Reading the Times last weekend was a curious exercise in juxtapositions. First, I read an article called “On Top of the Happiness Racket” about Gretchen Rubin’s book, “The Happiness Project.” Then I turned to the magazine section and found an article by Jonah Lehrer, entitled “Depression’s Upside.” The title of this essay was a quote contained in that article by neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen, who interviewed 30 writers from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop about their mental history, and found that eighty percent of them met the formal diagnostic criteria for some form of depression.
Well, that comes as no surprise to most writers, or to the people who love and live with them.
There are so many books out these days on attaining happiness, though, that I suspect writers aren’t the only people who could use a little cheering up.
Now, I will admit that I haven’t read Ms. Rubin’s book, nor am I likely to. I have read the free sample Amazon was kind enough to send to my Kindle, and I will, from reading that sample, agree with the folks who say Ms. Rubin’s got a nice chatty writing style, she’s well read, and from what I’ve seen on her blog, she makes some good suggestions, like “get more sleep” “Bring a sweater” and “Be polite.” I think she’s quite earnest in her desire to improve what she describes as “midlife malaise,” however, I knew this book wasn’t for me when the book blurb told me she spent “a year test-driving the wisdom of the ages.” A whole year? Hmmm… According to her blog, she studied, “Aristotle to Martin Seligman to Thoreau to Oprah.” Oh dear. Oprah next to Aristotle? Of course, this sort of framing is tailor-made for the self-help publishing world. And her story doesn’t, for me, seem particularly inspiring. She is already happily married (her father-in-law is Robert Rubin, former Treasury secretary, who stepped down last year as an adviser to Citigroup), has great kids,oodles and oodles of money, good familial relationships, good health, great career (one of the books she’s written is called, “Power, Money, Fame, Sex, a user’s guide”)… I’ll quote here from Jan Hoffman, author of the Times article:
Ms. Rubin flicks away the suggestion that the just-us-folks tone of the book may be a tad disingenuous. “Bob [Robert Rubin] is important to me because he’s my father-in-law, so that’s the way he’s relevant in the book,” she said. “I wasn’t trying to hide it. It just didn’t come up naturally.”
Readers may not realize that she doesn’t live on the generic row of low-rise apartment houses on the cover of the book, suggesting the West Village or Park Slope in Brooklyn. Her triplex is in a neo-Georgian building on the Upper East Side.
And to those who may feel daunted by how she does it all — the charts, the reading, writing, exercising, volunteering, socializing, parenting, scrapbooking and glue-gunning? Relax. She has a sitter and a housecleaner….
…Writing a self-help book with epigrams and advice embraced by thousands is, in Ms. Rubin’s view, certainly work worth doing. She has created her own cottage industry devoted to happiness (and to promoting book sales): the blog, an interactive companion site with a happiness project tool box, a monthly newsletter, weekly resolutions and tips, videos. There is also a starter kit for groups wishing to tackle her project.
Following her advice can take more work than fans bargain for. Diane Owens’s happiness project group meets in the public library of Mount Pleasant, S.C. — 13 members, all women, most widowed or divorced. “At the ‘love’ chapter, people said, ‘This isn’t a good subject for me,’ ” Ms. Owens said. When she asked who had started a resolutions chart, only two members raised their hands.
Okay, enough said.
The truth is I’m perplexed by North America’s dogged pursuit of ‘happiness,’ since the variety of happiness I see people craving is the frothy, brightly-lit, sugary emotion that has little value. It’s what Eric Wilson describes in his book, “Against Happiness” this way:
Really, what’s lost in all of this? Isn’t it a mark of our American genius that we can now envision a cosmos of total contentment, a universe in which all things that chagrin us, from depression to corpulence, from distance to death, might soon simply fade away? We have created that which Bradford dreamed and Franklin schemed. We are smoothing over the rough edges of aging. We are transforming our dirty cities into massive shopping malls. We have even translated war into blips on our television screens. There is no better time to play at living. No wonder almost every American claims to be happy.
In Johnah Leherer’s article on Depression’s Upside, I find more nourishing fare. Mr. Leherer discusses the recent conversation in psychiatric circles about the benefits of depression, melancholy and rumination (the looping, obsessive thought process that defines depression), and how medication may not, in the long run, be the best bet. He talks about Darwin’s depression which Darwin said allowed him “to withdraw from the world and concentrate entirely on his work,” its clarifying force, how it focuses the mind on its most essential problems, and the purpose of suffering.
The alternative, of course, is that depression has a secret purpose and our medical interventions are making a bad situation even worse. Like a fever that helps the immune system fight off infection — increased body temperature sends white blood cells into overdrive — depression might be an unpleasant yet adaptive response to affliction. Maybe Darwin was right. We suffer — we suffer terribly — but we don’t suffer in vain.
Andy Thomson, a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia, and Paul Andrews, an evolutional psychologist at Virginia Commonwealth University, think this might be true, — rumination might have a purpose. Psychiatry “has come to see rumination as a dangerous mental habit, because it leads people to fixate on their flaws and problems, thus extending their negative moods.” What if that weren’t so? The D.S.M. manual, the diagnostic bible for psychiatrists, we are told, does not take stressors such as divorce, profession failure, disillusionment etc., into account when diagnosing depressive disorder (with the exception of bereavement, when we’re given two months to get over it before it becomes clinically troubling).
Imagine, for instance, a depression triggered by a bitter divorce. The ruminations might take the form of regret (“I should have been a better spouse”), recurring counterfactuals (“What if I hadn’t had my affair?”) and anxiety about the future (“How will the kids deal with it? Can I afford my alimony payments?”). While such thoughts reinforce the depression — that’s why therapists try to stop the ruminative cycle — Andrews and Thomson wondered if they might also help people prepare for bachelorhood or allow people to learn from their mistakes. “I started thinking about how, even if you are depressed for a few months, the depression might be worth it if it helps you better understand social relationships,” Andrews says. “Maybe you realize you need to be less rigid or more loving. Those are insights that can come out of depression, and they can be very valuable.”
Which is not to say that depression is always useful. Sometimes, I suspect, it’s brain chemistry gone haywire, which is a different case. But I’m by nature melancholy and I’ve suffered from situational-induced depression more than once, and I agree with Thomson who says, “To say that depression can be useful doesn’t mean it’s always going to be useful. Sometimes, the symptoms can spiral out of control. The problem, though, is that as a society, we’ve come to see depression as something that must always be avoided or medicated away. We’ve been so eager to remove the stigma from depression that we’ve ended up stigmatizing sadness.”
I’ve also been medicated for depression. And for me, it wasn’t useful. For one thing, it triggered the craving for alcohol again after thirteen years sobriety. I didn’t drink, thank God, but it was awful. And the drugs didn’t solve the underlying issues, just numbed them. A friend who helped me get sober years ago suggest that early sobriety would probably involve some depression, since I’d been self-medicating and not feeling many emotions for years. She suggested I try to just go through it, sit with it, mine it for meaning. If I medicated, I just might have to go through it all again later. This is much the same as what modern research substantiates:
Consider a 2005 paper led by Steven Hollon, a psychologist at Vanderbilt University: he found that people on antidepressants had a 76 percent chance of relapse within a year when the drugs were discontinued. In contrast, patients given a form of cognitive talk therapy had a relapse rate of 31 percent. And Hollon’s data aren’t unusual: several studies found that patients treated with medication were approximately twice as likely to relapse as patients treated with cognitive behavior therapy. “The high relapse rate suggests that the drugs aren’t really solving anything,” Thomson says. “In fact, they seem to be interfering with the solution, so that patients are discouraged from dealing with their problems. We end up having to keep people on the drugs forever. It was as if these people have a bodily infection, and modern psychiatry is just treating their fever.”
Huh. Another interesting tidbit in this article is the evidence from a recent study that found “’expressive writing’” — asking depressed subjects to write essays about their feelings — led to significantly shorter depressive episodes.” Well, we writers have long known that the only way to live with melancholy is to write!
How sad (pun intended) I find it that we’ve created a society (and an industry) around avoiding sadness. When 30 writers were interviewed by neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen about their mental history, 80% met the criteria for “some form of depression.” She says, “successful writers are like prizefighters who keep on getting hit but won’t go down.” Lehrer says she argues that many forms of creativity benefit from the relentless focus it makes possible. “Unfortunately, this type of thinking is often inseparable from the suffering. If you’re on the cutting edge, then you’re going to bleed.”
The article concludes by saying, “The challenge, f course, is persuading people to accept their misery, to embrace the tonic of despair. 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.”
Well, for years I drank too much to get away from the pain, until I couldn’t drink any more. Then I had to face the pain I’d been running from, and over the fifteen years since, I’ve still had to face crippling pain from time to time. But I’ve learned there are enormous benefits from wandering in that dark wood, and I’m delighted I wasn’t distracted by a search for the sort of happiness that can be charted with checks and ‘x’s’ on a wall chart.