Brad Pitt Beats Depression – But How?

There are no guarantees in life. Fame, fortune and even friends and family can not fully protect you from depression. Recently, Brad Pitt stated in an interview that he had been very depressed in the late 90’s, and that he spent most of his nights ‘sitting on the couch’ and ‘smoking dope’, with the aim being to numb himself to sleep.


So what inspired him to change his behaviour?


He went to Casablanca and witnessed extreme poverty and felt that what he saw was so unnecessary that it inspired him to change his ways. Although he does not go into much more detail about this (at least in the sources I could find) I will be more than happy to speculate. In later years, it becomes clear that he developed a much greater social conscience and desire to assist others. His efforts to help support the rebuilding of homes after Hurricane Katrina is just one example.


But what psychological processes inspired the change?


I am going to suggest 3. The first is the ‘contras’t or ‘put things in perspective’ principle. People use it all the time, but they use it poorly. By witnessing extreme poverty, he was able to contrast his life with those less fortunate and get his butt off the couch. But why did that actually work? Because he didn’t just hear someone say ‘hey think off all those starving people, why can’t you just be happy with everything you’ve got you selfish jerk’. This is the kind of thing people say to each other all the time and it has no effect all. Rather, he witnessed it personally which allowed him connect emotionally to the event. Understanding something intellectually does not inspire change. It is only when an emotional connection is formed that change can occur.


The second principle is that of gratitude. Gratitude is fundamental to happiness and an essential practice that people can use to overcome depression. Gratitude is what allows us to fully enjoy the little things in life that really do make the biggest difference to our well-being.  Sometimes it takes a strong negative experience to make us realize and appreciate all the great things we do have. I am going to assume that after that experience, his appreciation of his situation and his opportunities dramatically increased.


The third principle, which in my opinion is the most important (and the research backs me on this) is that of purpose. The most effective way of avoiding or overcoming depression is to regularly embark upon a meaningful set of actions designed to serve something greater than yourself. This is something he did not have when he was depressed and something I am quite sure that he has more of now. The assistance of Hurricane Katrina victims is just one of several examples of him working towards the improvement of the lives of others. Another more personal example would be him raising a large family predominately consisting of adopted children.


How to apply these principles to yourself (I’ll offer deeper analyses of these principles in future posts). 

1. In regards to the contrast principle, remember that you have to experience the difference. One way to do this is to either experience the issue first hand, or if not possible, to take a moment and really visualise and connect to the contrasting experience. You can use this principle on yourself quite often. For example, let’s say you feel frustrated about money. Take a moment to really visualise what it would be like to have none or if you were once a poor student like myself, take a few moments to remember how much that sucked!


2. Gratitude. Let’s make this one real simple. Take a few moments now to write down everything in your life that is good. It could be anything from a sunrise, to friendships to breathing. Make a nice big list and keep it with you as a positive reference point.


3. Purpose. Brainstorm what you would like to do that you know would help others and make you feel good at the same time. It could be community or charity based, but it may also be family or friendship based. It could be all of those things too. For example, your purpose may be to raise money for an important cause, but then it may also be to become a better and more attentive friend. Once you have a list, rank your answers in order of personal importance and work through them one at a time. Only move onto another goal when you feel you are able to satisfy and maintain your current goal.


Picture by Dorsey Shaw


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