Thursday, March 20, 2008

TO READ: "Against Happiness" ??
I was amazed to read that a new book, Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, by Eric G. Wilson, actually lauds the experience of sadness or "melancholia" to the extent that it asserts that antidepressants should be used only for severe depressions, not for mild to moderate cases. He's got to be kidding, right?

Against Happiness, clearly titled as a comeback to Peter Kramer's book Against Depression, was reviewed in last Sunday's New York Times by National Public Radio star Garrison Keillor. According to Keillor, Wilson argues that America is so focused on happiness that melancholia -- which he believes is the the source of much great art, poetry and music -- is disappearing.

I've not yet read the book, and I'm not sure I will, for frankly I find this argument depressing. I've written about creativity and the writing-depression connection in my book, Writing through the Darkness: Easing Your Depression with Paper and Pen (to be released in June, 2008). Indeed there are correlations between bipolar disorder and artistic creativity, and much lesser correlations between depression and creativity. Who knows, maybe a lot of art and literature has in fact been born of low moods? So maybe, one can argue, melancholia (which Wilson sees as "turbulent," while depression itself is "passive"), has a certain benefit for society as a whole. (By the way, I know I've certainly had both passive and turbulent clinical depressions, so I don't buy this distinction.) But if it causes suffering that could be abated, I say get rid of depression.

If mild and moderate depressions are not treated, they can become severe depressions. And if a person wants her or his melancholia treated, and a qualified professional believes it appropriate, by all means it should be treated. (If a person is merely transiently sad, an antidepressant isn't going to do the trick anyway.) If a person doesn't want such treatment, and some artists don't, at least at times, I respect that. But to argue, as Wilson does, as cited by Keillor, "The greatest tragedy is to live without tragedy," is to romanticize depression. A romantic aura around what are biological brain disorders stigmatizes these conditions, and stigma contributes to many people's reticence to seek treatment.

Even if melancholia/depression does lead to some creativity, I can't believe it has cornered the market on human innovation. If human suffering can be alleviated, it would be very sad not to do it.

See: Eric G. Wilson, Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy (Sarah Chrichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux); Garrison Keillor, Woe Be Gone, New York Times, March 16, 2008.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well put.