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Amusing books and blazing fires: Sydney Smith's 20 antidotes to depression and low spirits

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One of my favourite additions to Shaun Usher's perfect-for-browsing collection of noteworthy lists, Lists of Note, is that of essayist and clergyman Sydney Smith. Sent to Lady Georgiana Morpeth in February 1820, Smith listed twenty pieces of advice to help his good friend overcome a bout of depression.

Sydney Smith, wit and provider of good

Judging by the advice listed (which includes feel-good fiction, blazing fires, and not planning further than dinner time - my favourite), Smith clearly had a knack for cheering up a friend, and his advice hasn't lost much value since.

The letter begins, "Dear Lady Georgiana, Nobody has suffered more from low spirits than I have done—so I feel for you."

Sydney then goes on to share his twenty pieces of advice for Georgiana, creating a trove of useful advice that is easily better than most self-help available today.

Sydney's twenty pieces of advice for "low spirits":


1st. Live as well as you dare.

2nd. Go into the shower-bath with a small quantity of water at a temperature low enough to give you a slight sensation of cold, 75° or 80°.

3rd. Amusing books.

4th. Short views of human life—not further than dinner or tea.

5th. Be as busy as you can.

6th. See as much as you can of those friends who respect and like you.

7th. And of those acquaintances who amuse you.

8th. Make no secret of low spirits to your friends, but talk of them freely—they are always worse for
dignified concealment.

9th. Attend to the effects tea and coffee produce upon you.

10th. Compare your lot with that of other people.

11th. Don't expect too much from human life—a sorry business at the best.

12th. Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, melancholy sentimental people, and every thing likely to excite feeling or emotion not ending in active benevolence.

13th. Do good, and endeavour to please everybody of every degree.

14th. Be as much as you can in the open air without fatigue.

15th. Make the room where you commonly sit, gay and pleasant.

16th. Struggle by little and little against idleness.

17th. Don't be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice.

18th. Keep good blazing fires.

19th. Be firm and constant in the exercise of rational religion.

20th. Believe me, dear Georgiana, your devoted servant, Sydney Smith


To further my fondness for Sydney Smith, he also wrote beautifully about the virtues of tea and coffee in his memoirs (1855):

"Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea? how did it exist? I am glad I was not born -before tea. I can drink any quantity when I have not tasted wine; otherwise I am haunted by blue-devils by day, and dragons by night. If you want to improve your understanding, drink coffee. Sir James Mackintosh used to say, he believed the difference between one man and another was produced by the quantity of coffee he drank." (A Memoir of the Reverend Sydney Smith. London: Forgotten Books, 2013. p. 436)

If you have the wonderful Lists of Note collection, be sure to find a Post-it note to mark the page (it's List 079).


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