There are many prescriptions, recommendations, and recipes for happiness. Without a doubt, they would be very useful, if it weren’t for one small problem: the recipes are standard while each of us is unique. Our challenges, our health, our way of life, and our particular dreams are different from everyone else’s.
Still, we all want to be happy. I am reminded of the wise, subtle advice from the famous Russian poet Sergei Yesenin: “We can live easier, we can live simpler, accepting things as they are.” We might be skeptical of Yesenin’s touching sentiment. “How are things, exactly?” we wonder. After all, philosophers tell us that our perception of the world around us depends on our individual senses – and our senses are capricious. A man who suffers from red-green color-blindness will not spend hours in front of Vermeer’s paintings. A woman who is tone-deaf won’t be too disappointed if she misses Pavarotti’s concert.
In other words, we each live inside our own unique reality.
However, no matter our own reality, we all share something crucial to our survival: a network of sensors that play an essential role in our physical life and beyond. To function effectively, the brain needs sensory input: it serves as the brain’s energy source and as a link between the mind/ body, and the rest of the world.
Sensory input is essential brain food for our well-being. As long as the brain receives enough sensory food, it keeps working and making sure that our organs are healthy and functioning. Brain Inc. is open twenty four hours a day, seven days a week – no lunch breaks, no weekends, no holidays.
The effects of sensory deprivation on the brain and, consequently, on the body, are well known. When the sensory flow dries up, we suffer. This causes the areas of the brain that are responsible for replaying information to shrink, creating places without enough blood, oxygen, and nutrients. The transmitter signals between the parts of the brain and between the brain and rest of the body became weaker. Suddenly, we feel apathetic and miserable; We lose focus and attention, sleep and appetite.
The good news is that our world is so thick with information that we can pick and choose sensory brain food around us. There are many ways of receiving information, but they all achieve the same goal: they safeguard us from sensory deprivation. The brain is constantly at work collecting images, impressions and sensations. We can escape sensory deprivation even if one or several sensory organs fail to replay new information. History tells us of countless writers, mathematicians, inventors, and musicians who’d lost their physical faculties, but not their will to work and create.
Christopher Reeve, the late, beloved actor who played the title role in the Superman series, was paralyzed in a horse-riding accident that almost killed him. Confined to a wheelchair, he continued to act, and worked tirelessly to further social and medical causes. Everyone who knew him testified to his positive, cheerful outlook.
Earlier, famous Russian science fiction author Alexander Beliaev was crippled by illness and spent years confined to his bed. There, he wrote his classic Professor Dowell’s Head – the first work of fiction to deal with sensory isolation of the brain. Beliaev’s kind, life-affirming books bear no trace of depression and stand as an enduring testament to their author’s optimism.
Ever since our childhood, our brain has been getting better and better at browsing through a sea of information to find morsels of positive emotions. This trait stands us in good stead as we age. So what can we do to chase away sensory deprivation in depressive state of mind? The answer – the recipe for happiness – is simple: we must embrace every day as a gift, a place full of joy. We will find it if we’re willing to look for it. The sources of joy are all around us: our family, our friends, our hobbies, our interests, the world beyond our ken.
My patients often show me inspiring examples of the brain’s determination to fight depression. Many of my older patients strive to lead full, active lives in an effort to keep sensory input flowing to the brain. I’d like to share a few stories from my patients who always inspire me.
Patient D. Patient D came to me after invasive gastrointestinal surgery, complaining of depression, fatigue, anxiety, and insomnia. She avoided leaving the house and had lost interest in daily activities. Early in our meetings, Patient D repeated the mantra of “Doctor, I’m too old, I doubt anything will help me.” But after nine days of self-regulation training, coupled with antidepressants, physical exercises and psychotherapy, Patient D was amazed at the drastic improvement in her mood. Her self-confidence returned. She regained interest in books, music, and movies.
Patient H. After a long struggle with depression, Patient H called me one day to say: “Doctor, congratulate me. My depression went away – I became a grandma!” This, as they say, requires no explanation.
A revised excerpt from my book “Conquering Depression in the Golden Years”