Published: 2008-11-08

Depression is running at record levels amongst women and single females face the biggest risk. According to the Priory Hospital, North London, depression has increased by around 30 per cent in the past five years amongst women aged 30-45 – the Bridget Jones generation. Here Miriam Akhtar describes how she succumbed to and later triumphed over the black dog of depression – using positive psychology, singleton style.

It was almost inevitable the way it happened. Throughout my thirties I expected that sooner or later I’d marry, mate and move to a cottage in the countryside. I went into my thirties a happily cohabiting woman but my partner scratched his 7-year itch and I turned back into a singleton. Never mind, I thought, as I got stuck into Helen Fielding’s novel, I’ll do a year’s mourning and then I’ll find Mr Right for the next phase of life – bouncy babies and hanging out with the former high fliers down the park. I always thought that as we entered the new millennium I would be married with two children. Instead I was single and childless and life was turning out very differently to how I imagined.

There were clues that motherhood might not be my fate. Just like Bridget Jones I had a creative job in television where, according to industry statistics, over 50% of women in their thirties and forties are child-free. It is very easy to devote yourself to your job and miss out on the landmarks in life – buying a house together, getting married, first baby, second baby, moving to a bigger house. I decided to take a sabbatical to give myself time to come to terms with the Big Question that all Bridget Jones end up facing. If I’m not going to have kids, then what am I to do with the rest of my life? I didn’t have a sense of purpose and yet I knew it was an ingredient for happiness. If you’re a mother there is a natural sense of purpose in raising children. A Bridget Jones needs to invent one.

Taking time out from the rat race was not such a great idea because it gave me more chance to ruminate. The doctor confirmed it was depression – now reaching epidemic levels amongst childless women. I had counselling, talked to friends and let the tears out but it only gave me temporary relief from the jaws of despair. So I tried various anti-depressants but none of them worked and all had side-effects that left me feeling worse.

The turning point came one morning when I went to fix the dishwasher. A frustrating aspect of the Bridget lifestyle is not having someone around who is, in theory, born to DIY. I thrashed around feeling blue when suddenly the pipe burst and the kitchen flooded. I’d spent months focussing on how bad I was feeling and where had it led me – to a bill for an emergency plumber. That’s when I realised that the usual treatment for depression wasn’t for me. I had to tailor-make a method for myself as a singleton. Inspired by positive psychology, I put together some interventions that not only lifted me out of depression, they put me on the path to greater happiness. This is what worked for me.

• Focus on what’s good rather than what’s bad. By concentrating on the aspects of my life which were working well like physical health, I was able to experience a chink of light in the darkness. One way of doing this is by keeping a ‘gratitude diary’ of things that you appreciate in your life rather than a Bridget diary of misery.

• Find a ‘depression recovery’ buddy. For me it was Jill, a fellow singleton with whom I was able to share the now-what-do-I-do-with the-rest-of-my-life question. Having close relationships are a characteristic of the happiest people. It lifts you out of yourself and gives you social contact. Jill is part of my ‘urban family’. We swap tips on how to boost mood and keep tabs on each other’s progress.

• Use exercise as therapy. I’ve never been a sporty type but the effects of physical activity on mood are uplifting and require no mental effort. Just 15 minutes walking or jogging in the local park was enough to lift my mood for the day. Research shows that exercise can be more effective at overcoming depression than anti-depressants or even a combination of exercise with anti-depressants.

• Treat yourself to some “book therapy”. “Learnt Optimism” by Martin Seligman showed me how to view the glass as half full rather than half empty. For some DIY CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) I chose “Feeling Good” by David Burns. My top read for depression recovery is The Chemistry of Joy by Henry Emmons, which combines the best of Western science with Eastern wisdom.

• Prioritize things that make you feel better – spending time in nature, with upbeat friends, enjoying uplifting music, watching comedies. When you feel good, you’re more likely to be optimistic and more motivated to take action, holding a belief that things could work out.

• Learn to reframe, to look for an up side of every situation you find yourself in. It is even possible to reframe the children question. Without kids you can relax about having to earn enough to provide for them, you can prioritize your well-being and enjoy hours of uninterrupted sleep. What’s more you can have the company of nephews, nieces and godchildren in the knowledge that you can hand them back at the end of the day.

• Become a ‘dogmother’. I have singleton friends who have overcome depression by adopting a dog. As well as being a good companion, having a dog means you HAVE to exercise because they need their walkies. It’s a way of focussing outwards rather than inwards as caring for your pet keeps rumination at bay. And it’s sociable as you meet fellow dogwalkers when you’re out and about. I know of several Bridgets who have met new partners through walking their dogs!

It’s now several years since I ran into that other dog – the black dog of depression. Recently I have discovered another intervention which not only has removed the final traces of depression but has, I believe, wired my brain for greater happiness. That technique is mindfulness meditation. Positive psychology research has shown that practising this form of meditation for 45 minutes a day can increase activity in the left, pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain that processes positive emotions. It’s certainly worked for me. I am now happier than I have ever been before and it’s a form of happiness which is not dependent on external circumstances such as whether you are a singleton or not.

Further reading

Burns, D.D. (2000). The Feeling Good Handbook. Plume Books.

Emmons, H. (2006). The chemistry of joy. New York: Fireside.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Wherever you go there you are: Mindfulness meditation in
everyday life. New York: Hyperion.

Seligman, M.E.P. (2002). Authentic happiness. New York: Free Press

Seligman, M.E.P. (1991). Learned optimism. New York: Knopf