Jeff, Who Lives at Home is a film written and directed by the Duplass Brothers, set in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, about – you guessed it – Jeff (played by Jason Segel), who lives at home.  His widowed mother Sharon (Susan Sarandon) leads a lackluster life and works at a mundane office job, and his brother Pat (Ed Helms) is amidst a marriage that is falling apart.

At 30 years old, Jeff stays in his mother’s basement smoking pot, watching TV, and pontificating about the numerous signs and interconnections in the universe.  His first lines at the beginning of the film, illustrate his outlook nicely, (dictating this into a tape recorder):

I watched Signs again last night. It keeps getting better every time I see it. It’s funny; the first time you watch it, it’s kind of hard to understand what it’s about.  Just sort of meanders.  And then everything comes together in this one perfect moment in the end. And when you watch it a second or third or fourth time, you start to see that all this randomness is leading towards a perfect moment… I can’t help but wonder about my fate, about my destiny…

This soliloquy is accompanied by a wider shot that shows he made this recording while sitting on the toilet.

While wondering about his fate and looking for signs, Jeff maintains a very minimal lifestyle.  In the earlier scenes of the film, he gets a phone call from someone who has the wrong number, asking for Kevin.  Jeff continues to ponder on this occurrence for hours, rearranging the letters in Kevin, standing in the kitchen thinking about the potential significance of this seemingly random occurrence.  Contrarily, other activities or daily tasks, such as buying wood glue to fix a shutter on the pantry door, feel toilsome to him.

From one point of view, it can be said that Jeff is an open-minded person who is keen on the wonders and connections of the world.  But from another perspective,  Jeff seems to leads a life absent of activity, responsibilities, or social interaction.  He even admits to his brother later in the film, “You don’t want to be like me. I am not happy at all.”

This meandering lifestyle that Jeff maintains is a common issue that comes up in therapy.  Like Jeff, people often find themselves in a similar stagnant slump, which tends to be attributed to a lack of motivation.  While not everyone shares Jeff’s overt belief in signs, people in this state of ennui often express that they’re waiting for some internal or external push to make them want to do something—they anticipate some kind of motivation, inspiration, a dare-to-be-great situation to kickstart their life.   In Jeff’s case, although he is certainly longing for meaning, he appears to expect he will come across it somehow from the comfort of his mother’s basement.

What we understandably often forget is that motivation, as well as improvements in mood and overall well-being, often follow from activity.  Similarly a car battery will eventually lose its charge if left unused for a long period of time, but driving a car regularly helps it maintain its charge. As this inactivity tends to be characteristic of depression, clinical interventions like behavioral activation focus on it as a form of treatment.

According to A Brief Behavioral Activation Treatment for Depression Treatment Manual by Lejuez et al., depressed behaviors may become more frequent because the benefits of avoiding certain unpleasant or stressful activities are immediate while the benefits of healthier behaviors appear to be less immediate and more difficult to achieve. So, as depressed behaviors become more frequent and healthier behavior decreases, long-term negative effects may arise, ultimately leading to what some call depression, boredom or general malaise.  As such, Lejuez et al.’s rationale for treatment explained to depressed patients includes the following:

The idea of [behavioral activation] is that your thoughts and feelings are affected by your interactions with others and your overall quality of life. So, we believe that for you to have more positive thoughts and to feel better, you must first become more active and put yourself into more positive situations. Although this will be quite difficult right now, it will become easier as more and more positive experiences occur.

Behavioral activation may not be suitable for everyone, and it doesn’t suggest that doing new things or things that we don’t feel like doing immediately leads to happiness or positive outcomes.  The notion of behavioral activation is valuable in that it reminds us to drive that car, so to speak, or our battery might eventually lose its charge. As seen in Jeff Who Lives at Home, what ultimately gives Jeff a sense of meaning is not just following the “signs;” it’s the very act of following—he leaves his mother’s basement and engages in the world in new ways, which directly impacts his mood and sense of well-being.

photo credit: heavy.com

Reference:

Lejuez, C.W., Hopko, D.R., & Hopko, S.D., (2001). A Brief Behavioral Activation Treatment for Depression. BEHAVIOR MODIFICATION. 25 (2), pp.255-286