The Rise of the Depression Hacker

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Depression Hacking is something you’re going to hear a lot about on this site. Before I ever launched Sad Runner, I knew it would be a major focus area.

I’ve wanted to share this with you since I started the site and had just put it off over and over again. It was too important, and I wanted to get it right. But yes the concept is absolutely important, and it is needed too much for me to keep quiet about it. So without any further procrastinating, let’s start our adventure.

From Life Hacks to Depression Hacking

At this point, the term ‘life hack’ is pretty common. Most recall some trick they saw in their social media feed, and I bet a few of you can probably share one you use regularly. Yes, life hacks are great tricks and shortcuts that make living easier. But that’s not all Life Hacking is. There’s more to it.

In recent years, hacking has been watered down to a simple Google search for the cheat codes to life, but true Life Hackers, the people who come up with those novelty tricks, take it to another level. To a Life Hacker, those tricks are just part of the bigger equation. Life Hacking is about optimizing your life to make it ‘work for you’ so you can accomplish the goals you have. It’s about building a lifestyle that allows you to spend your time doing more of the things that matter and less of the things that don’t.

Whether you’re struggling with anxiety, depression, or some other mental illness, we can all agree that our battle often holds us back. Just as Life Hacking consists of workarounds to life’s problems; Depression Hacking means finding ways to work around our mental illness so we can continue to live our lives.

The 4-Hour Depression

For years, Tim Ferris has been a mentor of mine. I like to call him the C.S. Lewis of Life Hacking. His books are entertaining reads filled with actionable advice learned through a life devoted to self-experimentation. His book The 4-Hour Body is really a manifesto for self-experimentation and his follow-up, The 4-Hour Chef, lays out his entire methodology for conducting the experiments and hacks that make him famous.

Most people read his books and get caught up in those wacky experiments or the larger than life results he achieves. They sell themselves short. If you read them carefully and apply the methods he’s learned to your life, then the tricks become just one of the many tools you have. The real power is in the methodology.

A perfect example was Tim’s second book The 4-Hour Body. It got a lot of attention when it came out because he packed it with crazy hacks that achieve everyone’s physical dreams. Everyone was distracted by that. But in the earlier chapter he lays out his whole philosophy on self-experimentation and how it’s a call to take responsibility for our own health. It was a call to, not just blindly trust the medical community but, educate ourselves on our bodies, to learn what works best for us as individuals.


Tim approached self-experimentation from the perspective that radical life impacting science is available now but, because of a long red-tape laden adoption curve (among other factors), it can take 10-20 years for today’s breakthrough science to reach the common man. Tim expresses that, through self-experimentation, we can circumvent the long wait period and positively impact our lives now instead of waiting until we’re too old to enjoy it.

That spoke to me. As someone struggling with mental illness, who felt passed on from doctor to doctor, I wanted to end this cycle and finally come up with practical solutions to my problem.

A thought leader in behavioral psychology once told me, “What we in the medical community know about the human brain can fit in a thimble.” That means the people in charge of giving you the best chance of recovery are still, at best, shooting from the hip. That doesn’t give me much confidence. I’m not saying that to take the legs out from under the brilliant people working to get us well, but let’s be realistic.

The best care is still 10-20 years away because of USDA and FDA standards, but that ‘best care’ is limited because your brain is so complex that the people in charge of its care don’t have it figured out very well. So in essence depressed people everywhere are waiting a decade or more for a half-ass solution at best.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t trust our doctors. I’m saying we should work with them and take some of the responsibility for our recovery back. We should be willing to do the work and the research that helps us get better and help our medical professionals help us.

Two years ago, in that spirit I asked myself, “What if I took the principles of Life Hacking and applied them to my depression? What if I do what Tim does to hack his physical performance but apply that to my mental health? Could I then ‘hack’ my depression?”

So, I went to work. It didn’t matter how wacky the ideas were. I would test them out on myself and see if they made a difference in my mood. The result is now a hard-earned toolbox full of things to help me fight off my depression.

You can find much of what I’ve learned about myself here in the posts of Sad Runner, but you can expect more of them as I continue to hack this illness

I know I’m not the only one. Just this past May, Sean Morgan claimed in a blog post to have hacked his depression, before that, Kas Thomas released a book entitled Hack Your Depression. You can even find posts like “12 Simple Hacks to Beat Depression Naturally” online.

We’re all fighting desperately to get better so it can’t be surprising that many of us are looking outside of our therapists for help.

I don’t believe the DIY method is the only valid method. I think it’s one of many and when you’re fighting mental illness why limit your weapons? That’s why I combine what I’ve learned through self-experimentation with the guidance of professionals to find solutions that work for me. But that self-reliance and focus on results sure comes in handy when it is time to change medical professionals.

Depression Hacker Diagram

4 Traits of a Depression Hacker

Not everyone is cut out to be a Depression Hacker. It takes a special individual. That’s why, when you find out that you are one, it’s important to get to work and to start sharing what you’re learning so that it can help others.

To help you decide if this is for you, here are four traits to keep in mind.

Depression Hackers are Self-Aware

Because so much of Depression Hacking is experimentation you really have to be self-aware. You see, you’re evaluating the success and failure of your experiments based on how YOU feel. That means that a lot of your data is going to be subjective. It’s not by the numbers. That means you have to find a way to determine what success looks like for you and then be self-aware enough to know when you hit or miss it. Sound exhausting? Yup, that’s why Trait Four matters too.

Depression Hackers are Curious

As Depression Hackers, we’re constantly searching for something new to try to skip around our depression for the day. We’re always asking, “What if I try…” So you have to have a general curiosity towards your recovery. We’re part scientists here, so we have to be super curious. Our depression at some point becomes our muse inspiring us to find ways to beat it into submission.

Depression Hackers are Focused and Disciplined

Look, you have to execute these experiments on yourself. That means attempting to try new habits. So whenever you come up with a crazy idea to try, you have to stay focused, see past your depression, and keep working on the experiment. That takes a lot of discipline.

Depression Hackers are Tough

Depression Hacking is a slow process with more losses than wins. But the wins are worth it. They outweigh the losses. But you have to have a stomach for those failures. You need dogged determination to keep working past the early points of failure when success seems far off.

I’ve always said that people with depression are the toughest people I know because they have to overcome so much to live. I’ll argue that Depression Hackers have to be even tougher. They endure all that pain but still have to stay focused and determined to find the hacks that they hope will alleviate their pain in the long run.

The Depression Hacking Process

So you think you’re cut out to be a Depression Hacker? That’s awesome. Welcome to the club. I’m sure we’ll have shirts made and get a special handshake at some point. For now, let’s explore the Depression Hacking Process so you can get up and running.

The process consists of four steps: hypothesize, test, learn, and then improve.

Depression Hacker Process

Hypothesize: This is your ‘what if’ question. This is where your curiosity starts to turn into an experiment. “What if, adding 30 minutes of cardio a few days a week helped my mood?” “What if chocolate cake gives me a depression hangover the next day?”

The Hypothesis Stage is the stage where all the famous life hacks come in. They are ideas that may improve your life. Sure others have tested them but do they actually work for you? That’s where the testing phase comes in.

Test: This is where all the hard work is. You’re going to test out your hypothesis, on yourself, to see if it elevates your mood or alleviates your symptoms at all. To do this, you may need to create temporary habits that last for the duration of the experiment. That’s a lot of work.

I’ll give you an example from my own life. I set out to see if more green veggies elevated my mood. I also wanted to know what veggies helped me the most. In addition to researching different vitamins and vegetables, I had to eat a lot of veggies. That meant changing my diet so I could conduct the experiment. For months, I increased my intake of greens. That was so much work (in addition to battling my depression). But, as a result, I now know that 10oz of spinach a day can actually curb my depression better than many prescription anti-depressants I’ve tried. Combining that knowledge with my current prescriptions and therapy give me a boost and I’m able to work around my depression a little more.

Learn: This is where your self-awareness comes in. What you know about yourself and your illness comes from the education you get in this phase. What did you learn from your tests? Was the habit hard to make stick? Is your illness better or worse because of the experiment?

To find out that spinach was my secret weapon against depression I had to be self-aware enough to notice when my mood shifted and if the greens were the reason. There’s a lot of analysis in the learning phase so get ready.

Improve: Finally you’re going to improve based on your findings. If you learned that 30 minutes of cardio three days a week helps you alleviate your depression, then you’re going to come up with ways to do more of that in your life to help beat that depression more often. In the same sense, if you find a certain food makes your mood worse then you will work to have that less in your life.

The improvement phase is where you roll out the depression hack into your daily life. You’ve tested it and, if it works, you refine it and make it better and then make it a bigger part of your life for as long as it works.

To illustrate things, and to help it all solidify a bit more in your brain, let’s explore the process with these five rules.

The 5 Rules of Depression Hacking

Alright, you now know what it takes to be a Depression Hacker, and you have an overview of the kind of work you’ll be doing.

Next, if you’re really going to make Depression Hacking a part of your life, let’s go over the ground rules every Depression Hacker should follow.

Rule #5 Keep Questioning

Never stop asking questions about your recovery. How can it be better? How can you get stronger? How can you avoid making things worse? The more you ask questions, the more ideas you will have to help alleviate your symptoms and suppress your illness. Remember, Depression Hackers are curious by nature so foster that and keep asking questions of yourself.

Rule #4 Keep Testing

Testing your ideas can be exhausting but don’t stop. If you’re going to get better, you have to keep working at it. Whenever you get a new idea, start working on a way to test it out. I’m always trying something new to beat this depression. I try things, and they don’t work and then I move on to the next test.

Test everything. From dumb ideas on Pinterest to the advice in someone’s book. Don’t take any advice as the only right advice for your body. Test it out. Does it work for you? If it does, then keep doing it. If it doesn’t, then move on. You won’t know until you test. I have learned that the more I test, the more I learn. The more I learn, the healthier I get.

Rule #3 Keep Learning

All your ideas and tests are worthless if you don’t learn something from them. If your idea fails, that’s a good thing. It means you learned what doesn’t work, and you can move on to something that does. If your idea works, then awesome, you have a new tool in your toolbox to stomp out your illness.

Keep your eyes and ears open. You can always learn new things about yourself and your illness that you’ll put to use later. Just like a football player studying game tape, the more you know about your opponent (your mental illness), the more likely you are to crush them on game day.

Rule #2 Keep Improving

We’re searching for the right things, the things that work for us, then we are going to optimize them to make it easier to do them and to do them more frequently. So we always have to keep our eyes out for how to improve the process and make it more succinct so that it will easily fit into our lives. You’re always asking, “How can I do more of this? How can I do less of this? How can I trick myself into doing this more often?”

Rule #1 Keep Moving Forward

If you’ve been reading Sad Runner for any period, then this one isn’t a surprise. Trust me, there’s a reason it is Rule Number One.

Look, the life of a Depression Hacker is a tough one. You’re going to come up with ideas that you hope will make you feel better. You’re then going to create a habit to try and test out that idea. Once you test the idea, if it doesn’t make you feel better, you’re bummed it doesn’t work, you still have depression, and now you don’t have a tool to fix the depression either. That’s a pretty defeating cycle.

And that’s why it’s important to remember that we have to keep moving forward. On to the next idea, habit, or test.

We don’t have time to stop and dwell on the disappointments; we have to keep moving forward to find that tool that does work, and that does make a positive impact on our lives.

Our lives depend on us finding solutions. So if we want to survive then, we have to keep moving forward until we find something that works.

The 5 Rules of a Depression Hacker

A call for more Depression Hackers

Just like the world needs more people speaking up about depression, the world needs more Depression Hackers. We need more people willing to work to try and overcome their illness by any means necessary for their own lives and the lives of others. Depression Hacking is all about taking action, and we need more people taking action toward their mental health and sharing what they’ve learned. The more Depression Hackers who step up, the better things get for everyone struggling with this illness.

The more we share and test and talk the better it is for everyone. Not only will I know what makes my depression less of a struggle but what works for me may also work for someone else who is dealing with a similar pain. Why wouldn’t I want to share what I’ve learned with her? If it can help let’s test it, and if it works, let’s pass it on.

Depression leaves us lethargic and unmotivated, so Depression Hacking is hard because it’s an active practice. You almost have to overcome parts of your depression just to be able to hack the rest of it. But we need this. We need more hacks to overcome and to live our lives on our terms, not the terms our illness dictates.

Furthermore, we must start taking the responsibility for our own mental health. Our doctors and therapists are there for support and direction, but we have to own our care as best we can. We have to fight for our mental health if we don’t want to lose it. Owning our recovery is at the heart of Depression Hacking.

I’m excited about the opportunities we have to get better. There’s a whole world of solutions in front of us; we just have to sift through them. That’s what we’re doing as Depression Hackers. We’re sifting to find what works for us.

There’s no downside to fighting for your recovery. You know what? You just might make it out of this thing with a smile again. And isn’t that worth the try?

Stay tuned as we continue to hack depression together.

Keep Moving Forward.

Adam Weitz
Adam Weitz

Adam Weitz is a multi-discipline designer, business owner, and founder of Sad Runner. He is passionate about encouraging people with depression and works through Sad Runner to positively impact their lives.