"I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered."
The famous quote from George Best always strikes a chord with me. It makes me laugh but it contains a grain a truth. It makes me think of the idea of waste. We both hate and fear the idea of wasting anything. The act of getting rid of some of my old books at Oxfam was much harder than I thought - this was because of waste. It meant that all of the money - and energy - spent buying and reading those books had been wasted. The idea of waste is something which is central to depression.
Investing in a depressed life
We stay in life situations in which we are depressed, hoping that somehow things will get better. If we try to change our lives, we fear that we would be forced to justify why we stayed stayed in our depressed life situation for so long. If we try to change our lives, we fear that we may regret our decision. If we try to change, we fear that others will criticise us. Does all of this sound familiar?
This phenomenon is known as a sunk cost. This is a term from finance which concerns investments by businesses which cannot be recovered. If, for example, a firm invests in advertising, it is a “sunk cost” because that firm will never get their money back. Sunk costs in depression works in similar ways.
Paul, who was depressed, spent all of his time trying to please others. He did this because he believed that he was a bad person. If he pleased others then he felt he would get some positive feedback which would counteract this belief. However, despite the time and energy spent in doing this, he felt taken for granted and treated like a doormat. Rather than changing his behaviour, he kept investing in the strategy of pleasing others. As he maintained the sunk costs of pleasing others, he felt the pressure to justify his behaviour. He believed that he was no longer being taken for granted. If he felt bad about the situation, it only meant that he needed to try harder at being his past people pleasing self. He continually looked towards his past investment.
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The merits of SMART goals
A different approach might involve seeing changing behaviours as an investment in the future. Like stocks and shares, there is a possibility of future financial benefits. Therapies such as Behavioural Activation (BA) are a form of investment in the future. In BA, we use SMART goals. The acronym SMART - which means specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timed - is a strategy for taking small risks. Each goal we achieve allows up to build up our emotional capital. The more capital we accumulate, the more resilient we become and the less we see our actions as a risk. Understanding good mental health as a form of emotional capital works on a social as well as individual level. The idea of social capital from sociology states that communities which have a wide variety of resources such as voluntary organisations and groups have greater resilience. Interestingly enough, such communities with high social capital also seem to have lower levels of mental health problems.
If we are to invest in our mental health, perhaps it is better to value future goals rather than the sunk costs of our previous investments. We cannot buy back the past, but we can look towards the future.
Michael O'Sullivan is a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist working in the Derbyshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust. Purchase his book 'A Practical Guide for Working with Depression: A cognitive behavioural approach for mental health workers' here.