Transcript from Jordan Peterson’s video on how to deal with depression. My analysis and summary are available in the blog post Jordan Peterson On How To Deal With Depression From Reality and the Sacred. As a note this transcript is not word for word, I removed unnecessary language such as the repeated “you know”s and tried to make it more readable. For more Jordan Peterson articles and transcripts visit the articles page.
*** START TRANSCRIPT – How To Deal With Depression – Jordan Peterson ***
QUESTION – How do you take your ideas about embracing suffering and apply them to treatments for mental illness?
The first thing I would say is that if you’re dealing with someone who’s depressed and they’re really depressed, you should try giving them antidepressants because if they die you can’t help them. If you’re suffering, you are obligated in a sense to hold on to whatever rope someone throws you.
One of the things I do with my clients all the time, especially if they’re really in trouble, is to tell them “look I don’t know exactly what’s going to help you but don’t arbitrarily throw out any possibilities because you might not have that luxury.”
Antidepressants helped a lot of people and there are technical reasons why that’s the case so that’s a simple answer it’s not relevant to what I already described except that if you’re offered a gift by your society and it works try it, I don’t care what your presuppositions are.
King Of Nothing
There’s a multitude of reasons people are suffering with depression but one common reason is associated with the story of Peter Pan. Peter Pan is someone who won’t grow up, right? Now the problem with Peter Pan is he gets to be king but it’s king of Neverland and Neverland doesn’t exist so being king of nothing isn’t that helpful.
Do You Have Order In Your Life? The Importance Of A Job
One of the things that you often see with people who suffer from depression, and I’m not making a blanket statement about the cause of depression because there’s lots of them, is that people who don’t have enough order in their life tend to get overwhelmed.
So for example if someone comes to see me and they say they’re depressed, I always ask them a very standard set of questions.
Do you have a job? If you don’t have a job you’re really in trouble in our society. First of all your biological rhythms tend to go off the rails right away because there’s no reason to go to bed at any particular time, and there’s no reason to get up.
For many people if they don’t get up at the same time they throw off their circadian rhythms and that’s enough to make them depressed right off the bat especially if they start napping during the afternoon.
Purpose – Attainment vs Mini Successes Towards A Valued Goal
They also don’t have a purpose. People aren’t good without a purpose and this isn’t hypothesizing. We absolutely understand the circuitry that underlies positive emotion. We know how it works.
*Almost all the positive emotion that any of you are likely to experience in your life will not be a consequence of attaining things, it will be a consequence of seeing that things are working as you proceed towards a goal you value.
That’s completely different and you need to know this because people are often stunned. For example they finish their PhD thesis and their presupposition is that they’re going to be elated for a month. Often instead they’re actually depressed and they think “I’ve been working on this for seven years and I handed it in and what do I do now” and that’s what depresses them.
It’s the what do I do now. They’re fine if they enjoyed pursuing the thing as long as it was working out. They get a lot of enthusiasm and excitement over that because that’s how our nervous systems work.
Most Of Your Positive Emotion Is Goal Pursuit Emotion
Most of your positive emotion is goal pursuit emotion. If you take drugs like cocaine or amphetamine the reason they’re enjoyable is because they turn on the systems that help you pursue goals. That’s why people like them. So if you don’t have a job you have no structure.
That’s not good, plus you tend not to have a point, so you’re overwhelmed by chaotic lack of structure and you don’t have any positive emotion. Well do you have any friends?
So sometimes you see people who are depressed, they have no job, they have no friends, they have no intimate relationship, they have an additional health problem, and they have a drug and alcohol problem. My experience has been if you have three of those problems, it’s almost impossible to help you.
You’re so deeply mired in chaos that you can’t get out because you make progress on one front and one of the other problems pulls you down. So one of the things I tell people who are depressed is don’t sacrifice your stability.
Get A Job, Find Friends, Start Dating
Get a job, even if it’s not the job you exactly want. Find some friends. Get out in the dating circuit. See if you can establish an intimate relationship. Put together some of the foundational items that are like pillars that your life rests on. Well that’s the practical thing to do. So that’s one example with regards to depression.
QUESTION – How do your clients respond to the suggestion that they establish structure in their life as an antidote to depression?
Well the thing is you don’t just launch it on them, you’ve got to negotiate with the person and you also got to teach them to negotiate with themselves and then this is something that’s very useful to know. You know you can tryannize yourself into doing things but I wouldn’t recommend it.
Ask Yourself What You Are Willing To Do
*What I would recommend instead is ask yourself what you’re willing to do. It’s a really effective technique, it’s like a meditative technique. So for example you can get up in the morning, you can think “Well I’d like to have a good day today, so I’d like to go to bed tonight without feeling guilty because I didn’t do some things I said I was gonna do, and I’d like to have kind of an interesting day so I’ve got to fulfill my responsibilities and I want to enjoy the day.”
Then you can ask yourself “What would I have to do in order for that to happen that I would do.”
The probability if you practice this for three or four days is your brain will just tell you. It’ll say “Well you know there’s that piece of homework that haven’t done for like three weeks you should knock that sucker off because it would only take you ten minutes and you’ve been avoiding it and torturing yourself to death for like 72 hours straight and if you do that here’s a little interesting thing you can do and you know maybe this is a little obligation you should clean up.”
Negotiate with yourself
And so what what you do in a situation like that is you teach the person to negotiate with themself. Say “Let’s figure out what your aims are, you got to have some aims, whatever they are.” and they might say “Well I’m so depressed I don’t have any aims” and then I say “Well pick the least objectionable of the aims and act it out for a while and see what happens because sometimes your emotional systems are so fouled up that you have to pretend. You have to act the thing out before you can start to believe it.”
I mean people always assume they have to believe in, then act. That’s sometimes true but lots of times it isn’t. The trick if you’re doing therapeutic work with someone and you’re helping them establish a structure is to find out what they’ll do now if they want to get better.
Which is not a given because there are often payoffs for not getting better.
That’s basically the payoffs of being a martyr or maybe the payoffs of doing what you’re entirely pathological family members want you to do, because they actually want you to fail. Assuming you want to get better there’s usually something you can figure out that would constitute a step towards some sort of concrete goal and (!) my presumption it’s a behavioral presumptions fundamentally is that small accruing gains that repeat unbelievably powerful.
Look at your life and see what isn’t right with it
I learned in part from reading the writings of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who is a great Russian philosopher and novelist, that you can look at your life and you can see what isn’t right about it. **All you have to do is look and then you can start to fix that, and the way you fix it is by noticing what you could in fact fix.** People are often trying to fix things they can’t fix, which I would not recommend because if you try to fix something you can’t fix you’ll just ruin it.
You can find all sorts of undergraduates perfectly willing to restructure the international economic system who cannot keep the room clean and there’s actually a gap there. It’s surprising that people don’t actually notice. So I would say if you pay attention you can see things that you could fix. They yell at you, they really do. We even know how that happens. Let me give you an example because rooms are full of stories and the stories have have effects on you.
The Power Of Your environment Story
*So here’s a classic experiment. You take two groups undergraduates, you bring them into your lab and you give one group a multiple-choice test that has a bunch of words in it that are associated with being old and you give the other group the same multiple-choice test except the words are associated with being young. This is independent of the content of the test. It’s just descriptions and then you time the undergraduates as they walk back to the elevators.
The ones who read the ones who completed the multiple-choice test that had more words associated with aging walk slower back to the elevators and they don’t know that and they don’t know they’re doing it. That study has been replicated in various forms many many times. You’re unbelievably sensitive to the story that your environments telling you because your environment is not made out of objects, that’s just wrong.
Your environment is basically made out of something like tools and obstacles. You’re a tool using creature. You’re a tool perceiving creature. The things you like if I take you out of this room and I say well what was in the room, you’re not gonna say you know random patterns in the carpet because they’re they’re real just as good an object as anything else.
You’re gonna say chairs because you can sit on them, and you’re gonna say handrails because you can hold them, you can say stairs because you can walk down them. That’s what you see and that’s what you interact with and if you pay attention to your environment, which is you by the way extended , all of your experiences you it will tell you all the time what you should do. All you have to do is do it but then you have to decide if you want to do it.
Life Can Be Meaningful Enough To Justify The Suffering
One of the things I’ve noticed about people because I’ve wondered once I started studying these mythological stories and I got this idea about the fact that life can be meaningful enough to justify its suffering. I thought god that’s such a good idea because it’s not optimistic exactly. You know some people will tell you what you (!) can be happy it’s like those people are idiots. I’m telling you they’re idiots.
There’s gonna be things that come along that flatten you so hard you won’t believe it, and you’re not happy then and so if life is to be happy well in those situations what are you doing. Why even live.
But(!) life isn’t to be happy. If you’re happy you’re bloody fortunate and you should enjoy it you should because it’s the grace of God so to speak.
Do Meaningful Things
With regards to meaning I thought well people know when they’re doing something meaningful. They can tell, so why the hell don’t they do meaningful things all the time. It seems obvious you could do it. It’s hard because other people want you to do other things and it’s a struggle but everything’s a struggle and then I thought well oh I get it I see why it took me about ten years to figure this out.
You Have A Choice When It Comes To Meaning
People have a choice. Choice number one, nothing you do means anything. Well that’s kind of a drag right. Meaninglessness of life and all that existential angst you know that’s kind of a pain but the upside of nothing that you do (!) be mean is meaningful is he don’t have to do anything. You’ve got no responsibility now. You have to suffer because things are meaningless but that’s a small price to pay for being able to be completely useless.
The alternative is everything you do matters. If you make a mistake, it’s a real mistake. If you betray someone you tilt the world a little more sharply towards evil rather than good. It matters what you do well. If you buy that then you can have a meaningful life but there’s no mucking around. It means responsibility, it means that the decisions you make are important, it means that when you do something wrong it’s wrong. Well do you want that?
*** END TRANSCRIPT ON HOW TO DEAL WITH DEPRESSION ***