Depression: How You Label Determines How You Feel


This post was not planned.

But… I have lost two close friends from both high school and college to suicide, and Heath Ledger’s unexpected death, which shows all the signs of suicide, saddened me on a profound level. It just shouldn’t happen.

To paraphrase Dan Sullivan: the problem isn’t the problem. It’s how you think about the problem that’s the problem.

Here are three concepts that I and others have found useful for preventing the inevitable ups and downs from becoming self-destructive thinking and behavior:

1. Depression is just one phase of a natural biorhythm and thus both transient and needed…

Energy and interest are cyclical. Nothing can peak or sustain red-zone RPMs forever. Normal people exhibit alternating periods of high-output and low-output, the latter being recovery periods during which depleted neurotransmitters stores regenerate, fatigued neural networks recover, etc..

The symptoms of depression often just reflect a system undergoing routine maintenance.

Fixating on the symptoms as “depression” becomes self-fulfilling and can lead to a downward spiral. Don’t jump to conclusions. Having recurring down cycles is natural. Thinking about them as unnatural, and the poor — sometimes devastating — decisions that follow, is what does the damage.

2. How you label determines how you feel.

Don’t use the term “depression,” which is loaded with negative and clinical connotations, without considering other labels that might be more appropriate. “Loneliness” or “isolation” are two common substitutes which are not just more precise but more actionable (the term “depression” doesn’t suggest a solution).

In their fascinating study “Would you be happier if you were richer?”, published in Science, Princeton professors Alan Krueger and Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize for his work in behavioral economics, found that perhaps the best indicator of happiness was frequency of eating with friends and family.

If you have to chose one activity to produce an emotional upswing, start breaking bread more often with those who make you smile.

3. Gratitude training can be used pre- or mid-depressive symptoms to moderate the extremes and speed the transition.

It’s frighteningly easy to develop pessimistic blinders and lose sight of the incredible blessings and achievements in our lives. This is common when a single identity — for example, job title and function — leads you to measure self-worth using one or two metrics (like income or promotions, usually in comparison to others) dependent on some variables outside of your control.

Recalibrate your perspective, and prevent over-investment of ego in one area of life, with scheduled gratitude training that takes a holistic inventory of the positive people and achievements in your life.


None of this is intended as medical advice. If you need help, there are people waiting for your call, both friends and professionals:

1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433)
1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)

Hotlines in your state can be found on this page

Sorry for the somber topic, but lifestyle ain’t much without life.

Statistically, out of the millions of people who visit this blog, a fair number will consider or attempt suicide. I want to know that I at least made an effort to prevent such terrible loss.

Be safe and be optimistic. There is a lot to be grateful for… and just as much to look forward to.

Pura vida.

[P.S. This is a serious post for me. I can take a good verbal jab, but not on this one. Please no poor humor or nonsense in the comments, or I will permanently blacklist you from this blog with no exceptions.]

Posted on: January 23, 2008.

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166 comments on “Depression: How You Label Determines How You Feel

  1. Based on the last 3 posts I see a need for a whole new discussion to be started – 2 people pour their troubles out and another jumps in to offer support. Well done but wouldn’t it be great if this took place somewhere obvious rather than buried in the comments area of a single blog post?

    I think the most inspiring thing about Tim’s post isn’t the post itself but the massive response it generated. Thanks Tim.


  2. happiness is something that you do, not something that happens to you. simply living your life and expecting to be happy is absurd. like all good things in life, happiness is something you have to work for. sure, like success in business, it may seem to come so easy for some people that it seems unfair. i think the main problem is that most people are afraid of the changes required to do so. but its definitely there, if you want it.

    where i am now is void of the security blankets we build around ourselves and believe me, it is SCARY. but i work everyday at sucking up my fear and following my heart. after years of resisting (yes, u are resisting), i have finally found my peace of mind.


  3. whoa, what a post. I don’t really have answers for anyone here, as I continue to live in this crazy flow of life we all seem to share together. However, there are infinite directions in which to proceed, and anytime that anyone thinks they have something completely figured out and understood, you can be sure that there are many, many more things to learn and observe.



  4. Women lie, men lie, numbers don’t.

    Logic is hard.. I’ve been struggling for too long.. thank you for giving me all the tools to succeed.

    I’ve been recently labeled bipolar.. and i’m just fine with that :D


  5. Tim, great post and I can say with 100% certainty I experience the major peaks and valleys you mention in this post.

    I’ve been following your blog only for a few months now and have definitely been very impressed with lifestyle design. Now that I have a chance to comb through older posts, this one hits home the most….

    I’ve definitely had days where I wanted to do nothing more than hide under the covers in bed. Hearing that this feeling is normal is a great relief. (I don’t actually sleep all day or try to, but the feeling is there sometimes)

    Anyways, thanks for the post and the advice, like most of your other posts I find them extremely relevant and useful.



  6. Tim,
    as man who passed through a lot of depressions, i can share some experience.
    I’m form european part of Russia, Moscow, so depression is one of the common state here, especially during criss period, and because of short day light time in winter.

    0. After wake up and before stand up. 5 minutes of meaningless laughing. Or if its hard for you, gratitude training.
    1. Cat like stretching in bed
    2. Morning exercises
    3. Deep and intense breathing.
    4. contrast(2-3 temperature cycles) shower, finishing with cold water.

    During day
    Sure that what we think is determines our mood and emotions, so I modify “The 21-Day No-Complaint Experiment” in this way:
    -Be aware of what are you thinking about. If you complaint to others, thinking negative about situation, or beat yourself — change wrist.
    !But if you immediately change your vision on situation, make compliment to yourself or feel gratitude like in “gratitude training” — wrist is remains same.

    After work, before supper.
    1. good hot shower, to washout workload of mind and body, and few second in cold water to refresh all systems.
    2. If you don’t pray before food, feel gratitude for yourself that you fetch/prepare it ))

    Before sleep
    1.You can do like in article “Relax Like A Pro” or if you not ready for such steps, drink small amount of hot milk with honey.
    2.Try to count all great things which happened with you during day and/or all great things which you have done during day.
    3.Also feel that next day will be awesome!

    During week will be good to make any kind of fitness or dancing, to refresh mind and body. And get some kind of eustress.

    In critical situation(and this greatly helps me) make some kind of catharsis:
    []loud gibberish(speak with friend on language which you don’t know) about all problems and bastards, which you know
    []beating pillows(alone or in company), with soundtrack. Rammstein is good for this, but use your preferences
    []Osho catharsis meditations: dynamic meditation, kundalini meditation, no mind meditation.

    This help to me, and to most of my friends all over the Russia. Hope that it will be useful for 4HWW/blog readers.



  7. >> “Loneliness” or “isolation” are two common substitutes which are not just more precise but more actionable

    How are they actionable? What if you don’t have any friends at all and are really introverted? I’ve been trying for years to deal with this but nothing ever changes. Somehow all the people I meet have more than enough other, better, less lonely people in their lives. I guess there must be others but they probably sit at home depressed (or lonely and isolated, whatever ;-) and I never meet them…


  8. Hey buddy, if your smart enough to find a great book like the 4hww, you are not alone.

    You are part of a tribe of thousands, hell millions I bet at this point.

    Everyone can make and meet friends.

    What are your hobbies, interests?

    Feel free to email me,


  9. It took me more than 20 years to realize my depression even though my mother died from indirect consequences of that condition (alcholism and prescription drug addiction…so generously provided by the local GP, who, as with all of the GPs and FPs in rural areas in the 60′s and 70′s, probably created thousands of housewife ‘addicts’ without any knowledge of psychiatry or mental illness).
    There are a lot of behavioural recommendations here, and those are great and supplemental, but TRULY, we have to all acknowledge that this term ‘depression’ is a negative, derogatory and shame-filled term; my physican prefers to call it SERATONIN DEFICIENCY,,,,and likens it to a diabetec….would you BLAME a diabetic or discriminate because they need insulin to regulate their blood sugars?? Highly unlikely. THe same should be sunderstood about people who suffer from anxiety and depression. The sooner we reach that realization, the sooner people who suffer in silence will not feel stigmatized..
    Don’t discount medication in the treatment of anxiety and depression. I still have my ‘dark’ days…but most are ‘normal’ and I can deal with more stress and upheaval than I ever thought possible…even more so than people who are not ‘depressed’…most days, I am the best I can be.
    But, just like someone who has lupus or herpes or shingles…we can have ‘flare-ups’ and it can take some time to get back to normal. But we DO get there. And life is SO worth living. Life is like a box of chocolates…


  10. Hello Tim. Enjoyed reading your post. I’m a counsellor and psychotherapist and work with many people who come in with “depression”. The question that the client and I initially need to figure out is where on the spectrum of depression does their experience sit. On the extreme end you have people who are in bed for 20 hours a day and stop eating and become semi comatose. On the other you have someone who’s in a bit of rut in their life because of their circumstances. Here’s where the problem is they can both end up getting the same diagnosis and treatment. Clearly someone just in a bit of rut doesn’t need antidepressants and CBT, but just needs to sort out their situation and way of viewing it. Hope that adds something to your post.


  11. I just bought How to Stop Worrying and Start Living cheers Tim

    To be quite frank, i think a really effective way to get (non clinically) depressed people out of their funk is to teach them project management.

    Also, fresh air.

    Really sorry about your friends… My uncle committed suicide too, and i don’t think that a gratitude list could have done much to help past a point. Sometimes major mending is needed.


  12. Hello Tim,

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article and think these are all very good suggestions for handling “depression-like symptoms”. However, I have to play Devil’s Advocate on your theory of what depression is.

    My girlfriend was diagnosed with depression by doctors when she was a teenager and put on anti-depressant medication. She used the medication but struggled with issues of depression throughout her high school years. She finally decided to quit the anti-depressant medication and try to conquer her so called “disorder” herself. Through techniques similar to the ones you describe above as well as yoga and eliminating bad relationships, she has come a long way towards conquering her depression without harmful prescription drugs. This is where my thoughts on depression differ from yours though. I have always been fascinated by human interactions my whole life and have spent a great deal of time simply studying people as well as my own personal research into human behavioral tendencies. I like to think I have a pretty good understanding of people and their behaviors. What I notice in my girlfriend when she has episodes of “depression symptom outbreaks” is different than just a person without a history of depression experiencing a down cycle in emotions. Her episodes are unlike any other emotional down swing incurred by people throughout life. Although I personally cannot pinpoint what exactly is the difference, because I know her so well I am able to pick up on that difference still. It is different than when she is on her period experiencing PMS symptoms, different than when she is simply upset by an event that occurred in life. This is why I believe depression is a real thing and not just a thought process. The power of the mind can be used to control the symptoms of depression but ultimately I believe there is a mechanism in place that is not controllable in those who suffer from certain types of depression.

    Any thoughts?