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

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journal and cup of coffee next to a cozy fireplace
Photo by Rafael Leao

One of my favourite entries in Lists of Note, Shaun Usher’s perfect-for-browsing collection of noteworthy lists, is that of essayist and clergyman Sydney Smith.

Sent to Lady Georgiana Morpeth in February 1820, Sydney Smith listed twenty pieces of advice to help his good friend overcome a bout of depression.

Smith clearly had a knack for cheering up a friend, including advice such as reading feel-good fiction, sitting next to a blazing fireplace, and not planning further than dinner time. His advice hasn’t lost much value since.

Sydney Smith, provider of good advice.

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 Smith’s twenty pieces of advice for “low spirits” and depression:


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. Forgotten Books, 2013. p436

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).

For more gentle and soothing wisdom if you’re struggling with low spirits, you might like my collection of the best books to read when you’re depressed. Take care of yourself, and I hope you can start feeling better soon.

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