I had depression and now I study a PhD in happiness at Oxford University

Becoming depressed was the worst and best thing that ever happened to me

These days, if people meet me again and can’t remember my name, they tend to say, “oh, wait, aren’t you the happiness guy?”. It’s an apt description: I’m studying the concept of happiness for a PhD in philosophy and I work on a prototype happiness app, Hippo. However, just over a year ago today this “happiness guy” put a call into the Samaritans because he was losing the will to live.

If you’d met me in the months beforehand, as I slid into it, you probably wouldn’t have known I was depressed. If you did, you should have told me: I didn’t know. I didn’t expect to be depressed or think I had the right to be. When you think of people struggling with their mental health, six-foot-five ex-public schoolboys with like, really, really excellent hair are not at the top of the list.

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Whilst I was busy pretending my life was going well (“How are you, Michael?”, “Great. I’m setting up a consultancy, applying for jobs and re-applying for PhDs. It’s very exciting”) I felt terrible on the inside. I’d just finished a master’s degree, I was unemployed, getting rejected from jobs I didn’t even want, and had just been (not unreasonably) dumped. I felt lost. A failure without a future. I had the whole of my life in front of me and I was certain it was going to be awful.

As I look back, I cringe with how absurd my thinking was: life really wasn’t that bad and there were lots of opportunities ahead. But if you’d told me, it wouldn’t have helped. If I’d been able to go back in time and talk to depressed Michael, I probably wouldn’t have believed myself either. I was stuck in a fog of warped, self-reinforcing negative thoughts. I would feel sad, then ask myself why I was sad. My brain would provide the obvious but unhelpful answer, “because you’re failing at life” and I’d then feel even sadder. So it went on. It was impossible to get a clean perspective on anything. It wasn’t something I could just “snap out of”. I’ve always thought that stupid, insulting advice – like rebuking a blind person for not seeing – because it suggests someone wants to be depressed. No one could want to be depressed.

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I’m not sure it’s possible to explain how miserable depression is to someone who hasn’t had it. The best I can do is say it felt like someone was draining away my soul. If you saw or spoke to me, you might not have noticed anything but, on the inside, I. Just. Wasn’t. There. It doesn’t feel quite right to say it felt bad, because bad implies a negative emotion. It was more like feeling gapingly, crushingly, yawningly empty.

Whilst I spent six months sliding into depression, I was only really depressed for a few weeks, even if that felt like months. In many ways, I was lucky. I got depressed so fast I couldn’t not tell my friends and family. And, to my amazement, they were all really supportive. They might not have known what to do, but they all tried to help, and that was what I wanted. It reminds me of a quote from Greek philosopher Epicurus:

It is not so much our friends‘ help that helps us as the confident knowledge that they will help us.

I’ve since spoken to dozens of people who hid their depression for months. They’ve all said they were amazed at how nice everyone was when they “came out” and wished they’d done it sooner.

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I was also surprised at how good the treatments for depression (and many other mental health conditions) can be. I went on anti-depressants and found them AMAZING – kids, ignore your parents and take drugs. After three days, the fog began to lift. I went on a course of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which taught me how to challenge my warped thoughts. And I started mindfulness, which taught me to see my thoughts not as truths, but just as mental events generated by a noisy brain. This isn’t to say all these will work for others, but they really worked for me. If I’d known about them, I could have easily avoided months of torturous misery.

Depression was definitely the worst thing that ever happened to me. It may also, weirdly, have been the best. I’m definitely much happier than I was because I can now manage my thoughts and emotions in a way I didn’t think was possible. When I’m feeling a bit low, sometimes I gratefully remind myself that I’m not depressed right now. It could always be worse. And I feel re-assured that, if it all goes wrong, anti-depressants will get me going again three days later. I think it taught me to be more honest with myself too. I was forced to drop the armour I didn’t know I’d been wearing and confront my deepest worries. It’s great not having to pretend. In general, I think I’m probably more empathetic and less cutting than I used to be.

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As an unexpected bonus, it’s really informed my PhD research. I used to think happiness would come from achievements and the external facts of your life – being rich, thin, successful, etc. – but I’ve now realised, first hand, the overwhelming importance of re-training how we think, something I might not have recognised if my thinking hadn’t gone badly wrong.

I’m sympathetic to the view that all that matters, in the end, is happiness, so my work focuses around trying to understand what the happiest world looks like and how we can get there. Specifically, I work on what happiness is, how to measure it, what causes it and how to increase it. Eventually, I’d like to be able to give authoritative answers about how individuals can maximise their own happiness, and what governments and philanthropists could do to increase happiness for others.

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So there’s my story. If you’re feeling down and like you’re losing control, ask for help. You’re not a failure, you’re a human, this is life, it happens to all of us, and there’s no shame when it happens to you. So tell your friends, tell your family, tell your GP and definitely, definitely, don’t forget the drugs.

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