As I write this I'm taking good care of myself, working towards contentment. This article serves to remind to my future self what tools I have at my disposal to help escape misery. I'm using misery as a stand-in for depression/anxiety/stress/low motivation because it's often hard for me to recognize which combination of these I'm experiencing and the end result is that I'm unable to experience contentment. Similarly, I'm using contentment as a stand-in for happiness/calm/high motivation.
Before I start, I want to acknowledge that not everyone has all these tools at their disposal, and they certainly won't help everyone. This is also not a replacement for medication or help from a medical professional - in fact I was able to find most of these through therapy and coaching.
One of the biggest challenges as I drift into misery is first identifying how I'm feeling. Knowing that I'm feeling unmotivated, upset, or disappointed in myself helps me build a plan to get to a better place. I use the following habits to maintain and monitor my mental health.
At the end of each day, my wife and I share at least one achievement and one gratitude. They can be anything, even everyday activities (e.g. one day my achievement was I went for a walk, and my gratitude was I called my family). This is a moment for me to pause and think about the good things in my life - sometimes I struggle to come up with even one. If this happens a few days in a row, it's a flag that I need to invest more time in my mental health.
To track my mood, I record my feelings with CBT journaling apps. I've used two apps for this - Mood Notes and Stoic. Both have been great, though I recently switched to Stoic because I like the aesthetic. They force me to think about how I'm feeling, which I would otherwise overlook. They ask me questions that test my cognitive biases and have me come up with other ways of thinking about whatever may be bothering me. At times when I feel like I'm always miserable, my previous entries remind me that these feelings aren't actually constant.
Every day after I get out of bed, I hop on my stationary bike with a goal of biking for 20 minutes. This isn't intense exercise and if I'm not feeling up for it, I allow myself to stop after 5 minutes. This is my keystone habit and a commitment I've made to myself, so it's a red flag if I skip this routine two days in a row.
Once I've identified that I'm experiencing some form of misery, it's time to focus on recovering. I don't always start this step immediately, as taking action requires some amount of energy.
The first thing that moves me towards contentment is telling people, often my wife and therapist/coach, that I'm struggling. Being vulnerable is hard for me, but it helps me to not feel alone. It also gives others context on what I'm dealing with and sets expectations for what I'm currently capable of handling.
A common feeling that comes with my misery is guilt - guilt over not keeping up with routines, playing video games too much, eating unhealthily, not exercising, letting laundry pile up, etc. With my therapist's help, I've realized this feeling of guilt isn't motivating me, rather it's driving me to hide from these problems even more.
Listening to this guilt and forgiving myself for these "failures" helps me calm the inner monologue telling me what I should have done. Taking the time to recognize my partial successes also helps me escape the all-or-nothing mindset that contributes to my guilt.
- I didn't exercise, but I did go for a walk.
- I didn't bike for 20 minutes, but I managed to get on the bike.
- I've been miserable and aware of it for a few weeks, but I told someone today and I'm working on it.
- I sat on the couch all day, but I remembered to do my CBT journaling.
- My other habits are flying out the window, but I've written for 7 weeks in a row.
From here I pick something within my current ability and commit to doing it. This can be whatever requires the least amount of energy to help build more motivation. CBT refers to this as behavioral activation. For me these activities are biking, going for a walk, cooking an easy meal, and sharing achievement and gratitude. Habits that fit into my typical routine are easier (e.g. biking is a morning thing for me, so doing it in the afternoon requires a lot more motivation).
My friend and former classmate Jamie Wong wrote an amazing article on this topic, so I'll refer you to The Pit, the Cabin, and the Dance Floor for a deeper dive.
At this point I've already told someone I'm struggling, so now I have to tell that person what I've committed to doing. Being specific makes this more effective, e.g. "I'm going to get out of bed by 7AM and bike for at least five minutes."
My misery doesn't just disappear after following these steps, but this has been how I've been working through it lately. I've gone through the loop of misery and contentment a few times this year, and I've found it's been shorter than in the past. As with academic and professional pursuits, I'm trying to take a growth mindset towards mental health.
Similar to how the goal of meditation isn't to have a clear mind at all times, my goal isn't to be content all the time. The goal is to shorten the times when I'm miserable and extend the times when I'm content.