Sadness is a normal emotion, and we all feel it at certain times of life. While there are many factors that lead sadness to depression, one of the most sinister is “reward erosion.” If you’ve been depressed, you almost certainly experienced the shoreline of your life shrinking, plunging your life into pits of depression like a house falling into the sea.
Reward Erosion, What’s That???
What are Rewards, Basically? We are hard-wired to seek rewards. Some folks are more motivated to avoid painful things, so the reward can come from reducing painful feelings. Other folks are more motivated to find joy or pleasure in life, so the rewards for them come from moving toward positive feelings.
Sadness Creeps In. When we become depressed, sadness begins to take control of how we think about finding joy or pleasure, and moves us to avoid emotional pain. Our thoughts become less based on reality, and more based on the inside world of our depression. Cognitive-BehavioralPsychologists call these thoughts “cognitive distortions.” The depression whispers to us “That won’t be fun. You’re depressed, and things aren’t fun anymore, and neither are you. People are better off if you just stay home and don’t bring them down.”
Depressive Thoughts Take Control. These ideas become very believable, and as the depression furthers control over us, we stop seeking out others, and limit (or end) activities that used to be fun. The cognitive distortions take control of what we do, and slowly over time, our rewards in life erode—we become controlled by avoiding our predicted disappointment or rejection. Reward erosion takes control, and as it does, life REALLY becomes depression. We experience life as empty and lacking in joy, because now life SEEMS empty and lacks any fun. Life becomes depressing in realty. Even if we have a moment of fun or fulfillment, we don’t pay attention to it—we focus on the pain and depressing ideas.
How to Rebuild a Rewarding Life
Step 1: Find Your Values. We learn from our earliest age to enjoy some things, and not others. These experiences create our historical learning, the stuff in our brain that makes us more likely to eat chocolate ice cream vs. vanilla. Once we are moving into our pre-teen years, our values form in their basic form—we begin to live life to be happy with ourselves and experience joy. If you’re depressed, the first step usually consists of finding those values again. Ask yourself “If I could write my obituary, the day before I die, and I wanted to say my life’s goals were fulfilled, what would I say I did in my life?” Your values will show up as you find out what you want others to read about your life.
Step 2: Defining Joy. Now that you better understand your values, review how you found joy and value in life. What did you do in your life before the depression took hold that made you happy and fulfilled? Make a list of your rewards and a brief plan to do a few. Get ready to rebuild the shoreline of your life.
Step 3: Become a Pleasure Scientist. This step is more like a country-two-step. First, make a commitment to see how it feels to do some of the things on your list. This commitment will test your resolve, but most folks are able to do a few, or just one, at first. Commit to the experiment. Second, conduct the experiment. You’ll be an experimenter, so don’t try to convince yourself of what the outcome will be of your efforts. Instead, commit to finding out. Keep a log and track what you did, and how much joy it brought. You have to step out of your mind and begin discovering joy and meaning again.
Step 4: Accept ALL Your Feelings (Even the Bad Ones). You probably feel depressed, and then you suffer from feeling depressed. The key to keeping your life back on track includes changing your lifestyle of avoidance—you want life to be filled with moving toward meaningful pleasure, not moving away from life’s unpleasantries. So this step is learning to sit with your unhappiness when it occurs AND seeing it for what it is: a momentary feeling (not an unending fog). There are a couple of strategies that can help accept your feelings. One, you can think of feelings (all of them) as a river—and you don’t want to be in the water drowning from suffering—you do want to describe unhappiness by sitting on the bank as an observer. Learn to observe your sadness and describe it. Two, bring your unhappiness along with you when you act on your values—let joy and fulfillment replace unhappiness. Most of the time, unhappiness can’t easily co-exist with happiness. But, even if both feelings are present when you act on your values, the unhappiness will most likely slip away from your attention. You’ll be busy flexibly shifting your focus to joy and fulfillment.
Step 5: Keep Working on the Shoreline. Life really is like a shoreline, with the water (experiences) providing both joy and sadness. A wise person once said that pleasure can’t be appreciated without times of pain as well. You’ll need to practice and work the steps all the time, the same way you keep a shoreline rebuilt as the waves threaten to erode your foundation. Depression and reward erosion are quiet and a covert threat, so keeping them in check requires a life-long commitment to a life worth living.
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