About this time last year, I was depressed and had recurring suicidal thoughts. I had a difficult time finishing my degree and felt like failure. Today I am full of energy, mainly because I read the works of Aaron Beck and Martin Seligman on depression and happiness, after which my depression disappeared entirely and my level of happiness increased 60%. Beck popularized the ABCDE model that I use every time I face a setback. Seligman provided a series of strategies to do every day to become happier.
Aaron Beck and the ABCDE model to counter sadness
Beck found that we react more to the stories we tell ourselves after an even that to the adversity itself. An Adversity (A) has the Consequence (C) of a sad feeling. Between the Adversity (A) and the Consequence (C), Beck found the Belief (B) to be hugely important. With the same adversity, different beliefs lead to different consequences. Beliefs are a set of thoughts so automatic that we hardly recognize them. Unlike the adversity, which is set in stone, the belief is something we can Dispute (D). The best way to do so is to prove that it is factually incorrect and offer hard evidence against it. This Disputation may lead us to feel Energized (E).
Here is an example of the ABCDE model:
- Adversity: I got a bad mark in a test
- Belief: I am a bad student, will probably fail the exam, and have little value
- Consequence: I feel sad
- Disputation: let's look at the facts: I got into Cambridge, got good marks in the other tests, and have an internship for the summer
- Energization: I do have value after all
Martin Seligman and the daily practice of happiness
Unlike most psychology research in the 1980s, which studied mental illnesses, Seligman decided to study happiness. Similar to Beck, he found that two important characteristics of beliefs: whether we see things as permanent versus temporary, or pervasive versus specific. For example, if you get a good mark in a test, you may think that you were "lucky in this course" (temporary and specific), or that you are a "good student in any field" (permanent and pervasive). Optimism and hope consists of interpreting bad events as specific and temporary, while seeing good events as permanent and pervasive
Seligman also recommends these exercises to increase your level of happiness:
(1) what-went-well today (or three-blessings): every evening before sleep, I sit down and look for three things that went well during my day and why. I try to find permanent and pervasive aspects of those three good things. (Seligman warns that "it may seem awkward at first, but please stick with it for one week. It will get easier. The odds are that you will be less depressed, happier, and addicted to this exercise six months from now.")
(2) gratitude letter: every so often, I find someone I never properly thanked, such as my mother, a close friend, or a mentor, and I write a gratitude letter. I reflect on what they mean to me and why I am grateful. Then I contact that person, ask for a face-to-face meeting, take out the letter, and read it slowly.
(3) signature strengths survey: I took the Values In Action survey and found 5 signature strengths among 24 universal qualities (judgment, discipline, spirituality, etc.). I grin every time I see the result from the survey, try to use them often in my day-to-day, and feel invigorated when I do so, thinking "try and stop me now!". (Go to Seligman's page at the University of Pennsylvania, click "Questionnaires > VIA Survey of Character Strengths", create an account, and answer the questions for about 10 minutes.)
To learn more about both of these models, I recommend reading:
Martin Seligman, "Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment"
If you are interested in contacting the author of this article and learning more, fill out the contact form below!
[contact-form firstname.lastname@example.org' subject='Question/comment about your Student Minds blog post'][contact-field label='Name (not required)' type='name'/][contact-field label='Email' type='email' required='1'/][contact-field label='Comments/Questions' type='textarea' required='1'/][/contact-form]