In Defense of Depression

I have never been an exceedingly happy person. For those people who (offline) found me chipper or perky, well, I'm sorry, but I was probably faking it. On the other hand, I've studied two instruments, 3 languages, 5 or 6 different types of dance and I left a promising mainstream job to write for a living. The times in my life in which I was least creative or thoughtful were the times in which I was objectively the most content. It turns out, though, that according to experts quoted in the new Newsweek, I might be sort of normal like that. I can't say it makes me happy, but it probably makes me feel marginally less unique (which maybe makes me less happy). It's a cycle, after all.

There is a growing backlash against the pop-a-pill-get-happy version of recovery, in which those of us marginally depressed are encouraged to be more "normal" in part, according to teacher Jess Decourcy Hinds, "because observing another's anguish isn't easy." NYU Professor Jerome Wakefield (who co-authored The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow Into Depressive Disorder) has students coming up to him all the time asking how to get their parents to lay off the Prozac-pushing because they want to feel their emotions sometimes. And, as previously mentioned, psychiatrist Charles Barber, author of Comfortably Numb notes that emotions — even those brought on by the loss of a relationship, a friend, a job, or a family member — are normal and meant to be felt rather than medicated away.

While significant depression is bad (and requires medication and/or therapy) and it's uncomfortable to watch someone suffer emotionally, some sadness or mild depression is often actually required for some people to learn anything and grow as a person, and it's often necessary for some of us to feel inspired. Author Eric Wilson, whose book Against Happiness came out late last month, argues that "the happy man is a hollow man," but we're pretty sure he meant to say "human."

University of Illinois psychologist Ed Diener finds that there's a high-correlation between self-reported levels of "happiness" and stable, long-term relationships. His reasoning is that "if you have positive illusions about your partner, which goes along with the highest levels of happiness, you're more likely to commit to an intimate relationship." On the other hand, if you're just sort of vaguely unhappy without being actually paralyzed with ennui, you tend to make more money, achieve greater career success, get more educated and pay more attention to politics because you're trying to not be unhappy.

Being stressed and unhappy has a biological purpose, according to Diener and evolutionary biologists, who note that fear tend to force animals into action and "sadness" in mammals tends to result needed empathetic actions in others. Either way, would you rather live in a world in which the music is all Sweet Caroline and the photographs of Anne Geddes or is it a substantially better place with Nina Simone and Vincent Van Gogh even if you have to watch some of the rest of us less-creative types be unhappy?

Happiness: Enough Already [Newsweek]
Earlier: What's The Difference Between A "Real" Depressive And A Lazy Pill Freak?