On the Road to Feeling Better

I hadn't been running for a while when I set off toward the Dish on a recent Friday evening, needing a pick-me-up after a difficult week. By the time I reached the hilltop and paused to enjoy the view of the Foothills and, in the far distance, San Francisco, I was feeling better.

Now that I think of it, a lot of activities that leave me gasping and sweaty improve my mood. It probably has something to do with endorphins, or maybe it's the residue of ancient evolutionary coding from a time when we chased wild animals through the savanna, hoping for dinner.

I was put in mind of this after reading our cover story on David Burns's groundbreaking work in psychotherapy. Burns has helped countless millions of people feel better. His bestselling books describe techniques for defeating—or at least holding at bay—depression and anxiety, and his work with therapists has established a new way of thinking about mental health. Few areas of scholarship can be so directly and effectively applied.

Burns posits—and his results demonstrate—that we can revive ourselves by arguing against the darkness trying to envelop us. In one amusing anecdote from our story, Burns pulls a woman out of her funk by insisting that she do jumping jacks, right there, right then. Suddenly she is laughing, joy spilling out of her. Now, obviously it's not that easy for everyone. Mental health problems are complex and particular to each person: There is no single remedy. But I was struck by how decisive Burns's approach can be in many cases.

Happiness is elusive for so many folks. Even defining what it is can be tricky. It's a state of being with many shades and intensities. For some, it's simply the absence of unhappiness.

My grandfather somehow intuitively knew that sustained happiness didn't just happen. He had his share of heartache, losing his wife at a young age and raising a son, my dad, on his own in the midst of grinding poverty. He lived alone for much of his adult life but seemed to treasure the smallest blessings, and made a point of making the rounds in his small town each morning to visit friends and offer help where he could. I wasn't thinking this when I was 10 years old tagging along with him, but in retrospect he was modeling for me a way of living, a means of caring for one's well-being—while also caring for others.

His experience is not a perfect analog for the techniques Burns employs, but it stands for me as an example of our ability to heal ourselves if we have the resources, inner and otherwise, to do so. Scholars and practitioners like Burns can only help.

Kevin Cool is the executive editor of Stanford.

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