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.

Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.

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

  1. Hi Tim,

    this is a great post I gotta say.

    Once in a while I also feel somehow unmotivated and undriven, but thats a normal biorhytmic thing like you mentioned above.

    My tip for people which are looking to fight their depression is: Start doing some sport! Sports helps keeping your body healthy and erases all your problems for some hours. Don’t forget the happiness you feel when you just defeated you friends in a match of soccer, no matter if it is just for fun or not. At least that helps for me when I’m unmotivated, tired and undriven.


  2. Low times are not only normal, but we need them. Pain, unhappiness and depression give us a reason to get up and do something. Somewhere I read that the best way to deal with pain whether physical or mental is to pay attention to it, study it, accept it, really feel it, rather than ignore or try to distract ourselves from it. Only then can we deal with it.

    “This is the greatest moment of your life and you’re off somewhere, missing it.” – fight club


  3. As someone who suffered badly from depression i can recommend in addition to the post above, varied exercise, cutting back on stimulants like caffeine and taking natural supplements 5http (tryptophan), chromium, and HDA (from Tamarind root). These really really helped.
    If you live in the Northern hemisphere where there is a lack of light in winter, full spectrum bulbs are great.


  4. Thanks for that, Tim – useful & timely, & I think you may be right about how you label your mood affecting the mood itself. Have you noticed how much the pharmaceutical industry is making off these so-called “disorders” that didn’t exist in any medical textbook 30 years ago?


  5. A much needed post at this time of year. January always has the potential to be a down month. Nothing to celebrate, no money (after spending too much on the multi national corporate that is xmas.) etc…
    I surround myself with the people who are closest. THose who know and love me and value me for who I am. The meals with family and friends is so very true. Exercise is also a winner.
    I then have to trust myself and believe that the up-turn is just around the corner.


  6. I have suffered from clinical depression most of my adult life (I am 55). Its important to distiguish between “normal” highs and lows, blues, etc., and serious clinical depression requiring medical intervention with medication and/or talk therapy.

    The NIH has good info as a starting point if you want to learn more and do a self-evaluation. Our society has a poor understanding of the disease and stigmatizes those of us who suffer with it. Comments such as “you’ll get over it”, “let it go”, etc., are not helpful, can make things worse, and are based on ignorance and stupidity.


  7. Hi Tim

    Thanks for the sobering post on a tough subject, and one that we don’t really tend to discuss all that often in society.

    For anyone who might be looking for some inspiration I just posted a discussion on my site that I recently had with Scott Rigsby.

    Scott is the FIRST physically challenged double amputee athlete to complete the Hawaii IronMan Triathlon.

    He is truly an AMAZING human being and someone who dramatically turned his life around from depression and despair to “doing the unthinkable.”

    Apologies in advance if you don’t allow links in your comment section.


  8. Hi Tim,
    Thank you for your timely and heartfelt post. Normal ups and downs are part of life, but some people get stuck in the downs due to no fault of their own. Self-medicating with drugs and alcohol only makes it worse. Dr. Amen has a great website about brain research that can help explain why some people get stuck in their depression and can’t find a way out.
    There are so many avenues of help available for someone who suffers. Unfortunately, if they are already stuck then they are not going to be able to advocate for themselves to get the help they need. I really appreciate your suggestions and the follow up comments. I hope someone who needs help reads this, or someone who can help a friend takes some action. Keep up the terrific posts.


  9. I think Anthony Robbins has an incredibly accurate “take” on depression and negative emotions in general. One of his principles is that you aren’t “depressed” — rather, you are “DOING depression.” Meaning, you are playing a recipe for depression, through your physiology (how you are breathing, how you are sitting or standing, what habitual facial expressions you fall into, etc.), through your language (how you are representing things), and through your focus (primarily the questions you are asking yourself).

    In other words, “depressed” people tend to find ways to be depressed — through habitual patterns of physiology, language, and focus. Someone depressed tends to slump, to move very little, to breathe shallowly, to have a sad or slack facial expression, to stare vacantly and turn inward, etc. They also tend to frame things in poor language (as Tim pointed out, the very term “depressed” is poor and self-inducing language). And they tend to ask poor questions, which directs their focus inappropriately. Rather than asking what they can be grateful for, they ask “why does this always happen to me?” or things like that.

    And some people get really good at playing their habitual recipes for depression.

    The good news is, for most, you can break up those patterns and replace them with new ones.

    The first and easiest step is to change your physiology. Emotion comes from motion. Just MOVE. Make yourself SMILE. Even if you don’t want to. Make yourself BREATHE and move around and open your eyes. Put on some music: It’s hard to be depressed if you are dancing.

    The second thing to do is change your focus. Figure out what negative or unanswerable questions you are dwelling on, and change them. Ask a better question, create a better life. Instead of “Why did so-and-so leave me?” ask “What could be really good about this?” and “What can I do NOW to create a better life, a better me?” and “Who do I love and who loves me, and how does that make me feel?” and “What’s really great in my life right now, and what excites me?”

    Create new habits of movement, of physiology; create new language where your old language isn’t serving you; and create new habitual questions.

    So many of those we have lost to suicide would be with us still — and they would be with us HAPPILY — if only they had been able to break up the internal recipes they were playing that were causing them to fall into habitual depressive states.

    Side note: I think it is revealing that Tim points out one of the best “recipes” for happiness as being eating with close friends and family. Such an environment almost ensures that you will be in a more energetic, “up” physiology, sitting up (rather than slumped), smiling, laughing, breathing, eyes open, gesturing, etc., as well as ensuring that you are not falling into looping negative inner monologues. Your physiology is changed; your focus and questions are changed; your language is apt to be more lively and less negative or caustic. You are moving, breathing, smiling, laughing, talking about things that interest or excite you.

    No wonder it helps make you happy.


  10. There isn’t any conclusive evidence, yet, of suicide but thank you anyway for bringing up this topic. Indeed, what is lifestyle without a life…

    The best decision that I had made in my life, which freed me from Depression (although it still comes like a thief in the night), was to commit myself to a man with the optimism of a kid.


  11. This is an issue very close to my heart. I’m a student at a top UK university, but of Irish birth (as my name indicates) and my mother has Bipolar Disorder, sometimes termed Manic Depression. Last year I very nearly made a suicide attempt, which is a horrible thing to admit to. The effect of pharmaceuticals on psychiatric care does have some benefits, Olanzapine which my mum is on has made her life livable, but however the sure number of people on Prozac and other such drugs for what is merely sometimes an inability to appreciate that life sometimes needs downtime. As a physics student I certainly know that nature is cyclic, it is this that makes nature work. I’ve lost a few friends to suicide, and almost lost my best friend to it too, and this is a very ‘sad’ time of the year as my grandmother always observes to me. Depression is something that has given me the capacity to feel more, and being sensitive to the world around you is a mere facet of being a highly intelligent individual. I want to share one anecdote, which I feel is probably the best thing I can say. I was at a coffee house with a girl i just met, and an old friend, and about 40 mins into the conversation I remembered why I had recognized her face, she had lost her boyfriend to suicide, about 3 weeks before that. She also typical of her sharp intelligence told me (as I was just recovering from some severe depression, or downtime, or whatever you want to term it) that I wasn’t my emotions, that I wasn’t the state I identified myself with. I thank her to this day, for that observation. We are not our personalities, we are not static, we are like vectors not scalars (to use a mathematical analogy) we improve, and change and adapt. Thank you very much Tim Ferris.


  12. I’m sorry that you have lost friends. It’s odd how some celebrity deaths can really affect us. I was surprised to find myself crying when Princess Diana died, for example.

    I find it really interesting and helpful that you make a distinction between depression as unactionable and other labels as being more actionable. I have always found action of any kind the best way to alter an emotional state.


  13. Tim, I do think this post will help some people. Thank you.

    I lost my husband to depression several years ago (he was 31), and while I think the advice you’ve given here is one part of the solution, it’s not the whole thing, especially for people with chronic severe depression – the kind that lasts for years. One of the issues my husband struggled with was thinking his depression was his fault, and that he should have been able to handle it on his own, when he really did need help in order to be able to help himself. He finally went to a doctor, and was beginning to see that it wasn’t a personal failure, but that’s when he killed himself. Sunshine, exercise, and attitude will do a world of good, but if you can’t pull yourself up enough to do those things, and you’ve felt depressed for a long time (as opposed to the normal lows you’re talking about), it might be time to seek professional help.

    It’s such a tragedy when someone takes their own life because of pain they feel powerless to escape, or because they can’t see what a brilliant light they are in the world.


  14. There is so much truth in your words here, Tim.

    As someone who’s survived the black dog of depressive illness – and it is an illness, it’s not a weakness as some might suggest – I can speak from personal experience of the dark depths that exist in the human psyche.

    It’s important to realize, though, that when one is in the midst of a depressive episode, one really can’t think straight. Seen from the clarity of distance, suicide isn’t a rational response. But when one is swimming in the dark muck of depression, rationality takes a back seat to the avalanche of pain, loneliness and despair.

    For me personally, I can attest to the fact that properly prescribed medication and cognitive behaviour therapy quite literally saved my life. Were it not for an insightful physician, a gentle-yet-firm therapist and – yes – the pharmaceutical industry, I would probably not be here typing these words and enjoying Tim’s blog.

    Does that mean that I never get “down” or feel “the blues” anymore? No, of course not. But, as Tim mentions, those are naturally occurring cycles and I now recognize them as such, rather than perceive them as the possible beginning of a downward spiral that could last, well, the rest of my life…

    Good words, Tim. Thanks.


  15. Tim,

    I appreciate your addressing this problem. I have been blessed to not have a great deal of depression in my life, but there were some difficult times. I completely agree with your comments. Its sad that folks cannot see the joy in living in both the good times and bad. I really appreciate your passion to free individuals from their perception that they are trapped. Depression is a trap and giving advice on how to escape it is very thoughtful of you.

    Until you lose someone to a tragedy such as suicide do you really understand what your true problems are. If more of us would take charge of their lives and make changes they would truely appreciate the voyage that life presents.

    Take care and thanks for all your insights.


  16. I remember reading the stories of two young people who committed suicide because they had dug themselves so far into debt that they couldn’t see any way out of it. And on the flip side, we constantly see wealthy celebrities battling depression. Goes to show that you can’t define happiness using someone else’s standards.


  17. I think the other thing to consider is that there is a distinction between a cyclical downtime, and clinical depression. I think maybe Tim was drawing a distinction in his post between the two, but I don’t want to put words in his mouth.

    Shooting from the hip, I’d say 90% of people on anti-depression drugs aren’t having depression. They’re just experiencing some downtime and need to get out with friends, volunteer at a homeless shelter, or stop and think about what they can truly be grateful for. However, if they start calling it depression, focus on all the bad things in their life, and start taking anti-depression drugs, then it creates a downward spiral.

    On the other hand, there are those that truly have clinical depression and may benefit from anti-depression drugs (as well as the things mentioned above).


  18. Thanks for that post. Last year was devastating for me. I changed jobs four times, dropped out of two different grad schools, and lived and three different apartments. Adjusting to these different changes was, at times, devastating. I was on medication briefly, which helped, but the biggest help came from staying as involved in my life as I could — I talked to friends, kept trying new things and shared my difficulties. Now, things are much better.

    Thanks for posting on depression as a natural part of the life cycle. One of my professors said it best, nothing is permanent, both pain and happiness fade and return. Such is life.