Sunday, December 4, 2011

Some thoughts on Spontaneous Happiness

(And of course sooner or later these thoughts will get around to birds!)

The terminal grayness of the season has dragged on into Sunday (there was a respite yesterday afternoon...when I was busy running errands, alas), so that after a brief jaunt to the Salt Creek Wetland this morning, I spent the rest of the day huddled under an afghan, snuggling with my dogs and reading the latest book to hit my Kindle, Spontaneous Happiness by Andrew Weil.

I have been a big fan of Dr. Weil's for over a decade; in fact, it was his books Health and Healing and Natural Health, Natural Medicine that first piqued my interest in alternative (and integrative) medicine. His latest, Spontaneous Happiness, is mostly a discussion of how to alleviate the mild-to-moderate depression and other mental issues plaguing the twenty-first century developed world. Although he mentions that part of the "epidemic" of depression is actually created by the medical industry (I think that very few would argue that, especially after approval of direct-to-consumer advertising, the pharmaceutical companies have gone overboard in pushing their wares), and that the idea that one should be aggressively "happy" all the time is artificial and unnatural, he also states that more people than ever seem to be depressed. Hunter-gatherer societies, the Old Order Amish, and those in less developed countries very rarely get depressed, even though their lives are more physically grueling. Modern American cosmopolites (and those in other developed Western countries) are much less happy. Why is this?

Besides birding and nature, integrative and natural medicine, especially as it relates to mental health, is a huge interest of mine. Partly this is for personal reasons--I try not to dwell on it, but I'll be the first to admit that I'm completely neurotic, mostly suffering from various forms of anxiety, with a liberal smattering of melancholia to round it all out.

Like Dr. Weil, I find the whole biochemical theory depression and other problems (with some exceptions, such as bipolar disorder, which thankfully I do not have!) to be inadequate if not downright flawed. But if neurotransmitters aren't to blame for the problem, then what is? Here is where the topic intersects nicely with the core subjects of Bird Ephemera.

Lately my thoughts on the topic can be summed up briefly: "We're just not meant to live this way!" In fact, I've felt out of step with our society pretty much my entire life, and the disconnect has just been getting worse, to the extent that, at times, trying to squeeze myself into the current mold is almost a torment for me. And like a pendulum swinging from extreme to extreme, the more horrible I feel in my daily life, the more obsessively I turn to nature as my escape.

I was interested to see that, basically, Dr. Weil seems to agree with me. Possible culprits mentioned in Spontaneous Happiness include our heavily processed diets (I would personally rate this higher than he does, at least based on my own experience--junk foods always lead me to junk moods), too little activity and too much time spent inside, being disconnected from nature (he mentions Richard Louv's concept of  "nature deficit disorder"), but Weil seems to place most of the blame on our Information Technology: information overload, the constant pull of e-mail and cell phone calls bringing work into leisure time, our responses to the non-stop demands of the news media to catch our attention by alarming us.

I can see how that would be true for people who have fallen into this trap. During the Gulf Oil Spill, I know I became more and more depressed as I plunged again and again into coverage on the tragedy. Other than stories on the environment, personally I try to avoid the news as much as possible, a strategy I've been following for the past fifteen years, after I realized that the TV news was really upsetting me over stories (such as crimes in other cities) that I had no control over and did not impact me. And I will say that I personally know people who get angry or agitated after following the news, so I agree that picking and choosing very carefully is a good step.

Other than that, although I complain a lot about my job, I am very scrupulous about maintaining my work/life balance. My cell phone is for emergencies and calls to Sunwiggy only. My e-mail is only given out to people I want to hear from. I do love to use the Internet for fun and information -- my blog, ebird, other people's birding blogs, listening to music from distant radio stations via iTunes while I do all this -- and since my depression and anxiety issues stem from times long before any of this was available to me -- in my case, I don't think that's the issue.

Not that I am exonerating technology: at work, when I've had jobs that keep my body busy as well as my mind (such as my days as a line cook in Arkansas), I was literally too busy to be depressed on the job! Since "upgrading" to better paid office work, I find that the tasks I do in front of the computer don't really challenge me, so that my mind has plenty of chance to ruminate on unpleasant things, and my body sits idle, so I don't burn off any of my restless energy. I also hate -- HATE -- talking on the phone. Hate it. And I do it all day long. So I have to say, in my experience, sedentary (boring) office work is much more depression-inducing than equally monotonous manual labor.

As a penultimate thought, I will say that Spontaneous Happiness gives short shrift to introverts. Dr. Weil states that we are social creatures, meant to live in tribes and extended family groups, and that social isolation is invariably detrimental. "Period." I honestly cannot dispute this. But...what about true introverts? I am one of the most introverted people I know. I find interactions with others outside of my immediate circle, even if they are positive in nature, to be exhausting. I honestly like to be alone. I crave it. Sometimes when my nearest and dearest decline my invitation to join me for a nature walk...I'm relieved. Not that I don't love them or enjoy their company. But I am almost never, ever depressed when it's just me and a bird, me and a plant, me in awe of a lake or a tree or the sky. Actually, at those times, I feel the most "complete."

And for my ultimate thought.... Dr. Weil cautions against spending too much time alone. And I agree. But when I am by myself in nature, I never feel alone. There is a whole world, both seen and unseen, natural and metaphysical, all around me. And the more I learn to pay attention, the less alone I feel.


  1. Oh, I know about that free-floating anxiety! Often, when I'm barely awake, my mind gropes around for its daily worries, much like an amoeba searching for its meal. My stomach feels cold and hollow with dread (not because it hasn't had breakfast yet)! If it's a day off, and birding is planned, I remind myself of the joys to come, and then I feel great! And, my job is better than bearable, and there is nothing all that dreadful going on in my life. Like you, I've found nature to be wonderfully absorbing and fascinating, and also I love books, and enjoying other people's worlds. Trying to remember to be grateful for my many joys and blessings is helpful and soothing, too. Pets, too, give such happiness and love. Mom

  2. The book does mention both gratitude and companion animals as preventative/ameliorating factors, as well. Since I did not have time to discuss every point, I just zeroed in on the ones most relevant to my "nature" themes. Especially as to pets, I agree.