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Wales, United Kingdom
In autumn 2010, my husband Ian and I both quit our jobs, sold our house and left the flatlands of the east for the mountains of Wales. Our goal is to create a more self-sufficient lifestyle in a place we actually like living. Whilst Ian will continue to earn some money as a freelancer, my part of the project is to reduce how much we spend by growing and making as much of what we need as possible. The purpose of this blog is to keep friends updated with how the grand project is progressing, but all are welcome here. If you're not a friend already, well perhaps you might become one.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

A thought on seasonal depression

Every year, I wonder what's wrong with me: Where has my enthusiasm gone? Why do I feel like such a failure? Then sometime around mid October the penny drops: It's autumn! I suffer from SAD - that's why I'm feeling rubbish. You'd think I'd learn, wouldn't you?

This year, I noticed something else, though. While my motivation for things that I ought to be doing (fixing the conservatory roof; publicity for Wild West Wales) was rock bottom, I was quite happy foraging and preparing food for storage. These can be quite tedious tasks, but I had no problem motivating myself to wash and dry laver, or to peel and chop a whole carrier bag full of apples that a friend gave me.

This made me wonder about the nature of seasonal depression. It's always struck me as evolutionarily implausible that so many people should feel sluggish for quite such a large proportion of the year. I could understand it in the darkest, coldest months, when hibernation looks like a good strategy, but SAD often kicks in with the rapidly shortening days, particularly around the equinox in September. I wonder whether it's not actually a general depression, but a switch in motivation to food gathering and storage, at the expense of everything else. In our modern world, there's not much opportunity to express that single preoccupation, so all we see is the loss of motivation to do anything else.

Like much of evolutionary psychology, this has more than a hint of the just-so story about it, but it does make a testable prediction: If I could focus all my energy on food gathering and storage throughout September, October and November, and not worry about doing anything else, then I wouldn't feel depressed. I wonder if it would be possible to arrange my life that way?

7 comments:

  1. Holy cow I think you're a genius. I feel exactly the same!!!

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    1. :-)
      I mentioned this to a friend I visited this morning, and she completely agreed. In fact, she's known this for years!

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  2. I think your theory is spot on! I mean, we've evolved on this planet with its varying seasons, so it makes complete sense that our psyches and motivations would need to morph along with the changing weather and light.

    But I also think that in general we do a terrible job of listening to ourselves and our needs. We tend to plan our lives around various abstract ideas and cultural norms rather than acting because we feel motivated to act.

    I often fear that if I don't force myself to do things that I don't feel like doing, they will languish and somehow my entire life will be ruined. But when I can get out of that mentality and just let myself do what I want, somehow it all gets done and much more joyfully than when I'm standing behind myself with a big whip.

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    1. That's a really good point that we've completely divorced things we need to do and things we want to do. We have this idea that if we did what we wanted all the time, none of the necessary stuff would get done and we'd perish. I wonder if that's because when we stop working for a while, the number one 'want' is to rest, so we extrapolate and think that given half a chance, we'd want to laze around doing nothing all the time.

      I agree that we're generally pretty terrible at listening to ourselves (I certainly am) but maybe that's partly because we never try it for long enough to learn that we can trust our 'wants' to push us in useful (i.e. survival-oriented) directions. We don't find out that once we're rested, doing nothing becomes boring and we'll actually want to do something productive.

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    2. I LOVE your analysis of the desire to rest, and I think you are absolutely correct - what we want most of all is to rest because our modern lives leave us exhausted, but if rest weren't our first need, we'd naturally want to do other things. I mean just look at the animal kingdom. If animals couldn't make themselves do things like hunt or forage, and find/construct shelter because they were too lazy, I doubt they'd live long enough to reproduce!

      Hmmm... much to think about...

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    3. I've recently had the opportunity to laze about as much as I want...and I took it easy for a while, but then, as you say, I got BORED. I'm starting a new job in a couple of weeks, which I am really looking forward to. With all of my free time, I have gradually got better at resting when I need to, and doing things when I feel like it/deciding what things I actually need to do in a day, and letting myself do whatever I want once the "essentials" are done.
      Apparently I look much healthier and less stressed as a result! It's much nicer to get things done because you want to, rather than dragging your exhausted self through all the things you should do..

      As for the SAD- I too found my motivation ebbed a little as Autumn came...but interestingly my motivation to plan meals and cook has increased- filling up the freezer ready for winter. I agree that it makes little evolutionary sense for humans to become lethargic and de-motivated when the days get shorter. Shorter days are thought to trigger migration in some bird species (can't remember specific examples, but they seem to mention it quite often on Autumnwatch!)- it makes sense for human behaviour to be affected/triggered by day length too.

      Interesting!

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    4. It's interesting that your experience fits in with these ideas, especially cooking and freezer-filling. I'm pretty sure you're right about birds responding to day length, though I can't remember which species, either. Plants certainly do!

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