Feeling low? Just try doing something different…
I HAVEN’T WRITTEN MUCH lately, because I’ve been pretty down.
As a writer in his mid-50s who worries constantly about his work, I often think of myself as useless. And, of course, that’s not good for productivity.
I’m not the only one struggling to cope with the world as it is at present, but lately I’ve been feeling particularly past it, unfit and old.
I was also finding it hard to imagine an enjoyable future, and so it wasn’t long before some familiar thoughts popped into my head.
“What if I killed myself?” I wondered. “Surely they’d be better off without me?”
And that was the point I realised I had to do something.
The only something I could think of at the time was to go on a health drive – for a long while, I’ve wanted to eat better, drink less, lose weight, and reduce my blood pressure.
What was satisfying was becoming absorbed, leaving no space in my head for negative thoughts”
So, setting aside my other problems, that’s what I did: on Monday morning, I sent myself out for a long bike ride, and substituted blackcurrant cordial for beer that night.
At lunchtimes, I nibbled on a plate of fruit, and I also got round to doing the stretching and leg strengthening exercises I usually neglected.
As the week went on, I ran laps and more laps of the park, ignoring the inner voice that told me I was tired.
Within a few days, my blood pressure numbers had fallen to within the normal spectrum, which was a gratifying result.
But what was even more satisfying was working on something and becoming absorbed in it, leaving no space in my head for negative thoughts.
Having a new purpose was helping with my mental health as well as my physical issues – so much so that I found myself recording a joyous voice memo on my phone after a run.
“Every time I go out, I feel better,” I said. “I’m more confident in myself… I have some distance from my feelings.”
Purpose is like a charm that can ward off serious depression”Jonathan Rottenberg – The Depths
But, really, I should have known all this already…
A few years ago, I read and loved The Depths, a book by the research psychologist Jonathan Rottenberg, who says having purpose in life: “is like a talisman, a charm that can ward off serious depression.”
Rottenberg argues that becoming too focused on one area of purpose in our lives – such as my preoccupation with work – is often a recipe for poor mental health.
And he recommends that individuals develop a “diversified portfolio” of life purposes based on what matters to them, adding that being a parent, a runner, a writer and a scientist have together prevented his own depression from returning.
“Each of these enterprises has given me purpose,” Rottenberg writes.
“Because each purpose can be connected to a key evolutionary theme, such as attachment, procreation, health and affiliation, no doubt the state of each enterprise is tracked by my mood system.
“There’s no ready-made formula for discovering and rebuilding life purpose… (but a) … diverse process is worth pursuing: I expect what is common among people is that however purpose is created, it can hold depression at bay.”
It’s the mental benefits I’ve noticed the most”
This week, I’ve taken Rottenberg’s advice about developing multiple purposes to heart – taking on a new garden project that for the last seven days has seen me digging, weeding, laying turf, smashing concrete and mending fences.
It’s been good to see our plans for the garden taking shape and – fitness-wise – it’s certainly done me no harm to be swinging a sledgehammer and lifting rocks, out in the open air.
But, again, it’s the mental benefits I’ve noticed the most.
Not only do I feel I’ve contributed something to the household, my brain is noticeably more content solving novel little problems: like how best to remove a wall, where I’m going to put all this earth and concrete, and how many fence posts I’ll need.
As a result, I’ve slept surprisingly well – tired in mind and body both – and my creative brain has also responded to the change of scene by coming up with new writing ideas.
Overall, my self-esteem has changed dramatically for the better – the other day, I had a beer or two, and before my negative inner voice could criticise, I told myself: “You were a good boy today, and you’ll still a good boy tomorrow.”
And that, you see, is the purpose of having a purpose…