When you’re feeling depressed, it’s natural to experience low motivation—it’s a cardinal symptom. The things we once enjoyed are no longer engaging to us.
Maybe it’s a social activity like going out for dinner with friends, or a physical one like a long outdoor run. But no matter what it is, you just don’t feel like doing it.
When I see patients, they’re typically eager to feel better and want to know what the treatment is. They’re often surprised when I tell them they already have the most powerful antidepressant that I know of: doing one enjoyable or rewarding thing each day.
Fake it until you make it
The vicious cycle of depression is that when you feel worse, you do less—and when you do less, you feel even worse. You can see how doing less of what you find enjoyable can feed depression and reinforce low energy. We can start to interrupt this cycle by planning one activity that we used to find rewarding or enjoyable.
This activity doesn’t have to be anything big. In fact, I encourage my patients to start small. If you used to do dinner with friends on a regular basis, try just getting coffee with one friend for half an hour. If you used to go for a 5-mile run each weekend, start with 1-mile, or even just a long walk in nature. You get the idea.
This has been called “lifestyle medicine,” and includes recreation, relaxation, and socialization alongside health habits like diet, exercise, and sleep. A study by the University of Minnesota found that people with depression or anxiety can benefit from socializing as much as or more than exercising. The combination of the two can produce even better results.
Even though we may not feel like doing these activities, if we “fake it until we make it” and do them anyway, we may be surprised by how these activities boost our mood. Just ten minutes of an activity we know gave us joy in the past can boost our mood. Doing just one small thing can introduce a positive snowball effect, where the more you do, the more you genuinely feel like doing. You just have to start slowly, test it out, and discover what activities are your most powerful antidepressants.
The best way to fake it until you make it is to create a deliberate action plan. Rather than saying “I’m going to go for a run this weekend,” add an event to your calendar to go for a 1-mile run at 9 am on Saturday, starting in the city park down the road. If one mile feels like too much, try some manageable goals for you. It might be walking around the block once, then twice the next day, three times the day after that, and so on to build up to one mile. This level of detail makes us less likely to blow it off. Treat it like a medical appointment that you can’t miss.
When we’re planful about these activities, we start to break that pattern with attention every day to introducing new, small mood boosters. This is not a one-time attempt—there must be ongoing effort to see the results. It’s also vital to note that this is usually not a linear process, and that’s OK.
Look at it as an experiment: There are going to be ups and downs. What’s important is to keep trying, keep doing, and keep diversifying the types of activities to gradually unwind the cycle of depression and get you back to your usual self.
Try it out
Think of something you loved doing, then scale it down appropriately. For example, if you used to love volunteering at the animal shelter, maybe you just do a short walk with a friend and their dog. Set up a plan with that friend with a date, time, and duration. Start with a small, manageable goal to not get discouraged.
Afterward, monitor how you feel and log that somewhere, whether it’s an app or a notebook. Rinse, repeat, and review your notes to see which activities seem to work best to boost your mood, and do more of those. Start with faking it, and you’ll be making it in no time.
By Dr. Patrick Raue
Patrick J. Raue, PhD is Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington. He received his PhD in Clinical Psychology from SUNY Stony Brook in 1995.
Dr. Raue is Associate Director for Evidence-Based Psychosocial Interventions at the AIMS Center, and Director of the National Network of Problem Solving Therapy Clinicians, Trainers & Researchers. In these roles, he develops and leads implementation and training programs in a variety of behavioral health interventions.
Dr. Raue’s clinical expertise includes the identification and management of mental health conditions in medical settings including primary care and home health care. He is a member of the Sanvello Clinical Advisory Board.