Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Learning How to Be Happy (or at Least Less Sad)

I recently read a book that really impressed me despite how simplistic it initially seemed. Penguin Random House contacted me to see if I’d like to review How to Be Happy (Or at Least Less Sad): A Creative Workbook by Lee Crutchley. The subject sounded like a great match for my readers here, but when it arrived I was pleasantly surprised to see it was a workbook. I somehow missed that bit in the title, but once I adapted I began to see the great potential being a workbook gave the material.

Being told how to think better can be helpful, but being shown how to do it is infinitely better. Instead of empty exercises with an emphasis on touchy feely explorations of feelings & moods as I have seen elsewhere—with the counterproductive affirmation of sadness as a reality—this workbook teaches by emphasizing positive thinking and using clever visuals to downplay negativity.

One key aspect of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) is training yourself to think about things differently, thus changing your outlook and your mood. The emphasis is on recognizing your triggers and developing coping strategies to overcome or avoid them. Depression has an infernal tendency to warp our world view to be oppressively negative. By nature of being depressed, we begin to see everything in the worst possible light. Is it any wonder that untreated depression can lead to suicidal ideation? The message of CBT is that we don’t have to be trapped within our own minds. Depression may be real, but it doesn’t have to rule us. We can learn to offset the detrimental cognitive aspects of depression by training ourself to process events differently. This isn’t a glossy, vapid veneer, but a deep-rooted reconditioning that changes our quality of life. Obviously, such change requires dedication and effort, as well as the guidance of a trained Cognitive Behavior Therapist.

What if you can’t afford CBT?

Unfortunately, good CBTs can cost $150 an hour or more, and they aren’t always covered by insurance. How to Be Happy (Or at Least Less Sad): A Creative Workbook can’t replace a caring and knowledgeable CBT, but it can help one gain the benefits of CBT by virtue of its exercises. The book encourages positive thinking through constructive visualizing. One of my favorite examples in the book has “Write everything bad in this box” on the left with a small one inch tall box, and “Write everything good in this box” on the right with a box that fills the page. The message is clear. Don’t dwell on the negative.

However, depressives tend to be negative because they’re depressed! Training out of that thought rut can be difficult. This is why Crutchley provides so many varied exercises to nudge all types towards more constructive thinking. Not every exercise will speak to you, but overall the book’s effect will be beneficial. When I learned to overcome my depression years ago, I developed some of these same types of exercises on my own. That was the hard way of doing things. This book charts an easier course for you to follow.

Another strong aspect of the book is that the author teaches with examples that trying to be HAPPY can achieve the opposite effect because teaching yourself to think differently doesn’t come easy; failure is frequent. You might as well tell yourself that you will learn to fly like a bird by the end of the day. Instead, start smaller. Try to be less sad. It seems overly simplistic, but this concept is often referred to as taking baby steps. We cannot run before we can walk.

The third strong aspect of this book is the emphasis on mindfulness. Sometimes mindfulness can sound like religious gibberish, especially in the hands of bloggers on deadline with a poor understanding of the concept. Because this is a workbook, Crutchley doesn’t explain what mindfulness is, but he shows what it is by example, like his Chocolate Meditation page where he guides the reader in how to eat chocolate mindfully. What benefit does this hold for depressives? Mindfulness teaches observation and analysis, both necessary skills to help you identify triggers and learn ways to counteract them. Engaging your senses and paying attention to the minutiae of the moment trains us to think differently. By interspersing mindfulness exercises with those on positive thinking, Crutchley teaches CBT techniques very effectively.

I highly recommend this book for those who want a friendly, non-pressuring guidebook towards happier thinking. Our minds are far more powerful than we give them credit. Although many of you medicate your condition, learning to regulate your moods with CBT and mindfulness can reduce stress & anxiety, as well as give you a healthier outlook on life. At the very least you can end up a little bit less sad, and isn’t that a good thing?