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David JP Phillips

The man who hacked his own depression

Mental Health

David JP Philips has caused a sensation in Sweden with his book, High on Life, and the speaker and coach is about to do the same in the UK. We spoke to him to find out more about his work in neurotransmitters

David JP Phillips first came to public prominence with his TED Talk, ‘The Magical Science of Storytelling’, which now has over 40m view on YouTube. In it, he memorably shows how the stories we tell each other – and ourselves – can alter the chemicals in our brain, flooding them with different neurotransmitters depending on the type of story being told. Funny stories can release feel-good endorphins in people. Moving stories that encourage empathy can release oxytocin. And, he says in the talk, by picking and choosing with stories to tell and when, can have a powerful effect on your life. Not least in tackling mental health.

Now David has expanded upon his speaking work with a new book called ‘High On Life: how to naturally harness the power of six key hormones and revolutionise yourself’. As the title suggests, this is about enhancing and enriching and changing your approach to day-to-day living by using some storytelling techniques to consciously affect your brain, and literally get you high on life.

The book has been a huge hit in Sweden – he has an English father and a Swedish mother – and is set to make a similar mark here. His deceptively simply techniques are as effective as they are easy to implement, and certainly helped The Book of Man have a better week than normal.

Here, in his own words, David takes us through the book and the breakthroughs in his own life:

High on Life

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On Storytelling

I’ve been doing public speaking, communication skills training for 26 years. And it’s been my passion. I’ve always looked at communication from various kind of perspectives: neuroscience, biological, genetic.

I love the biochemical part of it because it can be influenced.

In one of my TED talks, called the magical science of storytelling. I tell three kinds of stories, and I tell the audience what they will feel before I tell the story.

And it’s like I can inject a substance into my audience on command based on the story itself. It’s amazing.

But I didn’t understand that I could use that on myself. I just thought, you can tell stories in sales and marketing and leadership to create those substances. Like a CEO who tells this phenomenal, inspirational story to his staff, he’ll fill them with dopamine.

But it never clicked that I could do it to myself until I realised I was depressed about eight years ago.

On tackling depression

I’d gone so slowly into my depression, I didn’t even know I was depressed.

Everything was just dark and pointless and life wasn’t worth living. Didn’t love my kids, didn’t love anything.

But then I wondered what happens if I change my own narrative, my own stories.

One of your basic concepts is masculinity, where the story of a masculine man is. It could be like a big chested man with a big beard, chopping wood with one hand, big muscles, smelling of oil and tar.

If that’s your story of what a man is and that’s not who you are, there’s a discrepancy and that will stress you and impact your hormones, your dopamine, your testosterone and cortisol and so on.

So the stories you tell yourself are just vital.

That’s kind of the background to why I ended up hacking my own depression from a biochemical perspective and then writing a book about it.

On changing the narrative

If you or I were to say that I am not masculine enough, so I won’t be loved, this will constantly cause stress. Small spikes of cortisol will make us feel less good.

But the thing that happens is when you’ve done this a thousand times, you’ve created a path.

In the book, I have this metaphor about a wheat field: if you go through the wheat field once, you can’t see where you’ve gone. If you go 1000 times, you can start to see where you’ve gone.

And if you repeated the idea that you are not masculine enough 1000 times, you created a road.

And because the brain is energy saving by nature, it’ll always want to go that road.

One day you say, I’m going to change this. I’m going to change my perspective of being masculine.

I’m walking 50ft to the right and I’m going to walk a new path.

And you do that.

But if you walk that ten times, your brain is going, are you mad? Why aren’t we going in the well trodden road over there? That’ll save us so much more energy.

But that’s where you have to be that persistent person, where you go: I refuse. I’m walking this new road whether you want it or not.

And when you’ve done that 10,000 times, a new road will be there, and the old road will have grown up again.

To hack my depression I had to rewrite my mental paths

That’s kind of how you change any habit, even your perspective on your masculinity.

So the first thing I had to do was to hack my depression was to kind of rewrite some of those habits and rewrite some of those mindsets and mental paths.

I was talking down to myself, like, saying, being super self-critical. I was not kind to others. I was always negative. Literally, wherever I went, I asked myself, what’s wrong with this person?

I had to change that to a different path, which was: what’s great with this person? To have that as my instinct and the instinct of: how am I good? Not: how am I bad?

On getting high on life…

The book is not about just about depression. It’s about optimising your life. With hormones.

…with dopamine

If we look at dopamine, it can be released in four different main pathways in the brain.

But the one I’m specifically focused on is the Mesolimbic pathway, which is down to reward, an anticipation of reward.

It means that if you wake up in the morning and you go, ooh, I’m excited for this particular thing today, an interview or whetever, and you just play this little mind game with yourself in the morning, then you can increase your dopamine levels and become excited.

But a lot of people play the opposite mind game where they go: not another day. Why do I have to?

So what I’m trying to teach people here is that you can influence these substances on command, by your thoughts, your environment, and what you eat.

Cold exposure, for instance, shows a 250% increase in dopamine.

That’s a phenomenal thing to just boost that sensation of desire and enjoyment and excitement in life.

On dopamine hijacking

I think a lot of people get lost in dopamine because the brain doesn’t care where it gets dopamine.

From the evolutionary standpoint of dopamine is like: forage, build a better home, build a better bed, reproduce. It’s like the basic things of :just do shit, and I will give you dopamine. Do more shit, and I will give you more dopamine. That’s how it’s always worked.

But today, you can just flip your phone up and you doom scroll for 2 hours in Instagram. The brain still thinks that it’s getting dopamine. It still thinks that you’re doing amazing things, like you’re building a house, you’re building a better bed.

But we’re hijacked.

Because the brain doesn’t care where it gets its dopamine from, it’ll try to get it as easily as possible, which is through food, through social media, through Netflix, and so on.

So people tend to get locked into that, and therefore they do less, I guess real things, hang out with friends, hobbies, read books, physical stuff.

In the book I talk about dopamine stacking, where it’s not even enough to look at Netflix. We have to snack at the same time, we have to have a soft drink at the same time. We have to even watch our mobile phone while watching Netflix, because we’ve become so desensitised that we just need to.

I call this dopamine stacking. And the more you stack, the further you move yourself from reality, from life.

Like, if you have a father who, when they’re playing with their kids, is having a look at their mobile phone now and then, thinking thoughts of what’s going to happen next, they’re stacking dopamine in that moment with their kid.

But there was a time when fathers could sit with their kid and just play with them, because that gave them dopamine.

On Oxytocin

Oxytocin is the one that has the potential to connect people and move people closer to each other.

It has shown to shorten how quickly we get well after being sick, for instance. And it shortens the time after operations until we get well. It reduces the amount of colds and severity of colds.

So that closeness is so important and I think we lost that so much when it came to Covid where there was a lack of connection between human beings.

And I still think we’re struggling with that. COVID was like a long distance relationship. You’re in love with this girl, she moves to the states and you’re like, it’s going to be fine. Long distance relationship is going to be fine. And then like half a year in, you haven’t seen each other. You’re like, this ain’t working. And that is more or less what Covid did to us.

It put us into long term relationships all over the planet. And we fell out of love to some extent with each other. Not love, out of trust, I think.

I’ve got a brilliant tip on oxytocin, which goes like this: if you are high on dopamine, you’re thinking about what’s going to happen next.

You come home to your family, you won’t see their eye contact, you won’t feel their hug.

But if you just spend one minute in your car or Tube or whatever and you look at something that makes you feel empathy, like photos of when the kids were small or something like that, when you go in now, you have consciously increased your oxytocin levels.

You will feel their hug, you will give a different hug, you will see their eye contact, your conversations will be different. That is what I call self leadership.

To lead yourself to choose the substance you need for the action that you’re moving into.

On Testosterone

In regards to self leadership, it has shown that if you were to increase your testosterone levels before going into an interview, like a job interview, the chances are bigger that you’ll get the job. If you increase your testosterone levels just before, like five minutes before.

Choose a substance you want for the activity you’re moving into

It has also shown that people who do that before negotiations with the bank, for instance, they will get a better rate. And that’s again, self-leadership.

You choose a substance that you want to be in, for the activity that you’re moving into.

Testosterone has been connected with aggression a lot, but it’s really more connected to the amplification of your social abilities.

So if you’re usually funny and you use that as a means to connect with people, testosterone will amplify your ability to be funny.

It’ll just amplify your social skill, whatever that is. To some, that’s aggression. Being aggressive has given them respect and power in the social situation, so they’ve learned to use that. So whenever they get a dose of testosterone, that particular ability is increased and they become more aggressive.

On Endorphins

Endorphins, I guess, is the simplest one.

Whenever you have been with your mates and you’ve been telling jokes and your tears are coming out of your eyes and you can’t breathe, you’re suffocating because it’s so funny. That’s endorphins for you, and it’s closely related to morphine.

It’s literally making you high.

The quality of your jokes at that point in time might be so bad. But that’s because you’re high. You have this chemical factor in your brain at all times.

If you would like to feel more endorphins in one minute, go into the bathroom, laugh hysterically at nothing, walk out again and you will literally feel high.

You’ll feel more open, more positive, more social. Again, pick the substance you want in regards to the action that you’re going to go into.

On Serotonin

Serotonin is easily the most complex of them all.

It is to do with mood. So usually it’s higher during spring and summer due to sun, because serotonin is stimulated by sun. Your mood becomes more well balanced if your serotonin levels are balanced.

It’s also affected by social status. So, for instance, if you’re in a room with your boss, right, and he says, Martin just wrote this brilliant article, frickin masterpiece. We are talking Pulitzer Price level. Stand up and applaud for Martin. You will, at that point of time, feel a sudden surge of serotonin because you’ve just had a social status increase.

You walk differently, you move differently, you think differently, because suddenly you feel like you’ve jumped up a couple of steps on the hierarchy.

On Cortisol

The sixth is cortisol, which is probably the biggest problem of them all because it relates to chronic long term stress.

And practically everyone’s in that situation, more or less.

The problem with cortisol is that it impacts all the other substances. It impacts testosterone and serotonin, dopamine, endorphins and oxytocin, even estrogen and progesterone.

It’s the devil if you allow it to be long term.

Like, long term stress is devilish. Short term makes us feel life. When we fall in love, high levels of cortisol is running through our veins for months. That’s the sensation of being in love, part of it is jumping on a roller coaster. Part of that sensation would be cortisol.

So cortisol is amazing, but long term, the devil.

On hormone cocktails

What I then advise people is to mix their own angel’s cocktail. There’s literally ten skills for each of these substances. Learn how to mix it yourself.

If you in the morning, the first thing you do is roll over, you look at your phone and you start scrolling news. That’s cortisol for you, maybe even adrenaline.

You go into Facebook and a strike of envy hits you. When you see your neighbors driving a nicer car than you, you’re literally fueling yourself with a devil’s cocktail.

You get onto the subway, you miss the train, there’s masses of queues. Again, devil’s cocktail.

That is not great because this will influence the rest of your day.

So what I propose is angel’s cocktails, which literally means don’t have your phone by your bedside in the morning.

Instead, spend a minute being grateful for what happened yesterday, then spend a minute being excited about what’s going to happen today.

So now you have oxytocin and dopamine in your angel’s cocktail.

Now you take a walk. First thing, like sunshine in your eyes. Serotonin, well done. The walk will get you some dopamine, maybe endorphins, maybe that’s all.

If you want to advance it, you can take a cold shower, you can do some meditation. You can listen to your favorite piece of music or something like that.

Your day will just be so different.

When you come to that tube station and your train is late, you’ll be going like, okay, there’s another one in four minutes. That’s cool. You’ll just be different.

You’ve drunk a devil’s cocktail, angel’s cocktail. How many have you drank? You have 365 days a year. How many of them were angel cocktails days? And how many do you want to be angel cocktails days?

You’re in control of it.

You are the only one who is in control of it.

That’s the essence of the book, more or less.

On the reception of the book

It was written in Swedish. I’m half Swedish, half English. And it became the best selling book in Sweden during the entire last year in psychology and in self leadership. And sold about 100K copies.

The response is just, it’s life altering, life changing.

There’s so many people that had no idea what a feeling was or an emotion and they had no idea how to influence it. I’ve really enjoyed seeing how it’s helped people, which is the entire reason I wrote it.

I think it’s done well because I think people want to feel better, and for some unknown reason, they’re suddenly fed up with not feeling good enough. They want to feel better.

But the second reason is probably that there’s a lot of good science coming out the last five years on how to influence your state.

I think the realisation that you can influence your emotional state so that you’ll give yourself better circumstances in life works. Like the oxytocin tip, which I gave you, when going into your family, is a tip I give on my keynotes, and I think I’ve had like a thousand responses on that, on DMs, through Instagram and so on, where people say, this has changed so much in my family, I always came home with high levels of dopamine and cortisol. When I do this, just one minute before, it’s created a new atmosphere in my family.

I think they’re small hacks, but they make a big difference. So I hope that will carry on doing that for people and giving that to people.

On his depression now

I think I’ve realised that I’ll never be free. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but let’s say if there’s a zero to ten scale, when I was depressed that period, I was at a 0.5.

It was like, now I’m going to die. I was at 0.5 to maybe two or three. That was my fluctuation.

These days I’m fluctuating between 6.5 to a ten. I never drop below 6.5, but 6.5 can still remind me to a certain extent of the feeling of being depressed, but it’s nowhere near what it was.

It’s just a reminder, more or less. It never feels like I’m ever going to go under that, I’ve never even been close.

I’m just here to give people better circumstances, to feel better. I’ve felt as shitty as you can feel and never, ever want anyone to feel like that ever anywhere around me.

I’m super active on social media. I think I’ve had, like, 200 million views the last two years on TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, and it’s all just sharing free tips to youth, adults about how to feel better. And that has always just been my passion.

I hope the book reaches a lot of people and that it has an impact on how they feel in a good way.

High On Life: how to naturally harness the power of six key hormones and revolutionise yourself’ is out now on Michael Joseph

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