Friday, July 31, 2015

It's Tough to Get Depressed

It's tough to get depressed when you're helping someone. This was the key take away from the talk I attended by Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist at Stanford, on ‘How Compassion Creates Resilience’ at UC Berkeley campus. The buoyant presentation linked cutting edge scientific benefits to the basic human virtues of compassion and altruism. A refreshingly different scientist, Kelly started the talk with a meditation exercise to allow everyone in the room to become present.

Stress is an aspect of life that we notice is on a steady rise across the globe, but we don’t seem to know how to cope with it. Kelly argues that stress is in fact good for you, and you can get good at it in ‘Upside of Stress', the title of her latest book. She rolled off a series of studies that demonstrated that stress could be a good thing if you know how to channel that to motivate you to doing something good.

While stress can increase the risk of fatal diseases by 30%, one study showed helping someone outside your immediate home and family can bring that risk down to absolute zero. It’s not enough when a mother cares for her own baby, but when she reaches out to help a neighbors child it has a big calming effect.

In his book 'Why Good Things Happen to Good People', Stephen Post, professor of preventative medicine, Stony Brook University, reports that giving to others has been shown to increase health benefits in people with chronic illness, including HIV and multiple sclerosis.

An experiment at The Wharton School done on students, who already pressed for time, were split into two groups. One had extra work given to them of helping strangers. The other was given time back to them by taking away some deadlines they had. Dismissing conventional wisdom, the perceived 'Future Time' for those who did something extra for others was more than those who did things for themselves.

Research suggested that the most stress inducing circumstances are when you feel helpless, that no body cares, there’s nothing you can do about your situation, its against your will and when you feel your life is devoid of meaning.

Kelly pointed to some powerful Interventions. In a study done at Harvard, lay people were trained to listen actively and to provide compassionate, unconditional positive regard to others suffering from the same chronic disease.  They found that compared to supported patients, the peer telephone supporters, firstly, reported more change in both increased positive and reduced negative outcomes as compared to the supported patients. Secondly, they showed pronounced improvement on confidence, self-awareness, self-esteem, depression and role functioning.

Research also suggested that receiving help can also be depressing, while giving, even within limited means, can be very uplifting for someone feeling helpless.

If you aren’t in a mood to get out and help someone, go exercise. Exercise is another great way to reawaken the reward systems and get out of depression.

It is often seen that personal trauma evokes compassion. And bigger the trauma experienced by oneself, greater the compassion for others. There were several examples to support this including war vets with PTSD and troubled youth who found it easier to heal when they were engaged in helping other humans or animals deal with trauma. Ask yourself, can you channel your own suffering to do something positive?

Just like anger, compassion is also an approach motivation. It makes you want to get up and do something. Channel it! When you see something on the internet or read in the news that depresses you, get out and find someone to show compassion or kindness.

Curious to know the scientific underpinnings of the healing power of compassion, I asked Kelly if there was  a common denominator to all these studies. She responded "Community Engagement". So I challenged her with another question. Can one attain this by joining a club or an interest group? She didn’t have to think. Joining a club or playing golf with friends doesn’t do it. One derives great meaning when engaged with improving the lives of others. And this has shown to have a positive impact on ones health condition.

It’s reassuring to see western science is increasingly supporting age old eastern dharma - when you help others, you are really helping yourself. In the process, the west is leading us back from the individualism that it’s known for, back to the collective.

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