Mental Health

What if being depressed is actually a good thing?

Removing the rose-tinted glasses of happiness allows us to see the world as it really is. Admit that life is hell, and be free, writes philosopher Julie Reshe

26 January 2020 - 00:03 By Julie Reshe
What if the anguish of depression is not an emotional or mental disorder, but the cost of losing our illusions and learning infinitely more about reality itself?
What if the anguish of depression is not an emotional or mental disorder, but the cost of losing our illusions and learning infinitely more about reality itself?
Image: Siphu Gqwetha

I remember being depressed. The very idea of waking up was riddled with dread. I was in a state of internal turbulence, apprehension and negativity about the future. I didn't recognise my new self, and wondered what had happened to the cheerful person I used to be.

In that state of depression, I found the attitude of others changed. Those around me were of two persuasions. One group of people wanted to fix me. The others tended to shun me like a leper. No wonder: I had become cynical, agnostic and pessimistic, and I didn't bother to be polite. 

On the other hand, I developed a deeper understanding of the genuine suffering of others. I learnt about the dark side of the world, about which I had known little.

As a philosopher, I know that what seems obvious is not always so. In the wake of my experience, I was especially inclined to doubt the equating of positive moods with health, and of negative moods with distortion. Could it be that, in my depression, I was seeing the world as it was?

Before my own descent, I'd been confused when my PhD mentor suggested that the common striving for happiness constitutes a repressive ideology. Yet, after observing myself, I came to agree with her.

Look around and you'll notice we demand a state of permanent happiness from ourselves and others and stigmatise emotional suffering, such as depression, anxiety, grief or disappointment. We label emotional suffering a deviation and a problem, a distortion to be eliminated — a pathology in need of treatment. The voice of sadness is censored as sick.

We demand a state of permanent happiness from ourselves and others ... The voice of sadness is censored as sick

The therapy best known for purging negative thoughts is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), formulated as a treatment for depression and anxiety.

It's based on the cognitive model of mental illness, developed by the US psychiatrist Aaron Beck in the 1960s. The premise is that depression is caused by a negative style of thought, called "depressogenic thinking".

When depressed, we tend to see ourselves as helpless, doomed, unlovable, deficient, worthless, blameworthy and rejected by others.

Beck suggests that in this depression we employ "distorted" thinking patterns, which CBT practitioners are trained to detect and break, setting us in flight towards happier outcomes.

WE CAN'T ALL BE ABOVE AVERAGE

Depressogenic thoughts are unpleasant and even unbearable, but this doesn't necessarily mean they are distorted representations of reality.

What if reality truly sucks and, while depressed, we lose the illusions that mask this fact?

What if, to the contrary, positive thinking represents a biased grasp of reality?

What if, when I was depressed, I learnt something valuable, something I wouldn't be able to learn at a lower cost?

What if, when depressed, we actually perceive reality more accurately?

What if reality truly sucks and, while depressed, we lose the illusions that mask this fact?

Positive illusions are common cognitive biases based on unrealistically favourable ideas about ourselves, others, our situation and the world around us.

Types of positive illusions include unrealistic optimism, the illusion of control, and illusory superiority that makes us overestimate our abilities and qualities in relation to others. Such illusions are rife.

Studies suggest that about 75% to 80% of people evaluate themselves as being above average in almost all parameters: academic ability, job performance, immunity to bias, relationship happiness, IQ. Cruel mathematical laws tell us that this is an illusion — so many, by definition, cannot be above average.

DEPRESSIVE REALISM

The roots of the modern positivity trend can be found in the religious past, which provided people with guidelines for life and the notion of salvation, offering a solid picture of the world with a happy ending.

In our secular world, psychology fills a void left by religion, serving to provide explanations and give hope for a better life.

Therapist and pastor are figures with authority who claim what is wrong with you and tell you how to fix it. But in the secularised world, salvation becomes a task to accomplish in our earthly life. Heaven is no longer about the transcendental realm, but about attaining
a total state of happiness and transforming Earth into Heaven in the now.

Next to religion and its psychotherapeutic counterpart, philosophy could be considered heresy.

The most problematic patient might be the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), known for his contention that suffering is unavoidable and a key part of human existence. Schopenhauer argued that there is no meaning or purpose to existence — life is moved by an aimless striving that can never be fulfilled.

He turns our positive world view upside down — the normal basic mode of our existence isn't happiness that, from time to time, gets disrupted by suffering. No, life is itself a bone-deep suffering and endless mourning. It will never get better, Schopenhauer said: "It is bad
today, and it will be worse tomorrow ..."

Schopenhauer posits that consciousness further worsens the human condition, since conscious beings experience pain more acutely and are able to reflect on the absurdity of their existence.

Another German philosopher, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), provides not a lot more reassurance. He referred to anxiety as a basic mode of human existence and distinguished between authentic and non-authentic human forms of living.

We mostly live in authentically in our everyday lives, where we are immersed in everyday tasks, troubles and worries, so that our awareness of the futility and meaninglessness of our existence is silenced by everyday noise. We go to work, raise children, work on our relationships, clean the house, go to sleep, and do it all over again. The world around us seems to make sense, and is even richly meaningful.

But the authentic life is disclosed only in anxiety. Then we become self-aware and can begin to think freely, rejecting the shared illusion that society has imposed.

The Norwegian thinker Peter Wessel Zapffe (1899-1990) took philosophical pessimism even further: humans have developed a need that cannot be fulfilled, he said, since nature itself is meaningless; to survive, he argued, humanity has to repress this damaging surplus of consciousness.

Despite its turn towards positivity, psychological theory includes one branch with a focus on the pessimistic philosophical tradition embraced by Sigmund Freud. Called "depressive realism", it was suggested by the US psychologists Lauren Alloy and Lyn Yvonne Abramson, who said reality is always more transparent through a depressed person's lens.

Happy people are more prone to stereotypical thinking and rely on simple cliche

The "depressive realism" hypothesis is controversial, yet Australian social psychologist Joseph Forgas showed that sadness reinforces critical thinking, helping people reduce judgmental bias, improve attention, increase perseverance, and generally promote a more sceptical, detailed and attentive thinking style.

On the other hand, positive moods can lead to a less effortful and systematic thinking style. Happy people are more prone to stereotypical thinking and rely on simple cliche.

THE EVOLUTIONARY ADVANTAGE OF DEPRESSION

Other researchers have looked at the evolutionary advantage of depression.

Paul Andrews at Virginia Commonwealth University and J Anderson Thomson at the University of Virginia challenge the predominant medical view on depression as a disorder and contend that it is, rather, an evolved adaptation.

The evolutionary function of depression is to develop analytical thinking mechanisms and to assist in solving complex mental problems. Depressive rumination helps us concentrate and solve problems.

In her book Daseinsanalysis (2008), Alice Holzhey-Kunz, an existentially oriented Swiss psychoanalyst, turns to Heidegger's distinction between authentic and non-authentic forms of living. She claims that mental suffering signifies a disillusioning confrontation with the reality of existence. In that sense, depression is not so much a disorder as a disillusioning explosion of the nothingness of human existence.

What if depression is the cost of losing our illusions and learning infinitely more about reality itself?

Some studies suggest existential suffering and mental distress are rising worldwide, but particularly in Western culture. The vicious cycle we find ourselves in — the endless pursuit of happiness and the impossibility of attaining it — hurts us. Perhaps, in our melancholy depths, we'll find that superficial states of happiness are largely a way not to be alive.

Mental health, positive psychology and dominant therapy modalities all require that we remain silent and succumb to our illusions until we die.

I realise that, as you were reading this, you must have experienced a "yes, but ..." reaction. ("Yes, life is horrible, but there are so many good things too.") This is an automatic response to negative, horrifying insights.

A small proposal would be to explore disillusionment and refuge from positivity as
a new space in which to experience life.

Next time, before you plunge into alcohol, or make appeals to loved ones, friends, psychotherapists or to any other of the many life-affirming practices, remember that almost all constructions of meaning — from work to sport to opening our hearts to Jesus — are inherently illusory.

An alternative to running away from life through illusion is to explore an illusion-free space for as long as possible, so as to become more capable of bearing the reality of a disillusioned and concrete life. If successful, you'll free yourself from your faux positivity.

In the end, of course, we might not be able to liberate ourselves, either from suffering or from illusions. Life is hell, and it looks as though no heaven awaits us to top it off. This, in itself, might be a path to liberation since, after all, we have nothing to lose.

The author of this article, Julie Reshe, is a professor of philosophy at the School of Advanced Studies at the University of Tyumen in Siberia.

The full version of this essay, ‘Depressive realism’, was originally published on Aeon.