We keep chasing happiness, but true clarity comes from depression and existential angst. Admit that life is hell, and be free
Julie Reshe is a philosopher and psychoanalyst. She is a professor at the School of Advanced Studies (SAS) at the University of Tyumen in Siberia, and director of the Institute of Psychoanalysis at the Global Center for Advanced Studies (GCAS).
Edited by Pam Weintraub
Iremember being depressed. It was a frightening state of mind that seemed to go on indefinitely. The very idea of waking up was riddled with dread. A state of internal turbulence, apprehension and negativity about the future propelled the total collapse of a positive and optimistic attitude. I felt like my mind suddenly became sick and twisted. I didn’t recognise my new self, and wondered what had happened to the cheerful person I used to be.
The reason for my depression was a breakup. But what led to depression was not so much the reaction to our split, but the realisation that the one you believed loved you, who was closest to you and promised to be with you forever, had turned out to be someone else, a stranger indifferent to your pain. I discovered that this loving person was an illusion. The past became meaningless, and the future ceased to exist. The world itself wasn’t credible any more.
In that state of depression, I found the attitude of others changed dramatically. Depression is not particularly tolerated in society, and I realised that those around me were of two persuasions. One group of people wanted to fix me, telling me to pull myself together or recommending professional help. The other group tended to shun me like a leper. In hindsight, I understand this reaction: after all, I had become cynical, agnostic and pessimistic, and I hadn’t bothered to be polite.
On the other hand, I developed a deeper understanding of the genuine suffering of others. In my depression, I learned about the dark side of the world, about which I knew little before. I could no longer ignore suffering and delusion, opening a new window on reality that was unpleasant indeed. My experience is not unique, but it was in some sense heightened because, in addition to being a regular human encountering a pathetic breakup, I’m also a philosopher. As a philosopher, I know that what seems to be obvious is far from always so, and therefore requires rigorous critical analysis. So, in the wake of my experience, I was especially inclined to doubt the equation of positive moods with health, and of negative moods with distortion. Could it be that, in my depression, I was finally seeing the world as it was?
Before my own descent, I’d been confused when my PhD mentor, the philosopher Alenka Zupančič at the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, suggested that the common striving for happiness constitutes a repressive ideology. What in the world could be wrong or repressive about the desire to make the world a happier place?
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. The tendency that goes together with overpromotion of happiness is stigmatisation of the opposite of happiness – 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.
The American Psychological Association defines depression as ‘a common and serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think and how you act’. The very term stigmatises the sufferer and implies the need for her to be cured. It’s hard to say whether therapists and the medical establishment are imposing this attitude or are influenced by the prevailing cultural paradigm. Either way, most therapies today aim to eliminate negative moods…