Who’s in your Tribe?

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April 18, 2004. Chicago Tribune

By Devin Rose, Tribune staff reporter

The world of “Friends,” which leaves NBC in May, is enviable. Sure, the show has a surreal ratio of beautiful-to-average people, and the New York digs are incredible (and unaffordable). But what probably draws many viewers is, well, the friends. How many people have such true blues, such a great support system, in real life?

According to a husband-and-wife team of authors, Bob Murray and Alicia Fortinberry, that’s precisely what we all need.

In their new book, Creating Optimism: A Proven, Seven-Step Program for Overcoming Depression (McGraw-Hill, $22.95), the two say a strong social network–a tribe, as they call it–can save us from depression. They have been teaching their healing method worldwide for 20 years.

Other battles on the depression front often emphasize healing from within–with talk therapy and medication, typically. Do that, the thought goes, and the world will feel like a better place. Murray and Fortinberry say such methods have their use. But, they insist, if we improve our external world, our tribe of friends and family, our depressed brains will begin to heal.

“You can’t think your way out of depression, can’t even pop a pill out of it, at least not for the long term,” Murray told Q. “Depression is about a failure in relationships somewhere down the line.”

They write in their book that we’re meant “to live in small, mutually supportive communities in close contact with nature and animals. The further you get from this ideal, the more stressed, depressed, pessimistic and unhappy you become.”

“We live in a culture that isn’t really fit for humans,” Murray said. “That’s one of the main reasons that depression is increasing.”

The two don’t knock the thought that some people have a genetic propensity toward depression. “But propensity is just that,” Murray said, and any genetic tendency “needs to be triggered by experience.”

He also talked about serotonin, the body chemical often found in inadequate levels in depressed people–but he added a twist: “That’s a symptom of depression, not a cause. Because your brain has malformed at a certain stage because of trauma that happened, it fails to uptake serotonin.”

The brain’s neural connections, our very “wiring,” begin to change as we improve our external experiences, the authors say. For those who find it a bit daunting to think we have to form new and better relationships to feel better, Fortinberry said (quite soothingly) that a little change goes a long way.

“We tend to think in black and white: ‘I have to get a whole new tribe tomorrow, when I don’t even feel like talking to my best friend,’” she said. “But the brain starts to change with every little step you take.”

And both are convinced that with small change after small change, a better, more supportive society is inevitable.

“We don’t have to destroy our society,” Murray said. “We have to say that what’s really important is the friendships, not the job, not the car that I drive, the house that I live in, but the friends that I have. Our purpose is to create relationships. We are relationship-forming animals.”

This article was published in Chicago Tribune April 18, 2004.

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