Canadian author and pythonista.

Hacking Happier

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books mental health

Back in 2012, I wrote a book called Hacking Happy. It was my first self-published work, and I was actually surprised by how well it did without a publisher or marketing behind it. I had plenty of positive feedback including more than one hopefully exaggerated, “This book saved my life.” Most of the feedback was a bit more sedate, but I received a lot of private messages thanking me for writing it.

My primary goal in writing Hacking Happy was to help people with a technical background discover new ways to take care of their mental health and live a happier, more fulfilled life. The gimmick in the book was to present several well-researched mental health techniques using metaphors to concepts from the tech world. For example, I presented the idea of taking a recurring quiz to measure your state of mind, (first introduced by Dr. Aaron Beck in the early 1960’s) as writing unit tests first. Most of the chapters in the book discuss various distortions used in cognitive behavioural therapy.

Given the success of Hacking Happy, it might be surprising that I chose to take it off the market a few months ago. I had a couple reasons for doing so:

First, the book was six years old. A lot has happened in the psychological space since I wrote it. Psychiatrists have devised many techniques that may work better than cognitive behavioural therapy for various people. I’m not familiar with or even aware of most of them, but even my own approach to mental health has changed substantially since I wrote Hacking Happy. I was no longer using the techniques I had documented in my own work.

Second, I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist. I started to feel a bit of an imposter, giving advice about mental health based only on my own experiences. Worse, the tone of the book was aggressively directorial. I talked like these solutions are guaranteed to work. I am simply not qualified to give such advice, and the arrogance with which I presented it was embarrassing.

At best, the book was due for a major overhaul, a project that I had neither the time nor the qualifications to take on.

However, I still receive the occasional requests for a copy of Hacking Happy, usually from fans of my other books. I am reluctantly willing to accommodate those requests (Please don’t spend the $5000 CAD a used copy is listed for on Amazon. If you’re willing to spend that, get in touch!). However, I’d rather you refer to the remainder of this post to hear my more up-to-date thoughts on positive self-care.

What has worked for me

Everybody needs to take care of themselves according to their own needs and goals (which are often devilishly hard to discover). I can tell you some of the things that have worked for me. If you feel you can take better advantage of your life, I encourage you to try them and as many others you can find until you find a program that is sustainable.

The most important thing is to recognize that no matter how bad things are for you, they can get better. There are many ways to improve your life. If you are in a critical situation, remember that you matter, you are loved, and that help is available. Please, please seek it.

Cognitive behavioural therapy

This was the primary technique presented in Hacking Happy. It is somewhat less in favour with therapists these days, but I still recommend cognitive behavioural therapy and it’s younger sibling dialectical behaviour therapy. I’ve used CBT techniques extensively. For me, they work best when I am facing situational anxiety or depression, and I know what the cause is. If, in the moment, I am able to remember to pull out a pen and notebook and perform the requisite steps, I often feel an immediate relief. Some therapists suggest that you can learn to apply CBT automatically while you are in triggering situations. I have not found this to be the case; even if I am aware and try to apply it, doing it in my head doesn’t have the same emotional effect. In general CBT has not had a lasting effect for me, but it’s a useful crutch when I need one.

There are many resources online outlining how to do CBT. Dr. David Burns is definitely the premier writer on the topic, and any of his books are a good choice. I particularly appreciated 10 Days To Self Esteem. I recommend finding a tutorial that works well for you, but I’ll outline the gist here:

The primary idea behind CBT is that your feelings are governed by your thoughts, and that those thoughts that invoke negative feelings like shame, guilt, sadness, or anger are often quite irrational. The steps in a CBT process are as follows:

  1. Write down the feeling you are experiencing.
  2. Notice and write down as many thoughts related to that feeling as you can.
  3. For each thought, identify any negative distortions (here’s a list).
  4. Rewrite the thought using a more rational phrasing.

Physical health

It’s nothing new, but the more physically well I am, the happier I am. In my sedentary lifestyle as a coder and writer, exercise is pretty much optional. I have to be very explicit about taking that option.

It’s important to find exercise regimes that you truly enjoy, or you won’t stick to it. The unfortunate truth: Most physical activities are only enjoyable if you have a base level of fitness in that exercise to begin with.

I suggest forcing yourself to try any new physical activity twice a week for at least a month. If, after a month, getting yourself to do that activity still requires a lot of wilpower, it’s probably not a good fit and you should look for something else.

One uncommon insight I’ve had is that when I’m uncomfortable doing a physical exercise (typically a yoga pose), the discomfort is not actually physical pain. Rather, it’s an emotional response akin to anxiety. Anxiety is really unpleasant, so my instinct is to get out of the pose as soon as possible. But if I instead stay in the pose and mindfully tell myself that it’s not pain and I’m in a safe place, the anxiety abates. More importantly, this seems to have done more to address my chronic pain issues than stretching or exercising alone.

It is possible my body is holding some kind of “physical memory” of an emotionally painful situation. When I hold that position in spite of the emotional discomfort it triggers, it helps neutralize that memory. The Body Keeps The Score explores this and other topics that have been useful to me.

Medication

In Hacking Happy, I mentioned that my psychiatrist had suggested (expensive) vitamin pills from a proprietary company as a mood stabilizer. They were sort of working for me at the time, or at least I believed so. I went off them when I heard that the owners of the company that made them had attempted to cure their child of menengitis with ‘natural remedies’ instead of taking him to the hospital. He died. They were imprisoned.

I read too many new-age books in my early 20s and had a thing against chemicals. The truth is, a metered dose of a known quantity that has been extensively tested is probably safer than unknowns provided by non-researchers. As such, I strongly encourage proper medical support over self-medicating using herbs, illicit substances, alcohol, or vitamins. Sure, some pharmaceutical companies are possibly corrupt and all are out to make a bunch of money. Then again, this also describes the people selling the “natural” remedies.

Doctors have put me on a few different medications over the years, but I was always under the impression that I should be trying to get back to “normal” by tapering off at some point in the future. This isn’t true. I’ve been on the same medication for about four years now. I haven’t experienced any adverse effects and I don’t intend to experiment with going off it.

Mindfulness and Neurofeedback

For the longest time, I thought meditation was supposed to be a “relaxation” or “grounding” exercise intended to be applied as a band-aid when I’m feeling anxious. Meditation does help reduce my anxiety symptoms in the moment, although if I’m aware enough of the situation to try meditation, I’m probably better off using CBT.

I discovered more recently that a mindfulness (the scientifically researched name for meditation) practice is actually about long-term health. Meditating daily for at least five minutes unexpectedly had a more profound effect on my life than anything I’ve attempted.

Most people tend to think of meditation as being about “clearing your mind”. However, modern research suggests that it is not the amount of time you spend in a “calm state” that affects your health. Instead, it’s the number of times you “come back” from being distracted. Knowing this has helped address discouragement I sometimes felt about not “getting better” at meditation by reducing the amount of time I spend distracted. Improving mindfulness is about how often (or quickly) you notice your distraction and come back to stillness.

I’ve tried meditation off and on for years, but never stuck it out until reading about the effectiveness of neurofeedback in the aforementioned book The Body Keeps The Score. Neurofeedback is about monitoring your brain waves in realtime while doing an activity and using that feedback to mindfully adjust how you do that activity. In the case of meditation, you can use the feedback to help notice when you are distracted and come back to a calm state more quickly. This increases the number of times you recover from distraction in a single session. I bought the Muse Headband, which is a consumer product for that purpose. At $250.00 CAD it’s not a cheap investmen, so you might want to forgo it. After all, meditation without Muse is free!

It’s also really easy. There are tons of “techniques” on the Internet you can try, but really, it just comes to sitting still and noticing when you’re thinking. For a really approachable introduction to the topic, I enjoyed 10% Happier.

Writing thoughts down

I’ve kept a handwritten journal in the past, trying to address difficult situations. Research has shown that writing things in long hand creates a much different response in the brain than typing out the same content. I’m not sure if this is just because it slows down your thoughts (a form of meditation, now that I think of it) or if there is a biological factor. That said, I don’t know that it results in a better psychological improvement than typing.

The benefits of journaling are well documented, and the process is obvious, so I won’t go into more detail. I do want to mention one other writing technique that has been a great help to me. Instead of writing slowly and thoughtfully, I get a radically different effect if I write non-stop for a set amount of time (say five minutes). I don’t worry about making sense or spelling or backspacing. I’m not allowed to take a break, not even for a second, I just write whatever comes to mind. The Most Dangerous Writing App is a useful tool for this, although I don’t personally use it for fear that they may be tracking and storing my unfiltered innermost thoughts (Being me, I wrote my own version in Kivy).

I have these recurring memories of things that happened in the past that feel really horrible. It’s usually a sense of shame or embarrassment over some silly thing I did when I was a kid, although sometimes it’s fear or anger instead. They’ve haunted me forever, and whenever one of them comes up, I instinctively suppress the thought and the associated anxiety feeling.

But I’ve discovered that when I have one of those thoughts, if I sit down and write my stream of consciousness for five minutes, I am often permanently cured of that memory. It no longer haunts me, and if I do happen to remember it, it doesn’t cause any physical or emotional response, it’s just a memory of a thing that happened. That said, the feeling can be extremely intense while I am actively writing.

In general, I think positive mental health takes a ton of work and vigilance. However, this technique is an exception; in my toolbox, it’s the closest thing I have to a quick fix.

Sugar

A few years ago, on a whim, I decided to cut out sweets and desserts for a month. There was no reason for it, I just thought it would be fun to see if it had any impact on my health. It was pretty tough because I was working for Facebook at the time, and they provide free desserts with every meal and unlimited access to candy bars.

Anyway, at the end of the month, I discovered that I didn’t like sweet things anymore. Chewing a sugary thing made my face pucker similar to how most people feel when they bite into a lemon. So it was easy to just stay off sweets. Maybe once or twice a year I’ll have some ice cream (because I miss the texture, not the sweetness), but otherwise I don’t bother.

I am pretty sure that this decision has had a positive effect on my mental health; it definitely improved in the weeks after I cut it out, but I was doing a few other things to support it at the same time, so it’s hard to know how much the lack of sugar was a factor. However, I have also noticed that when I (accidentally or intentionally) consume a sugary food, I usually feel depressed a few hours later or the next day.

So I can’t say unequivocally that cutting out sweets was good for my mental health, but there’s no harm in trying it for a month. Worst case, you end up with cheaper restaurant meals when you don’t have to order dessert. I don’t generally pay as much attention to my diet as doctors say I should, but at least I keep the dentists happy.

Diagnosis and treatment

I’ve been diagnosed with several different labels – depression, bipolar disorder, social anxiety, generalized anxiety, and I’ve self-diagnosed a few others. Lately, medical professionals seem to just describe me as having a “mood disorder”.

I previously found that having a concrete diagnosis hasn’t mattered too much. Most treatments seem to be the same regardless of which mental illness label they’ve applied. Acknowledging and accepting that you have some kind of ‘disorder’ is probably more important than knowing exactly what psychiatrists call it. After that, “all” you have to do is seek treatment.

That said, I self-diagnosed with Complex PTSD, which is a fairly new label about a year ago. Like traditional PTSD, it doesn’t respond as well to most of the older treatment plans for other psychological problems. Luckily, in the past two or three years, there have been a lot of research breakthroughs for treating PTSD patients. Some of those have worked much better than I expected. So it can be important to have a proper diagnosis so you are trying to treat the right root causes.

Every year, new mental health treatment options are uncovered. The techniques available to me in 2010 when I was first hospitalized now seem old and quaint. The book I wrote in 2012 is equally obsolete. I will try to keep this article updated with my new findings as time goes on, but it will likely not stand the test of time either. If you can’t find anything that works for you, keep trying. It is possible you haven’t found the ideal treatment for you. It’s even possible it hasn’t been invented yet.

If you’re having a bad day:

I want to reiterate: Don’t give up. You matter. Keep trying. There are better days ahead.

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