“Happiness is beneficial for the body, but it is grief that develops the powers of the mind.” – Marcel Proust
I come across more amazing thinkers than I can quantify and once in a while, I find something that changes my entire mood. Today it was a TED talk entitled The Anatomy of Melancholy: Can depression be good for you? (embedded at the bottom of this post for your convenience) presented by Dr. Neel Burton, a psychiatrist, philosopher and the author of The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-help Guide, The Meaning of Madness and Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception.
It’s not often that one delves into a frank, raw discussion about depression and comes out feeling uplifted. As someone who’s done an immense amount of thinking about depression not only as an intellectual pursuit but also as a former and sometimes current sufferer myself, I’m not afraid to weigh into this highly contentious issue. Despite its tendency to divide people, I find it impossible to choose one side and usually end up landing on some tangential conclusion that encompasses all of the positions presented.
Depression affects an awful lot of people, particularly in the ‘developed’ world. No doubt it exists in the developing world, although it may be understood or labelled differently – and most importantly, its triggers usually differ. You could say that it’s enough to know that a person is depressed whether the cause is war or malnutrition, or because they haven’t attained a level of success or recognition they believe they should. But here we see a key difference in how people are affected by external factors; you can’t do much about living in a war zone but you can change your attitude when it comes to dissatisfaction about your social status (i.e. first world problems). So how do we approach these two cases?
Some say that depression is no different from schizophrenia when understood as the result of a chemical imbalance. That’s the view from one end of the spectrum. On the other end is the position that it’s an emotional disorder that can be remedied by correcting one’s thoughts. A typical Buddhist exposition of this approach can be surmised from the following:
“[Peace] does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble, or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.” – Anon.
The consensus among psychiatrists seems to be that even if a particular patient’s depression is exclusively caused by their brain chemistry, certain counter-productive psychological patterns inevitably result, thus further perpetuating the depressive symptoms. So regardless of the cause and even in the presence of drug therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy is crucial to successful treatment.
I’ve been medicated for depression. My doctor never said the meds would make me happy – just that tweaking my serotonin levels might help dig me out of my rut. I’ve been asked whether they helped me. I don’t know. The only effect that was significant enough to note was when I would forget to take my pill. What made a huge difference for me personally was having a therapist who helped me work through my issues surrounding self-esteem and co-dependency. It made me question a lot of deeply held beliefs and think about conflict differently. Although I like to figure out what makes people tick and why they act the way they do (it has made me a very empathetic person who doesn’t take everything personally), what I realized was that it’s not so important who’s right or wrong when you’re embroiled in an argument. Not getting wrapped up in your own story or attached to someone else’s is a big first step. I can’t overstate how helpful self-help books were to me. Eventually I felt strong enough to take the next steps on my own and weened myself off the meds. I continue to enjoy the freedom inherent in taking responsibility for my own attitudes. I sometimes have short or long-term emotional responses to what’s going on in my life, but the difference now is that I’m not a slave to my emotions. I know that not everything I’ve come to believe about myself or others is true (and no, not everything is about me). I don’t base my self-worth on what others do or say (it’s not about them either). I actually know how it feels to be consistently happy – and not just happy when things go my way, but accepting and appreciative of how things are regardless.
This doesn’t mean I scoff at drug therapy. There certainly are cases where it’s justified. I do think it’s important, however, to look at this issue in the context of what the pharmaceutical industry is trying to accomplish when it claims that depression is a chemical imbalance and must be managed – but not cured – by medication. Pharmaceutical companies are not altruistic organizations; they are privately owned enterprises whose overarching goal is to generate more and more profit each quarter. We also live in a society in which we’re incessantly and insidiously bombarded by messages telling us we’re not good enough. We’re too fat, too old, too dumb, too slow, too boring, too simple. And we certainly aren’t encouraged to question any of the other things we’re told by our families, religious leaders, governments, teachers, etc. We’re systematically expected to believe we should be a whole bunch of things we’re not without ample justification as to why we’d even want to be those things in the first place. And apparently, we should be happy with all of this, by virtue of this process. But why the hell would we be? And what if we’re not? Well then, there must be something wrong with us, we’re told.
Dr. Burton’s point – and one I vehemently support – is that there may be an ‘epidemic’ of depression, but it’s largely not a crisis to be dealt with by the medical community. In fact, maybe it’s not actually a problem – or at least the sort of problem we think it is. Because it’s most probably a symptom of our struggle to accept the unacceptable – all of the illusions and injustices that are so vigorously peddled to us as truth or necessity – and ones that we ourselves have learned to internalize. Perhaps we’re not so much depressed as dissatisfied. Maybe some things should change for the better. And maybe some of the things we think we want aren’t things we should strive for anyway. The Buddhist quote above reminds us that we don’t have to be blown over by the things that are happening around us. But the Buddha’s main message was that by looking within ourselves, we can see how our thoughts and emotions are clues that help us to connect and come to terms with reality – this, ultimately, is the only way to achieve happiness. When things aren’t right, much like how our body creates symptoms to alert us to physical problems, symptoms of depression should be carefully considered as a sign that we may not be acknowledging something on a psychological level.
So in this context, is depression really a bad thing? Should we be looking at pervasive depression as an indication that we need to connect to reality both as individuals and collectively as a society? There is great value in considering depression not as a negative label or a disease to be cured, but rather as a tool.