depression, things that make you sad

Depression’s Upside

Jonah Lehrer has an article in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine entitled “Depression’s Upside.” He begins with an anecdote about Charles Darwin, who suffered from, variously, “fits,” “excitements,” “flurries,” “air fatigues,” “extreme spasmodic daily and nightly flatulence” and “hysterical crying” — all Victorian classifications for depression. (Flatulence?) More recognizable in today’s vocabulary of mental illness is this sentiment from Darwin: “[I] am not able to do anything one day out of three.” Once he even remarked, “I shall probably do little more but be content to admire the strides others made in Science.”

Lehrer uses Darwin as a jumping off point to discuss the potential evolutionary benefits of depression, i.e. “depression’s upside.” He cites two psychologists, Paul Andrews and Andy Thomson, whose work suggests that rumination — the mental habit of turning over and over a particular thought or problem, the way livestock chew and rechew their food — yields a clarity of thought that enhances one’s understanding of the world. As Lehrer puts it, summarizing their view, “If depression didn’t exist — if we didn’t react to stress and trauma with endless rumination — then we would be less likely to solve our predicaments. Wisdom isn’t cheap, and we pay for it with pain.”

This is not a controversial statement, and yet Andrews and Thomson’s work has earned them critics who note, correctly, that depression is not always interchangeable with sadness or melancholy. There is a bitter clarity that heartbreak and tragedy can bring — sadness borne largely out of circumstances like grief or death — but, as Peter Kramer (the author of Listening to Prozac) says, “Depression is not really like sadness. It’s more an oppressive flattening of feeling.”

It’s a fascinating article, and Lehrer does a fine job making these different theories and studies accessible and easy to understand. He articulates a bothersome riddle — how can something so awful still yield, in scientific terms, an evolutionary benefit? Or, in religious terms, how can God redeem such suffering? Can something so painful ever be a gift? Lehrer writes,

To say that depression has a purpose or that sadness makes us smarter says nothing about its awfulness. A fever, after all, might have benefits, but we still take pills to make it go away. This is the paradox of evolution: even if our pain is useful, the urge to escape from the pain remains the most powerful instinct of all.


8 thoughts on “Depression’s Upside

  1. Fascinating stuff.

    As I was chewing this entry over–meaning to sleep but failing–it seemed to me that in a sense I’ve been ruminating for weeks in a parallel groove. Okay, maybe a totally different groove, but I see a confluence of sorts. My thinking was spurred by something completely different. It started from my vague sense of resentment throughout my 20s at the way that I seemed to be classified by society as less of an adult than someone else the same age if that person was married, and even more so if they had kids. This seemed ludicrous to me–how many examples of utterly immature married and child-bearing people would I have to enumerate to tear down this cultural prejudice?

    Yet, as I’ve approached and passed both of those milestones in my life, I’ve been unable to help feeling that, in fact, they *have* matured me in some fundamental way. At the same time, my earlier intuition did not seem altogether wrong. I still know people who aren’t all that mature, weren’t all that put together, just because they were married, and no number of offspring seemed to do the trick with these individuals either. So?

    So it seems to me that there are certain experiences, be they singular events or on-going processes, that give us the *opportunity* to grow, to mature, to become better than we were. Going off to college. Living on your own. First real job. Changing jobs. Sharing an apartment with people not in your family. Marriage–really, more the daily process of marriage than the day. Having children (ditto that last qualification). The death of [insert family member or friend or whoever here]. Facing your own mortality. A crisis–or crises–of faith. Dealing with a serious illness, either yours or someone close to you. Dealing with depression.

    The list goes on and on, with some being universal and some being highly unique and personal. In some cases they are cultural rites of passage, in some cases they are things we seek out, in other cases they are things that happen to us even though we would have wished to avoid them.

    And in every case, these are not just opportunities to grow, they are also opportunities to fail. Either to fail to grow or to fail more profoundly: to be broken in some way by the experience. Which, I suppose, is itself another opportunity.

    Often, we face these challenges in a rather unselfconscious manner–we don’t see them in the light I’m suggesting, they’re just “what I’m doing, what I’m going through,” except perhaps retrospectively.

    Perhaps, however, we can approach them differently? You ask “in religious terms, how can God redeem such suffering?” A simple answer is with a heavenly reward. Indeed, I think that’s a part of the appeal that the idea of heaven has for us as mortals: a sense that our suffering or injustice done to us will be made right after death. And that’s all well and good if it’s there, but your question seems to be more this-world-centered. You ask “Can something so painful ever be a gift?” in a way that seems to speak to our experience *here*.

    And I think the answer to that is “Yes–if we make it so.” That, I guess, is the connection I’m trying to make between my line of thinking on the issues I was trying to sort out and your line on yours. I hope that doesn’t sound too glib, because it certainly isn’t meant to be. It may be that our suffering has no inherent meaning. But for our own sake, I think we need to imbue it with meaning, we need to find a way to wrestle with it, to overcome it, to grow from it. It’s an easier thing to say than to do, I realize. But I think it beats the alternative.

    “It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, this is the highest of arts.”

    We can do this. Thoreau says so.

    And for what it’s worth, I think this approach in some way sidesteps the question of whether suffering has meaning or not: if it does, we should try to find that meaning, find the meaning that redeems it. If it doesn’t but we assume that it does, then “find that meaning” is just another way of saying “create that meaning,” isn’t it?

    ::sigh:: Words, words, words. I don’t know if any of them will prove helpful, but I hope they might. I know we’re approaching the problem from different angles, but here’s hoping that sincere seekers can help one another share a glimpse of something true?

  2. A generous comment, Mr. Sherck. And Professor Lentz would be proud you worked in the Thoreau quote too. Well played. And thanks.

    Since this comment appeared to be borne out of insomnia, judging from the time it posted (unless it was borne out of the nocturnal duties of parenthood, a joy I have yet to experience), I thought you might appreciate Jonah Lehrer’s other recent commentary for the Times. It’s part of a series called All-Nighters, “an exploration of an ancient malady and modern fixation — insomnia. With contributions from writers, scientists, artists and others, it will document the many ways we approach sleeplessness — as a nuisance, a disease, a curse, an opportunity or even a gift.”

  3. Insomnia, fortunately, is not one of my typical problems. It was just last night that I had to get up from bed and write that comment out. Of course, now that I’ve read that article, I’ll probably develop insomnia because now I’ll be thinking about going to sleep. So, uh, “thanks” for that article….

  4. I tried to think of something deep or thought provoking to add to the current discussion but have little experience with depression and just really enjoyed the article. The entire time I read the article and this post the only person that came to mind was Abraham Lincoln. I think he might be the poster child for this theory. Here was a man that constantly struggled with depression throughout his life and who brought level headed clarity to a situation no person has dealt with. The decisions Lincoln made during his presidency were marked with an extraordinary level of forethought, depth of emotion and empathy. Very interesting stuff.

  5. For an excellent book on that very subject, read Lincoln’s Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk. The subtitle: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness.

  6. I also enjoyed that article. I have a learning disability that some believe is an autism spectrum disorder. I have also suffered from depression and anxiety at various points in my life.

    Accepting the fact that my brain is, in fact, physically different from others’ is something that I have struggled with for a long time. Only recently have I been able to accept that maybe the fact that I “think sideways” can be a strength.

    Yes, how I perceive the world and how I reason are fundamentally different, but maybe that will help me approach problems from a new angle (background: I am about to begin a PhD program in Immunobiology).

    I certainly get that the comparison between ASD and depression may be apples-to-oranges, but I think anyone who finds him-or herself outside of our culturally constructed “normal” way of thinking at some point will feel despair. So we share that sense of isolation and frustration.

    I’m not a Christian, so I guess I come at the idea of redemption from a different place. But honestly, I don’t feel the need to be redeemed by God, by society, or by any other third party. I’m redeemed simply by passing through that point of despair (“why am I different/why can’t I be normal”) and coming out on the other side (“I can’t change this fact about myself but I can learn to cope and eventually to thrive as I am”)

  7. We’re friends with someone who’s going to have a PhD in Immunobiology! Not many people can say that. That’s pretty sweet.

    I think the ASD-depression comparison is an apt one. While the article is about depression’s upside, I think there’s a potential upside to any “affliction” — be it mental, physical, spiritual, or whatever.

    The tricky part, for me, is separating the illness itself from the gift it can offer. Depression has robbed me of a lot of life. I wish that were not so. But there is something that it has given me which I would never have otherwise. So what does this mean? What do I do with this “gift”? I try to answer that question every day. My greatest fear is that I won’t open the gift, or share it, or learn what it has to teach me. Just hearing what other people go through and how they deal with it helps. So thanks for sharing.

  8. I also read the Lehrer article, and have written a blog that takes off from it in a somewhat different direction. It is based on my own experience as a clinical psychologist.

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