Beyond Blue

cole bitting.jpgToday I have the pleasure of interviewing Cole Bitting, who writes an intriguing blog called “Good Fables,” a site that distills lessons from the science of our complex human nature. Cole writes essays and fables to demonstrate valuable life practices and enliven our intuitive sense of psychology. He focuses on the topics of personal development, recovery from emotional distress and nurturing well-being. Check out his blog by clicking here.

Question: I loved your post called “How Loss Creates Depression and Growth.” Your subtitle: “Can We Grow More Than We Wither?” Excellent question. So here’s mine to you. Give me five ways we can grow instead of wither.

Cole: We organize our lives around three main drives and motivations – the need for physical resources such as food and shelter, the need for social connections and attachment figures, and the need to live in a world which makes sense and gives us context for the events in our lives. I name these domains Achievement, Social relationships and Knowledge: ASK for short.

I am going to relate my collection of five ways we can grow to these three domains. In a way, we can ASK ourselves where and how to grow.

1. Need only so much.

Money is the measure of access to physical resources. Nobel Laureate, Paul Kahneman has shown money makes us happier until we earn roughly $60,000 per year, and then, more money matters little. In other words, it’s not that more money isn’t more good, it’s just that the time spent on other things is more, more good. After providing the reasonable comforts of life, other activities generate greater reward.

To be successful with this approach, we should avoid what’s called the hedonic treadmill: we get a thrill getting things we want, and we keep chasing that thrill. In other words, getting stuff begets getting more stuff.

2. Share your life.

For many, this point simply means to strive for a marriage built around a reasonably functional relationship. The literature on American marriage makes two basic, general points. In general, we are happier and healthier in a functional relationship. In general, we are serial monogamists, rather than life-long mates. In other words, we benefit tremendously in relationships and are willing to incur the hardship to leave one which fails our needs and find another.

3. Talk.

Maintain access to interpersonal, sociobiological regulators, which simply means find people who will listen and support us in our crises. These people might be near strangers, but their ability to step up makes them great friends. Therapists are just as valuable.

When we talk about our troubles, we get to hear ourselves, and we get to watch someone else process our experience. If life is indeed one damn thing after another, then this interaction provides relief to distress and engages our abilities to make sense. It’s much harder to find relief and make sense on our own.

4. Create insight.

Life is fragile. The world is random. Our beliefs will always share these qualities and can break apart for no understandable reason. The audience for Beyond Blue is here to find help with make sensing of life (and also to share with each other and to lend a supporting ear).

Where else can we find guidance, involvement and support? We can read books and attend workshops. We can sit and talk with our minister or other spiritual guides. We can find other people who are struggling like we are. When the world doesn’t make sense, do the work to find sense and peace. Insight doesn’t just happen to you. It’s something you do. Some people are too passive, or worse, give up.

5. Embody grace.

Develop the visceral understanding – the physical sensations, the internal feelings, and the welcomed recognition – of three states of grace: I am able, I am worthy, and I am wise. All personal growth is a consequence of these three states.

Embodied grace is primal and found in the body. It is not trite reassurance. It is a testament to what’s known, not what’s hoped for. It takes contemplation, solitude and time to develop. It’s work. We must study how we feel when we are most enabled. We must know we will feel this way again.

We want to remember this visceral understanding more easily than our favorite picture. When crisis puts us at a loss, growth starts when we invoke our own grace. We remind our body, our subconscious, and even our thinking brain what wellness feels like. We show ourselves the way home. The journey often takes time, as healing does, but on the way, we grow.

Question: There has been much discussion on the “Upside of Depression” and why we attach such refinement to depression but not to, say, colon cancer. Where is your position on the debate?

Cole: From the pe
rspective of our immune system, colon cancer is a consequence of being too lax, and arthritis is a consequence of being too vigilant. Our immune system has a style of behavior.

We have a style of behavior when we suffer a significant loss. If our responses are too lax, we are at greater risk of death. If our responses are too vigilant, we are at greater risk of depression and other mental illness.

In civilized society, the prospects of death are greatly diminished. People with lax emotional systems don’t die as often as they might have only 200 years ago. Those who are too vigilant, however, are likely to deal with episodes of depression which like arthritis can become chronic.

Because of the lack of death, some might argue that the value of vigilance is greatly diminished, or that vigilance is a vestige of our past, inapplicable to today’s society (or at least America’s version of today’s society). People who live in war-torn or disaster-ravaged places are likely to find excessive vigilance well rewarded. At an extreme, the cost of being alive is PTSD.

The study of posttraumatic growth shows upside comes from the struggling. Vigilance and neuroticism increase the burden we struggle with: We notice the first hints of a possible threat, minimize the consequences, make appropriate, detailed plans to address the threat, and are the most creative at reconciling a deep sense of violation with the demands for realistic insight.

The cost of such burdensome efforting, especially when unsuccessful, can be depression. Like an immune system gnawing on joints, depression eats up life. Caught in the middle is our very sense of purpose and energy, as if our spirits are born of suffering.

I believe if we acknowledge “upside” or “benefit,” we still are not excused from facing and responding to the ravages of depression. Just as colon cancer compels treatment, so to does depression.

Question: Why is your site called Fable?

Cole: A fable narrates the experience of others to show a life lesson. I often write out personalized experiences to show the things I examine in a more analytical vein. My e-book Furies! has many such fables.

Fable also stands for Fictional Autobiography aBout Life Experience. When we tell a story from our past, we grab a small residual of sensory detail and combine it with the narrative and structural force of our beliefs. We recreate stories rather than retell them. These recreations reflect useful beliefs as much as they reflect truthful facts. Our stories are always fictional – Fables we tell others about ourselves.

We author these Fables, literally composing them on the spot. If we change our beliefs, we change our stories. Above, I write about “embody grace,” which is a powerful way to change our beliefs. If we create this visceral understanding, our whole understanding of our lives must change.

For more about $60,000 per year, see Daniel Kahneman’s TED presentation: The Riddle of Experience vs Memory

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