One of the most frequent observations made of  patients, during my stint in a psychiatric inpatient unit, was their lack of novelty or change throughout their day. If you asked a person suffering from depression what they did that day, they often struggled to remember. This is because depressed people usually maintain a very repetitive existence (recall Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog’s Day).

Without going into a neuroanatomy lesson, think of the right brain as being depression’s ally, while the left brain is its nemesis. Our right brain contains structures that are associated with telling us, “if we just keep doing the same thing that we are used to, we will feel comfortable, and will feel better (also similar to when we have the flu or a cold).”

Yet, our left brain contains structures that are associated with novelty and challenge. If you recall from the meditation blog, our left brain also contains structures that are associated with our feelings of well-being and contentment. Therefore, you can begin to see how challenge and novelty are associated with well-being and contentment. By learning new things and spicing up our routine, we stimulate the area in our brain that makes us feel hopeful, optimistic, and joyful.

“Wisdom is the supreme part of happiness.”   – Sophocles

Many times, I would ask the patients in our group what a typical day in their life looked like. Usually it would look like this:

Wake up + Cigarette + Television + Lunch + Cigarette + Television + Cigarette + Dinner  + Cigarette + Sleep –> Repeat

Astoundingly, this type of day for them would repeat itself for months and months until they found themselves depressed, anxious, addicted, and/or suicidal and in our hospital.

These people were simply doing what “felt” right. They did not go out, they isolated without any peer interaction, their interpersonal relationships deteriorated, and they hadn’t done anything “out of the box,” in a significantly long time. Yet, there condition worsened until they were no longer able to cope on their own.

Oftentimes, patients would show a significant improvement within the first couple of days of treatment. My theory was that this was largely in part due to a novel environment combined with social interaction (vs. psychotropic medication, which they also received) and structure (often lacking throughout their lives and also found to contribute to mental illness).

“We squander our free time by freeing it of effort.”   – Tal Ben Shahar

Many humans believe that by “turning off” we are somehow rejuvenating ourselves. Can you remember the last time you felt invigorated after watching hours of television? Can you recall the feeling of boredom after spending three days by the beach on holiday intended to “relax” you? Think back to the happiest moments of your life. What were you doing? It is likely that you were working towards some self-directed goal or purpose.

“Growth itself contains the germ of happiness.”  – Pearl S. Buck

The “L” in my B.A.L.A.N.C.E model stands for “learning.” Learning includes both challenge and purpose. It is the behavior of the lifelong learner. We are hardwired as humans with the drive and desire to continuously learn and challenge ourselves. Yet, in day to day life, we set aside little time devoted to actually learning something new or purposely challenging ourselves. It is our job to restore challenge and learning back in our lives because that is what our minds are designed to do and desire to do. Think about where we would be today if we never challenged ourselves.

Recall a period in your life when you were being challenged to do something outside of your normal routine. Maybe you were doing work related training and were learning a new sales approach or computer software system. Maybe you were trying out a new pilates class, or training for a marathon. Whatever it was, I have a hunch that if you think back to how you were feeling, you were likely upbeat, positive, and content. Maybe you even questioned, “why don’t I do this more often?”

To the depressed person, this can seem like a monumental task. The idea of challenging themselves to learn something new is akin to asking someone with the stomach virus to get up and play a game of Twister. Yet the rewards of doing this for someone with depression can be immeasurable. Unlike other illnesses, often times doing the opposite of what you feel like doing, is usually the best medicine. This has also been referred to as opposite action, and is often used in DBT (dialectical behavioral therapy) for emotional regulation. I simply refer to it as the “just do it,” approach.

So as you are going through your day today- try something new. Maybe ask a friend to go to a mid-afternoon movie. Maybe take an online learning class about something you’ve always wanted to know more about, or just take a different route home than you usually do. Observe your feelings after doing so, and start to look for other opportunities in your week where you can sprinkle in some novelty. Go on… just do it.

Dr. Colleen Long is the author of “Happiness in B.A.L.A.N.C.E,” and practices in the Los Angeles area. Dr. Long works mainly from a positive psychology framework as it applies to addiction, depression, relationships,  and weight loss. Her website can be found at www.DrColleenLong.com. All public speaking/media event requests handled through FreudTV (info@FreudTV.com).

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