Sunday, February 28, 2010

Why we are sad and depressed (and how we can become "happy")

This fascinating New York Times magazine article -- Depression's Upside -- reminds me of a scene from Annie Hall The depressed Woody Allen character stops a good-looking couple on the street:

  • Allen: Here, you look like a happy couple, um, are you?
  • Woman: Yeah.
  • Allen: So, so, how do you account for it?
  • Woman: Um, I'm very shallow and empty and I have no ideas and nothing interesting to say.
  • Man: And I'm exactly the same way.

In other words (according to Woody Allen, at least), chronic happiness -- as attractive as it might look from afar -- comes at too great a price, the price of being incapable of having interesting thoughts and doing interesting things.

The main psychologists profiled in the Times article say more or less the same thing, but from the opposite perspective: They claim that depression has a function -- the function of allowing people to do the kind of thinking required to come up with creative and effective responses to really tough (and interesting) challenges and questions, including challenges that lead to grief. Evolutionary psychologist Paul Andrews, for example, is quoted as saying about the person who has experienced a divorce or a tough breakup:

“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.”

This idea that depression (maybe it's better to just say, sadness) actually has a function that should not be routinely medicated out of existence with Prozac and alike reminds me of some books I have encountered over the last few years that have influenced me, including Healing the soul in the age of the brain and Thomas Moore's Care of the soul. I was also reminded of the New Yorker's recent article on grieving around death, which asks the question of what the function of grief might be.


I am also reminded of some thoughts I've recently had about the first Psalm (for which I have the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem to thank for the inspiration; check out their new blog on the Psalms). Psalm One starts out:

אַשְׁרֵי הָאִישׁ-- אֲשֶׁר לֹא הָלַךְ, בַּעֲצַת רְשָׁעִים;
וּבְדֶרֶךְ חַטָּאִים, לֹא עָמָד, וּבְמוֹשַׁב לֵצִים, לֹא יָשָׁב.

Which is typically translated something like this:
Happy is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the path of the sinners,
nor sits in the seat of the insolent.
But I don't think happy is a very good rendering of what the Psalmist meant here (with the word אשרי/ashrei). The results of following God's ways -- the ways of Torah, as the next verse says -- are not simple happiness; rather, they are a deeper kind of fulfilment and satisfaction -- perhaps, blessed, is a better word, as the King James and some other translations use (even though it is impossible to literally translate ashrei as blessed).

Similarly, the Schechter blog's commentary on this psalm says of translating ashrei as happy:

[C]learly the term is more profound than that, i.e., deeper than our contemporary use of the word “happy.” Ashrei implies peace, satisfaction, fulfillment and tranquility of worldview. (Martin Cohen, noting the term’s centrality, points out that it appears a total of twenty-five times in nineteen different psalms!) Thus the speaker opens with the only “reward” he acknowledges, but that is less reward than description, and the image of the fruitful tree expands upon it. His claim is that the person of faith is“ashrei,” having a deep conviction of the rightness of his ways, of their long-range influence and permanence, and of their benefit to the world.
This kind of deep conviction in the rightness of one's ways -- in the path one is taking through the challenges of life -- is something I value much more than simple happiness. And as tough as the times of depression I've experienced in my life have been, I believe they have played a role in my finding my way towards my true convictions and towards my being able to make my walk through life to be in line with those (challenging!) convictions. In this sense I feel very much to be ashrei at this point in my life. And I have HaShem to thank for that -- especially for the beautiful Torah, including the Psalms, that HaShem has given to us.

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