Image of man changing his reality from a grey city to blue sky nature.

It is obvious when you are depressed. You feel bad. Negative thoughts and emotions are your default. Perhaps you get distracted in work or a task but like a song that you can’t get out of your head, you return again and again to a feeling of worthlessness, dread for what’s next, or a sense of sadness and hopelessness about life as it is.

What is less obvious about depression is the idea that in addition to ruminating on the negative, you may inadvertently push away the positive.

A recent study in the Journal of Psychopathology and Clinical Science[i] demonstrated that individuals with Major Depressive Disorder tend to not only ruminate and overthink negative events and feelings but also tend to distract themselves from the positive. In other words, even when they have the option of focusing on something pleasant, they actually push away and avoid the positive stimuli.

When depressed you may not consciously want to diminish your positive emotions but there may be a lack of motivation to feel the good in your life, no matter how small. Why? Well, when depressed it’s easy to feel a need to protect yourself from pleasure. There can be a fear that if you let the good in, you will be even more hurt or sad when the bad inevitably returns. Another factor is that when depressed, you may dismiss how much directing your mood toward positive events will actually help you to feel better. In the moment, dwelling on something positive is so the opposite of your mood state that it feels futile— like a tiny drop of water in a large empty bucket.

Shifting your mood toward the positive in your life, moment-by-moment-piece-by-piece, starts a new pattern. Here are 5 ways to will yourself toward the good:

  1. Consider for a moment if you’re afraid to be happy. Many with depression have so many negative thoughts and emotions bouncing around in their minds like pinballs that they start to fear being happy. They fear that they will notice something positive or look forward to something, but then be crestfallen when the sadness returns. In a way, for them, it’s easier to just focus on the negative than to feel a bit of happiness, only to return to the prison of depression. Take a minute now to reflect and remind yourself that you’re capable of and deserve to experience pleasure and joy. Remind yourself that deliberately focusing on the positive reduces symptoms of depression and makes life feel worth living.
  1. Carve out a space in your day where you challenge (or will yourself) to create something pleasant in your life. This could range from observing the smallest beauty in nature to small talk with a stranger to a walk or enjoying a meal. Whatever it is, literally will yourself to find something each day that you can reflect on as enjoyable. Feeling these moments of happiness is the beginning of a new pattern. Also, try to plan something that you can look forward to during the week or month. Some of my clients fear that if they look forward to something by the time that something happens, they will feel sad and not want to attend or will let others down. If that describes you, challenge those thoughts: remind yourself it’s better for your overall mood to plan for the positive, even if your depression gets in the way.
  1. Recognize the good that is already present in your world: When depressed you likely feel like you’re sleepwalking through your life. You go from task to task but feel disconnected from yourself and not fully present. If this describes you then it is very likely there are good events occurring and pleasant emotions to be had but the sleepwalking is preventing you from the full experience. See if you can bring more presence of mind to your day and the positive feelings and events you might be tuning out. To do this build awareness for when you’re internalizing through overthinking and obsessing. Instead, even for 10 minutes at a time, challenge yourself to be fully present and engaged in whatever is occurring around you. If driving, fully drive, look at the sky, listen to the music; if chatting with someone hang on to their every word; if walking take in the surroundings, the sounds.
  1. Dwell on the good: Consider journaling daily or a meditation exercise where you write down or mentally call to mind some of the pleasurable experiences from above. Try to recall in vivid detail the taste of something you enjoyed or something that brought a smile to your face. See if you can sit with these pleasant feelings in your body even for just a few minutes. It’s important that you retrain your brain so that you can feel the positive without anything bad occurring. Over time, the more you look for and encode the positive the more your motivation will grow.