Through concentrated and intentional repetition, you can change your brain. The technical word for this concept, as coined by Jeffrey Schwarz at UCLA, is self-directed neuroplasticity, and recent studies bolster the theory. The ability to rewire our brain holds enormous potential for positive therapeutic change — especially for those who suffer from depression.
In Elisha Goldstein’s new book, Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion, he combines techniques from contemplative psychology to teach readers how they can start to redirect and rewire their thought processes and avoid what he calls the depression loop.
For anyone who has ever experienced depression, Goldstein’s description will likely sound familiar. “Falling into the depression loop is a lot like entering a traffic circle,” he writes. “You’re living your life, feeling fine, minding your own business and all of a sudden you find depression looming.”
Continuing the the analogy, he writes: “Just as various roads lead you into a traffic circle, the depression loop has four entrance points: thoughts, feelings, sensations, and behaviors.” Later, “you become so overwhelmed that you just keep going around and around and around. Soon a sense of learned helplessness sets in: you can no longer even see the exit.”
The techniques Goldstein recommends for getting out of this loop are similar to those detailed in Karen Wegela’s recent book, Contemplative Psychotherapy Essentials: Enriching Your Practice with Buddhist Psychology. While Wegela’s book is intended for the clinical practitioner, Goldstein presents a more accessible — and more secular — overview for the layperson.
Although Goldstein grounds his principles in contemplative psychology — a relatively new subfield that integrates ancient Buddhist philosophy — he in no way suggests that the reader must be affiliated with or embrace Buddhism as a spiritual practice. Unfortunately, the intelligent Western layperson often avoids books like Goldstein’s because of words like mindfulness and self-compassion, somehow assuming that the text will have a spiritual bent that may not align with their own views.
Rest assured that Goldstein’s thesis does not contradict conventional therapeutic practice, nor does it espouse any particular spiritual affiliation.
In fact, Goldstein uses recent neurological, psychological, and physiological research to validate his approach. He shows how mindfulness and self-compassion are, indeed, promoters of positive change within the brain.
As for the approach itself, I saw three main steps in the book. First, identity the depression and its associated “loop.” Second, understand the problem through careful analysis and mindful self-reflection. Finally, integrate those lessons into daily life, using self-compassion.
Perhaps the most challenging part for those with depression will be granting self-permission to engage in play — something Goldstein deems important to recovery.
“In a culture that prizes productivity,” he writes, “adult play seems to be defined as a negative, unproductive, self-indulgent activity — or even something X-rated. I think we need to update our definition of play.”
Play can mean anything from riding horses to painting to looking at art books, Goldstein explains. And whatever the so-called toy, he writes, it is imperative that all of us, depressed or not, find a way to play. Through it, we can wire our brain “toward maximum resilience and well-being.”
One aspect I found especially delightful about Uncovering Happiness, aside from Goldstein’s congenial warmth, were the worksheets and exercises throughout the book. I found myself stopping frequently to complete the worksheets, then taking time to reflect on how the tools enhanced my understanding of emotional intelligence. And I found myself more fully appreciating the benefits of positive self-talk (a layer of self-compassion).
Although I already engage in several contemplative practices every day, I still found immense value in Goldstein’s book. While his intended audience is the intelligent general reader with an interest in managing depression, his masterful explanation of complex neurological processes, summary of current research, and playful yet powerful array of worksheets and self-evaluation tools are all useful — and offer a lot to a wider range of readers.
Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion
Simon & Schuster, January 2015
Hardcover, 320 pages