This lovely viral video seems to be doing the rounds at the moment and reminds me how much we are effected by what we focus on. Focussing on depressing bad things will almost inevitably lead us to feeling depressed and bad.
One of the theories of depression is that it is an ‘attentional bias’ to bad things, meaning that things that are bad we will notice more acutely but things that are good, we will discount and ignore. I’m sure that is correct and that this is the same process that makes exercises like writing a gratitude list so effective when managing a depressive nature. There is no point telling a depressed person not to worry, or that things aren’t so bad. Generally the things they are noticing are worthy of worry and very often are so bad. What they don’t / won’t or can’t acknowledge though, are that there are also good things happening every day. No matter how grim things get, there is always something that can be noticed and appreciated. Drawing people’s attention back onto these things is a much more effective strategy than trying to get them to discount the bad things.
In 1992, Jeremiah McDonald, aged 12, made a video recording of himself having a conversation with an imaginary him in 20 years time. Well, that time has come and Jeremiah has replied to himself. Apart from being an utterly charming piece, it also resonates with some modern psychological ideas.
For a long time, when dealing with depression, psychotherapy has worked with the past and psychology has worked with the present to manage symptoms.
More recently some therapies have begun to look into the future for a solution. Dr Philip Zimbardo, in his book the Time Paradox, examines how planning for the future make a tremendous difference to happiness and achievements. In the famous Marshmallow experiment by Walter Mischel at Stanford University (1972), four year old children were offered an extra marshmallow sweet if they could wait twenty minutes for their treat. Some could resist and others couldn’t but interestingly, after following them up, it was found that those who had been able to resist had also gone on to be better adjusted more dependable and scored an average of 210 points higher on their SATs. Zimbardo hypothesises that this ability to delay gratification and plan into the future can be taught.
Professor Martin Selligman’s work with Positive Psychology also asks people to consider the future. One of the exercises from his work Positive Psychology, for example, is to write the epitaph to be read out by our grandchildren at our funeral. This may sound a little morbid and indeed rather risky for us suicidal depressives perhaps, but it is designed to get us to think about what we want our life to mean by describing what we would like to be remembered for and therefore what really matters in our lives. Selligman believes that the more concretely we can understand what is really important in life, and what our values really are, the more we shall flourish.
I think Jeramiah’s video points to the same idea. What will you want to be doing in 20 years time? Who will you want to be?
One of the exercises we encourage is to write a letter to yourself in the future. In the old days we used to ask people to write a hand written letter to themselves a year into the future which we would then post to them a year later. With the aid of modern technology you can now write an email to the future you directly. Go to http://www.futureme.org/ and write to yourself at any point in the future.
If 20 years is too long to wait, why not write to yourself in a month or six months time? In any time it will be interesting to note if it turns out that a relationship with the future you happens to be more important than a relationship with yourself in the past.
(originally published in and reproduced from PROMIS Blog)