Depression is good for you?

February 28, 2010

From today’s New York Times Magazine, this. Evolutionary psychologists Andy Thomson and Paul Andrews claim that depression has survival value, in that the neurochemical processes behind it allow/compel the mind to focus in a way that can lead to real problem-solving.  Critics like Peter Kramer on the other hand point out that real clinical depression goes beyond response to any specific real-world stressor, and so cannot respond to the sort of  ruminative problem-solving that Thomson and Andrews  describe.  Randolph Neese thinks depression is comparable to pain – some pain is effective in getting us to deal with a practical danger, but other pain is just plain pain not based on any underlying “real” problem at all.  I think this view is closest to the truth, in that it allows that the others might all be right in particular instances…

What about me? I used to be a lot less happy than I am.  I don’t think I was necessarily ever “depressive” in the clinical sense, but I did have “ruminative tendencies” and felt I wasn’t very good at real-world coping. How did I come out of  it? Largely by realizing that real-world problems – survival problems, relationship problems, whatever – paled in comparison with the fragility of life itself, to say nothing of the metaphysical question of what exactly I am – what my conscious subjective self is – in relation to the “real” world.  And I decided no amount of rumination could solve these, so I didn’t really need the rumination. One night thirty years ago, riding a train in India after a frenzied few hours when everything seemed about to go wrong but never quite did, I had this insight:  “The universe can pulverize me in an instant, but it cannot make me unhappy. I can only do that to myself.” So I simply told myself not to do it, and ever since have gotten better at not doing it.

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