Do you ever feel so discouraged that you just want to sit in a chair and mope? Me too. Does it make you feel better? Me neither.
Twenty years ago or so, the National Gallery of Art hosted a temporary exhibit featuring 72 of the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, most of them on loan from the Dutch artist’s namesake museum in Amsterdam. A good friend and I went, as did nearly half a million other people. It was magnificent–room after room filled with bold, emotional works of genius, like The Bedroom and Wheatfield with Crows. But there was one room simply displaying self-portraits. We walked in, and all around were colorful, dramatic paintings of the artist’s own image. And I thought, “No wonder he killed himself.”
Self-absorption is the key to misery. And the key to hope is activity that takes us out of ourselves.
True confession: I struggle with depression. I have off and on for my whole life. My current bout has lasted more than two years, since I lost the home I’d dedicated years of my life to restoring. Over the decades, I’ve learned some ways that make me feel a lot better than slumping in a chair. I hope they encourage you too:
Nature is powerful. The rhythm of the seasons provides a sense of order and continuity. The changing beauty–spring flowers and fall foliage, deep summer green and bright winter white–nurtures hope as well as interest. Getting out in nature shows us that we’re part of something bigger than ourselves, and fosters proper humility, helping us see ourselves as neither lesser nor greater than we are. I am convinced that it’s no coincidence that some of America’s most successful presidents, the ones whose achievements have lasted long beyond their terms, were men who eschewed cities and loved time in nature–Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan.
I believe that a varied exercise routine is necessary for a sound body, just as a varied reading regimen is necessary for a sound mind. But in my experience, nothing beats the mood-enhancing power of cardio. Running is great, if you can do it (which unfortunately I can’t for the moment due to a knee injury). Brisk walking is good, especially with some incline; I walk 5-6 days per week, 4-6 miles, depending on how my knee is feeling, and I can usually feel my depression lightening within the first mile.
Eat foods that make you feel good, that leave you feeling satisfied rather than bloated. I trust you already know that usually means lean proteins, healthy fats, and vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables. Learn to prepare them well; I’ll never forget noticing in Paris how satisfied I was with small portions, because the foods were so deliciously done. And if you want to indulge in pepperoni pizza, or pulled pork, or pecan pie, once in while, and your health and your figure allow, go ahead. But you’ll feel better if they’re the exception rather than the rule.
I know this can be a tough one, especially during times of stress. The thing that helps me the most is keeping a routine by getting up at the same time every day. It also helps to keep your bedroom organized and peaceful. Fresh sheets do wonders; I change mine twice per week, and I love their crisp cool sensuality when I slip between them on laundry night. If you’re having trouble sleeping, be careful about what you consume. After my parents died, I had to switch to decaf coffee in the morning for a while. If I can do it, you can too!
Clean your home.
A tidy home helps you feel more in control; a messy one makes you feel overwhelmed. And finite organizing projects–straightening a drawer, organizing bookshelves–can give you encouraging quick hits.
We feel better about ourselves when we dress better. And rightly or wrongly, we’re treated better by others. Dressing nicely communicates self-respect, to ourselves as well as others. Unless you’re working on a messy project, wear clothes that are clean and coordinated, unstained and untorn, and fit well.
Listen to classical music.
There’s just something ennobling about classical music, something that uplifts us in the day-to-day. Back in my former life as a speechwriter, I had a television in my office, so that I could keep up with the news. But I started a habit of turning to a classical station when I first arrived at work, to set the day off right before the political craziness began. It’s a mood-lifting habit that I rely on to this day.
Reading is great for taking us out of ourselves. It helps us make sense of the world. It makes us more interesting company, for ourselves as well as others. And the stories of people who’ve overcome hardships and struggles can encourage us and put our own difficulties into perspective. All great literature is based on conflict, after all.
Learn something new.
Conquering new subject matter is a great mood booster–learn a language, study a musical instrument, master a craft. It gives you a definite goal, and the encouragement of feeling yourself improve in an on-going way. Several years ago, I ended a relationship that was fun and exciting but unfortunately not sustainable. I fought back that depression by taking an intensive 10-week photography class at the Museum of Fine Arts. It got me out of the house and into Boston every week, exploring the museum’s collections or the city’s outdoors (in autumn!), looking at my own land in a new way as I took pictures for homework, and photography became a hobby I love.
Help someone else.
It feels good to give of ourselves to someone else. It also puts our own problems out of mind, or at least into perspective.
And I hope this post helps you.