Finance Analogies: Mental Accounting and the Positive Events Diary

I make a case for paying extra attention to the positive events in our lives, and offer one way of doing this: 460 words.

As a former accounting and finance professional I like to find some common ground between my two careers. Here’s my fourth attempt…

In life we can expect some events to add value, and some to reduce value. For example, when we receive a compliment this adds value, and when someone insults us this diminishes value, if we take it seriously anyway. As an accountant, I would record transactions that increased and decreased the value of an organisation, namely income (credits), and expenses (debits). Of course, many expenses are necessary, as we can’t expect to achieve anything without incurring cost. But on the whole we hope to make a net profit (more income than expenses).

Sometimes, though, our mental version of accounting goes a bit haywire. We start recording only the negatives, and fail to notice the positives. This is very common in depression, when we become biased towards noticing failure and setbacks. The reality for the depressed person may well be okay, but their disorder stops them from seeing this.

In accounting we record financial transactions in a ledger. If we are keeping a kind of depressive ledger, recording just the expenses in our life, then we will soon start to question whether it’s worth doing anything at all; we become hopeless. To counter this, we can start to keep a second set of books, in which we will record only mental ‘income’.

Clinicians call this a positive events diary. At the end of the day we can take a simple note of the good things that have happened during that day, whether little or big, and by doing this we begin to build a more accurate picture of our lives. It’s an unashamedly biased exercise, because depression is biased too. Think of it as affirmative action for your positive thoughts.

Each time you do something that your depression would have prevented you from doing, record this as a positive event. It’s an achievement for many depressed people just to get out of bed in the morning. All the usual good things can go in there, and don’t take things for granted. If you make someone laugh, enjoy your morning coffee, or get a question right at college, or in a work meeting, all these are positives and deserve to be recorded. Social media can be used in this way. If we take Facebook as an example, spend less time examining others’ highly curated lives, and record your own ‘best of’; you don’t even need to share these publicly, but going to the trouble of recording these events will remind you of them, and you can look back over them in the low times.

However you do it, keeping a positive events’ diary is a relatively simple way of balancing your mental books. And although you don’t need to be an accountant to do it, you might find consulting with a therapist will help you keep track of all those mental credits.

To Beat Depression you have to be a Strongman

A metaphor illustrating an evidenced based treatment for depression called Behavioural Activation: 460 words.

Working with depressed clients has reminded me of the world’s strongest man competitions I used to watch as a child. In one event, competitors would pull heavy vehicles strapped to their waste, and living with depression can feel like we are constantly dragging a heavy weight behind us. Strength alone was not enough to shift these enormous objects – their approach mattered. The Strongmen would lean forward to take the strain, and with their first small steps they would barely move off the mark, despite great strength and determination. In fact, they might sometimes slip backwards, trying too hard without sufficient traction. But with a steady persistence they would inevitably gain forward motion. From here they would build momentum, and gradually lengthen their stride. Before long they were moving at a normal walking pace. It was an impressive feat considering the weight they were pulling. In a similar way to this, it is possible for people to progress in life despite the weight of their depressive illness.

Depression reduces motivation, draining people of energy and instilling a sense of hopelessness and pointlessness. Understandably, people often reduce their activity levels and isolate themselves socially. Unfortunately, these responses strengthen depression by eliminating the few remaining opportunities to be rewarded by life, thereby confirming negative expectations and further reducing motivation in a vicious cycle.

An evidenced based approach to treating depression, Behavioural Activation, targets these maintaining factors. Like the strength athletes in the vehicle-pull event, we can expect a slow and potentially discouraging start. It requires very small steps, and a deliberate and focused approach. Schedule activities that instil a sense of achievement, increase connection to others, or are things you’ve enjoyed in the past. At first these might involve getting out of bed before midday, making a simple meal for a significant other, or going for a coffee at your local café, and regular exercise is recommended. Trying too hard can set us up for a slip backwards, and will probably confirm thoughts of failure. As we begin to build momentum mood can lift, and it will be possible to lengthen our stride by taking on more challenges. Maintaining momentum is important, so keep scheduling a variety of rewarding activities, and commit to doing these despite low motivation. Giving in to a few bad days here and there will not bring us to a grinding halt, but returning to patterns of withdrawal and isolation will, so get back on track when you can. When depression finally lifts it is easy to become complacent, so treatment guidelines recommend a focus on relapse prevention.

We needn’t cower in the shadow of depression. If it’s managed well we can live a meaningful life, and maintaining engagement in life is part of managing a depressive illness.