting for one’s mood to improve prior to getting engaged. Throughout BA some form of activity structuring and scheduling is used to support acting from the outside-in. These strategies can be accomplished by creating detailed schedules with tasks broken down into components and assigned at specific times and places.
Going forward, note the results of your actions. Keep scoring and revising. Consider your values. With time, expand goals and push the envelope, like raising the weight at the gym. Get the cycle of positive reinforcement working for you.
Some will kneejerk resist scheduling their free time as a threat to their autonomy. That makes about as much sense as Medusa checking her makeup. You came up with the rules. You’re telling you what to do. It’s only a threat to unpredictable moods and whims. And you love following rules — just not consciously. They’re called habits. It’s when your conscious mind gets on its soapbox that this becomes a problem.
Freedom? There’s no such thing. As Bob Dylan crooned, “Gotta serve somebody.” Better that somebody be your long-term goals than your whims – or, even worse, someone else’s. Freedom comes from discipline; otherwise you are only free to do what your moods demand. You now know what really works for you. You measured it. Now leverage the lessons learned from your “Rulebook of You.” Tell yourself what to do and then do as you’re told.
Don’t fight yourself. Outsmart yourself.
(To learn the 4 harsh truths that will make you a better person, click here.)
Okay, we’ve covered a lot. Time to round it up and learn how to take this to the next level – the fun and lazy way…
This is the lazy way to an awesome life:
So how do we take this to the next level? By involving the things many of us are currently missing the most: those we care about. Your values should involve others. One of your goals can be helping others. Even if everybody you care about can’t be with you physically, they can still be a part of this. Involving others in your quest for a better life is criminally underrated.
In honor of our current enemy, the virus, we should take a lesson from epidemiology. We’re all eagerly awaiting a vaccine. And when epidemiologists are trying to crush an outbreak, they don’t just run around vaccinating randomly.
They create “rings” of vaccination around those harmed by the pathogen.
From The Rules of Contagion:
As smallpox was nearing eradication in the 1970s, epidemiologists used ‘ring vaccination’ to stamp out the final few sparks of infection. When a new disease case appeared, teams would track down people the infected may have come into contact with, such as family members and neighbours, as well as these people’s contacts. They would then vaccinate people within this ‘ring’, preventing the smallpox virus spreading any further.
We protect and support those around us in times of need. And this is how we prevent any pathogen — virus or unhappiness — from spreading.
Seek joy and accomplishment in your activities. And build a protective, happy circle of those you love.
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