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"The road to hell is paved with happy plans."
January 16, 2008 8:40 PM   Subscribe

In Praise Of Melancholy. We are eradicating a major cultural force, the muse behind much art and poetry and music. We are annihilating melancholia. Does an overemphasis on the pursuit of happiness cause us to miss an essential part of a full life? Via.
posted by amyms (83 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
Well, that article made me feel depressed.

And yet strangely inspired.
posted by jefftrexler at 8:46 PM on January 16, 2008


Robert Burton said it best:

When I goe musing all alone,
Thinking of divers things fore-known,
When I build Castles in the air,
Void of sorrow and void of fear,
Pleasing my self with phantasms sweet,
Me thinks the time runs very fleet.

All my joyes to this are folly,
Naught so sweet as Melancholy.
posted by Bromius at 8:51 PM on January 16, 2008 [7 favorites]


"Fewer drugs, more sadness."

I can accept that.
posted by oddman at 9:05 PM on January 16, 2008


Trust me, if the rest of you are short on melancholy, I'm pretty sure I have enough to go around.
posted by lekvar at 9:07 PM on January 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


Surely all this happiness can't be for real. How can so many people be happy in the midst of all the problems that beset our globe [...]

Those people who look happy are really crying on the inside.
posted by b1tr0t at 9:07 PM on January 16, 2008


Daniel Gilbert summarizes well my thoughts on the matter:

What good is a compass always stuck on north? A compass needle has to be free to fluctuate. Similarly, an emotional system, substantiated in the human brain, has to be free to go from happy to unhappy. It can’t get stuck on endlessly blissful, or else it approaches everything or avoids everything equally. We are meant to be happy, and we are meant to suffer. We’re supposed to suffer when we are encountering circumstances that aren’t good for us.
posted by Jpfed at 9:17 PM on January 16, 2008


D'oh! There was supposed to be a link for that quote.
posted by Jpfed at 9:17 PM on January 16, 2008


The futility of this entire post has almost overwhelmed me.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 9:18 PM on January 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


well - i'd sure hate to see what we're like when we're really miserable because i can hardly stand us right now
posted by pyramid termite at 9:20 PM on January 16, 2008


the muse behind much art and poetry and music.
moronic and just plain wrong.

"Fewer drugs, more sadness."

Stupid beyond words.

We are meant to be happy, and we are meant to suffer
Then don't let me catch you taking any Advil next time you have a headache, genius. Or is it only other people's suffering that is "meant" to be? ("meant" by some force or concept which has zero chance of being defined in such a shoddy piece of half-assed thinking.)
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:39 PM on January 16, 2008 [6 favorites]


jefftrexler said: Well, that article made me feel depressed.

And yet strangely inspired.


I felt the same way.

Like the author of the essay, I've always tended toward melancholia and I find that I'm at my most creative when I'm feeling a bit "blue," but as I got older my melancholia started spiraling into depression and anxiety, and I've recently found relief with the help of my doctor and a pharmaceutical. It's not a "happy pill" and it hasn't turned me into a "Pollyanna" (I still have all the moods and emotions I've always had, but I don't spiral into emotionally dangerous territory anymore). I feel like the author is trying to make things too black-and-white in that regard, but I thought it was worth sharing.
posted by amyms at 9:39 PM on January 16, 2008 [4 favorites]


We are meant to be happy, and we are meant to suffer.

Who, exactly, means us to suffer? And why should I care what they mean? They sound like a dick.
posted by "Tex" Connor and the Wily Roundup Boys at 9:48 PM on January 16, 2008 [10 favorites]


If there's hope for the future, it lies with the emo kids.
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:52 PM on January 16, 2008 [3 favorites]


Ok, enough with the INTJ bullshit. Yes, sad people write pretty songs and poems. Hooray. I mean, oh no how terrible! Alas!

Personally, I'd say that modern America (and most of the rest of the world) has exactly the opposite problem. We are a deeply unhappy people who fill our lives with worthless junk and crap. Our "art" (Hollywood, the Music Industry) is crap too. In fact, our very being is so consumed with unhappiness and resignation that I can scarcely imagine what a truly "happy" society would look like without getting a mental image of people in togas dancing around in Elysian fields or something. It's like trying to imagine a square circle.

Besides, we shouldn't be sad, we should be angry.
posted by Avenger at 9:55 PM on January 16, 2008 [16 favorites]


"Stupid beyond words."

Funny, I feel the same way, but I'm not talking about the original quote. People who assume that "better living through pharmaceuticals" is the One True Way get on my last nerve.

Maybe melancholy is good for creativity, maybe it isn't. And for a lot of people, pills are a blessing. But at least in my case, every drug I have been given to "even out" my moods, or to alleviate some anxiety, or just to combat my depression — they all make me someone that I don't like. He may be someone a little more socially acceptable, and he's certainly less colorful, but I'd rather take my chances with melancholia than find myself sitting in my La-Z-Boy slapping my knee at Everybody Loves Raymond again.

On preview: I'm not certain that "happy" and "society" can be used together with a straight face, and it's completely impossible in a quasi-capitalist society. After all, our entire worldview is based on dissatisfaction with what we have, and the relentless drive for more. Happiness, if found, is momentary almost by definition.
posted by mkhall at 10:00 PM on January 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


That was...hyperbolic. And he's seriously romanticizing the suffering of that Romantic, Keats. Wordsworth would remind the gentleman that poetry emerges from "emotion recollected in tranquility," I think.

Perhaps the argument makes more sense at book-length. I agree with the superficial truth that there are circumstances that ought to make us unhappy, and I'm even willing to agree that being happy, per se, may not be all that important. (I've got some sympathies with both Thomas Carlyle and John Stuart Mill on that issue: both of them point out that happiness is always a temporary state, and that it's better to regard it as a by-product of a particular line of action than as an end in itself.) But "we are meant to suffer"? This is passive voice as the weasel voice.
posted by thomas j wise at 10:06 PM on January 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


We are meant to be happy, and we are meant to suffer
Then don't let me catch you taking any Advil next time you have a headache, genius. Or is it only other people's suffering that is "meant" to be? ("meant" by some force or concept which has zero chance of being defined in such a shoddy piece of half-assed thinking.)
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:39 PM on January 16


We are meant to perceive signals that something is wrong. Of course we are free to act on those signals once perceived.

As it turns out, headaches are most often not signals that something deeper is wrong; the signal itself is the problem, and so it's perfectly fine to just ignore the signal by taking painkillers. Likewise, for people with mood disorders, the emotions themselves can interfere with the action they would ordinarily suggest, so it's a good idea to put some effort into regulating them.

But our emotions are messengers, and most of the time it's not a good idea to shoot them. Often, they are the way they are because they (unlike headaches or pathological cases) say something about our relationship to the external world. If we do not perceive those signals (or are relatively insensitive to them) then we will eventually receive consequences as problems go unchecked and opportunities wither.
posted by Jpfed at 10:15 PM on January 16, 2008 [7 favorites]


Personally, I'd say that modern America (and most of the rest of the world) has exactly the opposite problem. We are a deeply unhappy people who fill our lives with worthless junk and crap. Our "art" (Hollywood, the Music Industry) is crap too. In fact, our very being is so consumed with unhappiness and resignation that I can scarcely imagine what a truly "happy" society would look like without getting a mental image of people in togas dancing around in Elysian fields or something. It's like trying to imagine a square circle.

Most of the rest of the western world, perhaps. In my experience, the most apparently happy people I've encountered have tended to come from the poorest and/or most oppressive countries. When I visited Mali, in West Africa, it was the fifth poorest country in the world, and had an average life expectancy of around 40. And yet, the people in the street seemed to be constantly smiling, chatting heartily with their friends, and so on.

Right now, I'm just back from almost a month in Burma, and in spite of constant private complaints about the military dictatorship, and the relative poverty, if you didn't know how nasty & brutal the regime was, you could be forgiven for thinking you'd wandered into the perfect society. Almost everybody was cheerful, laid back, always making jokes & laughing, apparently not caring to work too hard. Never a raised voice, not the tiniest hint of arguments or physical violence.

I know that I must be missing a lot of the misery behind the scenes, and I'm just some whitey passing through and making assumptions, romanticising poverty, but so often it seems to me that the less of the idealised, advertised lifestyle is dangled in front of you as a real possibility, and the greater the chance you might be carried off by a firing squad or malaria, the more intent you are at actually enjoying the present moment, at cultivating friendships and generally being nice to each other. It's as if when the burden of aiming to be mega-rich & successful has been lifted from your shoulders, you can finally just relax & start having fun without caring about all that other stuff, because, well, it's never going to happen.

In contrast, whenever I return to Australia from a developing country, there's always at least a week or two of culture shock, during which I am amazed at how overwhelmingly serious, aggressive, silent, anxious & unhappy most people look. I've only given two examples there, but it's pretty much the same regardless of which developing country I compare with here.
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:20 PM on January 16, 2008 [7 favorites]


Oh, this is such bullshit.

Melancholia is not synonymous with depression. Melancholic people are prone to depression, but that's not the same thing.
posted by freshwater_pr0n at 10:24 PM on January 16, 2008 [2 favorites]


"Fewer drugs, more sadness."

You aren't taking the right drugs, or are taking them improperly. There is plenty of room for drugs, sadness, and creativity.
posted by Meatbomb at 10:43 PM on January 16, 2008 [2 favorites]



You aren't taking the right drugs, or are taking them improperly. There is plenty of room for drugs, sadness, and creativity.


I'm sad that I'm not creative enough to figure out which drugs I should be taking!
posted by lumensimus at 11:04 PM on January 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


You aren't taking the right drugs, or are taking them improperly. There is plenty of room for drugs, sadness, and creativity.

I'm sad that I'm not creative enough to figure out which drugs I should be taking!


I'm drug that sad figures create rooms creatively smiling frowing smiling frowning burble wheeble. Ohhh the emotion!
posted by lalochezia at 11:19 PM on January 16, 2008 [3 favorites]


Melancholy sounds pretty good. But, this happiness stuff sounds amazing.
posted by Blingo at 11:24 PM on January 16, 2008 [2 favorites]


I found this a nicely thought provoking essay. I agree with the sentiment that the author is misdiagnosing this ubiquitous happiness among Americans--we are a deeply unfulfilled people, in my experience.

But I thought this line was great, and very true: Melancholia over time's passing is the proper stance for beholding beauty.
posted by LooseFilter at 11:28 PM on January 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


Awesome, another reason I can tell people to fuck off when they tell me to smile. "Oh, but you look so much prettier when you smile!" I'm not here for your amusement or entertainment, jerkoff. What sane person do you know walks around all day with a smile plastered to their face?
posted by MaryDellamorte at 11:32 PM on January 16, 2008


Yeah, what they all said!

Besides, Batman wasn't happy. Who wants a happy Batman?
posted by ELF Radio at 12:02 AM on January 17, 2008 [3 favorites]


I came into this thread betting "five comments tilll 'meh.'" You guys suck. Moar spirit crushing!!!
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 12:21 AM on January 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


Oh, blah blah. I'm so tired of people romanticizing misery, and tired of this cult of emotional authenticity in art. For every depressed person making fantastic things, there's a dozen people who are so down they can't get out of bed to bathe and feed themselves.
posted by lunalaguna at 1:12 AM on January 17, 2008 [5 favorites]


Artists and clergy who venerate sadness remind me of the fox who claimed that the grapes that he couldn't get were sour. People who have genes that code for a hedonic set-point that tends toward the melancholic end of the affect spectrum might claim that this accident of birth makes them superior, though it seems that a feeling of superiority born out of desperation provides cold comfort.
posted by Human Flesh at 1:15 AM on January 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm confused. Is he talking about this 2006 study? Because that study fairly clearly states that our happiness hasn't changed much over time.

The poll only has three options (four, if you count "I don't know"). His whole essay kind of falls apart if you point out that about half of the Americans surveyed said they were somewhere between "very happy" and "not too happy" (which I translate to "Eh... I'm doing all right, I guess").

Happily (or not, as the case may be) it looks like we can safely continue to fly our grouchy/melancholy/whatever flags fly, since we're apparently just as miserable as we ever were.
posted by stefanie at 1:28 AM on January 17, 2008


The bbc had a program about a chap called Edward Bernays recently . He postulated that people were happiness machines that just needed their primal instincts sated to be comforted.
He sorta invented PR and was used by the cigarette industry to sell cigarettes to women.

He was a major force in equating a free market economy with America.

You guys can fill in my sketchy info i'm sure.
posted by dprs75 at 1:50 AM on January 17, 2008


I for one am afraid that American culture's overemphasis on happiness at the expense of sadness might be dangerous, a wanton forgetting of an essential part of a full life. I further am concerned that to desire only happiness in a world undoubtedly tragic is to become inauthentic, to settle for unrealistic abstractions that ignore concrete situations. I am finally fearful of our society's efforts to expunge melancholia.

There there, Eric Wilson. Society's efforts to expunge melancholia have always and will always fail. So long as there are humans alive, there will always be melancholia, despite how much power Wilson thinks society's influences and psychotropic drugs have.

This is shallow, vacuous crap. Wilson needs to get on lexapro, and reserve melancholia and wistfulness for people with real talent.
posted by psmealey at 3:25 AM on January 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


Melancholia is not synonymous with depression. Melancholic people are prone to depression, but that's not the same thing.

Exactly. Or I would go further to add, that melancholy has nothing to do with being sad or depressed or miserable. It is deliberately indulging in the dark side of life in the midst of happiness – bursting joy’s grape against the palate fine, as Keats says. It’s a counterfeit sadness and that’s part of its charm because it reflects the whole vanitas aspect of life – seeing the skull beneath the skin as TS Eliot said of Webster.

This leads to a deliberate, sometimes oxymoronic balance of the dark and the light – smiling at grief, experiencing a green AND a yellow melancholy, being among his cloudy trophies hung. This is why it’s linked to creativity – the conflict between the deep philosophical self-submersion and the shallow self-indulgence, the enjoyment and the enjoyment of gloom, engenders all kinds of nice stuff.
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 4:04 AM on January 17, 2008 [3 favorites]


Eeyore would roll his eyes at this.
posted by stavrogin at 4:58 AM on January 17, 2008 [4 favorites]


The bbc had a program about a chap called Edward Bernays recently

dprs, That'd be the 4-parter "The Century of the Self" ... Watch it on Google Video by the way, Bernais was Freud's nephew, and exploited uncle's theories to change america's goods production from sheer necessities (consumption limited by need for them) to goods production targeted at individual desires (consumption unlimited! yay!)


the idealised, advertised lifestyle is dangled in front of you

"Century of the Self" would tell you very clearly how that came about. Hehe, I'm not trying to hard sell anything, but if I were it would be that film. damn.


Suffering = great inspiration = bollocks... What about Eastern art, does that have to come from a great sense of balance in the artists?
posted by yoHighness at 5:28 AM on January 17, 2008 [4 favorites]


Oh, blah blah. I'm so tired of people romanticizing misery, and tired of this cult of emotional authenticity in art. For every depressed person making fantastic things, there's a dozen people who are so down they can't get out of bed to bathe and feed themselves.

Hear, hear. Peter Kramer's Against Depression makes some of the same points. In an interview, Kramer said that the typical face of depression is not John Keats, but a single mother in a trailer park who has had a lifetime of opportunities squandered because of health and emotional problems. I have bipolar disorder, and I'm a happy member of society who takes mood stabilizers and antidepressants. You can take your cult of romantic melancholy and shove it, as far as I'm concerned. I've been in enough therapy groups for depression to see the creativity, happiness, and opportunities destroyed, because of the body's inability to regulate emotions. In addition, our adherence to the mind/body duality blinds us to the fact that depression is a health problem. My depression makes me susceptible to back and stomach problems. Are you saying I should not treat those medically for the sake of art? Are you kidding me?

Depression is one of the most common causes of suicide. Think of all the great artists we have lost to suicide. Wouldn't be richer as a culture if we had had a few more years of work from Diane Arbus, Albert Ayler, Kurt Cobain, Hart Crane, Nick Drake, Spalding Gray, Arthur Koestler, Mark Rothko, Del Shannon, Anne Sexton, Hunter S. Thompson, and Virginia Woolf?
posted by jonp72 at 6:57 AM on January 17, 2008


Melancholy English professor thinks melancholy necessary for life and art! Stop the presses!

Christ, what bullshit. I've been sad and I've been happy, and I'm here to tell you that being happy is better. It's an interesting paradox that much of the art that gives us pleasure was created by unhappy people, but on the other hand plenty of artists have been happy. If this guy enjoys being unhappy, more power to him, but I'm sick unto death of people claiming that what works for them should be the law for all mankind.
posted by languagehat at 7:05 AM on January 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


My emotions are perfectly balanced; I follow each spell of uncontrollable, shrieking laughter with a crying jag of equal length. Pretty soon I'll be publishing my Great American Novel! It's fucking awesome please kill me!
posted by Koko at 7:11 AM on January 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


Well, I don't necessarily think that sadness is something to celebrate, but I do think that it can teach us things. I think that overemphasizing happiness can be very misleading. It's not natural to be happy all the time, and it annoys me that American culture treats garden-variety unhappiness as some sort of disease to be cured. If you're unhappy, maybe you need to change something about your life, and not just take perscription medication to dull the pain.

Funny how when somebody wants to do recreational drugs for fun, it's "escapism," yet if someone takes prozac because they'd rather medicate than change their lives, it's called "treatment."
posted by Afroblanco at 7:20 AM on January 17, 2008


Sadness is an essential and vital part of the human experience. Unchecked, crushing depression is not.

People that fetishize depression as being the wellspring of all creativity and art really have no fucking idea what they're talking about. It's true that some great art has been created by some deeply troubled souls , and such people will always exist, whatever our attempts to medicate or silence them. Hell, doing so only seems to inspire them further.

Clinically depressed people trying to get closer to normal (or edge away from the abyss) by taking proscribed Wellbutrin has nothing to do with this.
posted by psmealey at 7:38 AM on January 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


Wouldn't be richer as a culture if we had had a few more years of work from Diane Arbus, Albert Ayler, Kurt Cobain, Hart Crane, Nick Drake, Spalding Gray, Arthur Koestler, Mark Rothko, Del Shannon, Anne Sexton, Hunter S. Thompson, and Virginia Woolf?

I can't speak about those I am not familiar with, but the answer for Spalding and Hunter is most definitely "no". Both were past their primes, and both knew it. They were getting old, and neither of them wanted to be tired old men.

Suicide is not some horrible disease, at least not in all cases. It can be a rational decision. Can you imagine how tough that must be, acting against all of your animal instincts to do what the conscious self knows is right? Way to go, gentlemen, just as you'd always planned! Hanging on in ever increasing decrepitude and impotence, publishing your lesser scribblings, waiting for the meat to die - that's for pussies!

Here's to Hunter and Spalding, two of my heroes who didn't let me down even in death. An example for brave men everywhere.
posted by Meatbomb at 7:47 AM on January 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


The new frontier is florid psychosis.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:53 AM on January 17, 2008


Whatever they represented to you, Meatbomb, those were two men in tremendous pain. It's all well and good for you to romanticise and even celebrate how they opted out, but I suspect their loved ones felt much differently about it.
posted by psmealey at 7:55 AM on January 17, 2008


"Semper Dowland, semper dolens" ... nothing further need be said.
posted by aldus_manutius at 8:13 AM on January 17, 2008


I think there is a little double speak going on here, confusing being sad with the ability to feel sad. I don't see why we should want to be sad, that is counter-intuitive. However to fight sadness you need to address the cause not the symptom. Don't take away the ability to feel sad, take away the thing that makes you sad.
If he is arguing that we shouldn't block out our inherent ability to be unhappy, then I agree with him. But if he is suggesting I should not seek to feel happy, then he is an asshat.
posted by MrBobaFett at 8:17 AM on January 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


This is bollocks. Some people need a little serotonin in their lives. There's nothing wrong with taking what's needed so you can get on with shit.

I would argue that, in most cases, SSRIs do far more good than harm, even to creative types.

I'd also appreciate it if we can keep this from getting too personal.
posted by chuckdarwin at 8:20 AM on January 17, 2008


Just wanted to point out- I don't know a single person who is just "unhappy" and taking medication for it. This bugaboo that Americans are like, "Oh, I dropped my sandwich. Better take some antidepressants!" is, at least in my experience, completely unfounded. In addition, my experience is pretty damn rosy in terms of socio-economic position- the aforementioned single-mom-in-trailer-park demographic probably is experiencing depression on a lot higher rate than the people I hang out with.
posted by 235w103 at 8:20 AM on January 17, 2008


Here's to Hunter and Spalding, two of my heroes who didn't let me down even in death.

Are you kidding me? You have no idea the "tunnel vision" that depression can produce in somebody who commits suicide. Hunter Thompson and Spalding Gray certainly weren't think of fanboys like you when they killed themselves. According to imdb, Gray was actually still working on new monologues when he killed himself, and I would have loved to have Hunter Thompson available to sum up the moral vulgarity of the final George W. Bush years, instead of depending on a pale substitute like Matt Taibbi.
posted by jonp72 at 8:38 AM on January 17, 2008


Here's what I want to know - before prozac and self-help books, what did people do?

Everyone who takes happy pills says that they do it out of necessity. They say they're depressed. And I'm sure some of them are truly depressed. However, I've found that depression is one of those things that people love to self-diagnose, just like bipolar disorder, ADD, and aspbergers. But this whole culture of therapy is kind of a new thing. What did people do with themselves before it was collectively decided that if you didn't measure up to some marketer's idea of "happiness," that you had a mental illness that needed to be treated with drugs?

My guess is that people lived richer, more rewarding lives. Or at very least muddled through, living their lives, doing more or less what they do now. I wonder what would have happened if they had paxil around during the time of Nikola Tesla. We'd probably all be using DC power.
posted by Afroblanco at 8:48 AM on January 17, 2008


You know what I would do at the height of my "melancholia"? Sleep with as many men as possible then go home and cut myself. Good times. And sadly, even some people in the throes of that kind of depression find it romantic, as if somehow it makes them deeper, more mysterious, even sexier.

Thank god for antidepressants.

I still cry when people die or a song or a movie or a book makes moves me. I haven't become an apathetic zombie.
posted by Evangeline at 8:49 AM on January 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


Here's what I want to know - before prozac and self-help books, what did people do?

They suffered.
posted by Evangeline at 8:51 AM on January 17, 2008


And I'm not saying that there aren't people who need these drugs. I'm just saying that they're *GROSSLY* over-prescribed. And, on the whole, I'm sick to shit of living in a culture that holds people to an unreasonable standard of "happiness" and "normalcy," and tells you if you don't live up to that, then you're sick and need to be on drugs.
posted by Afroblanco at 8:52 AM on January 17, 2008


Here's what I want to know - before prozac and self-help books, what did people do?

I imagine that most lived miserable lives of unending despair and then they died. My maternal great-grandfather was a mean son of bitch who beat his wife and kids. If he had been diagnosed with and treated for depression, maybe his abusiveness might not have poisoned that part of my family tree.

The Tesla thing is cute, but that's literally the first time I have ever seen a claim the use of anti-depressants can lead to the suppression of genius. Is there a shred of evidence in support of that to be found anywhere?
posted by psmealey at 8:54 AM on January 17, 2008


I imagine that most lived miserable lives of unending despair and then they died.

Are you willing to accept the possibility that maybe they suffered, and then learned from their experiences, and then moved on? Or that their suffering caused them to change their lives so that they were no longer so unhappy?

Once again, I'm not saying that these drugs are useless, just overprescribed. And I'm not just saying this about depression. I feel the same way about ADD, especially when it comes to children.

And Tesla had what would now be considered an absolutely scorching case of OCD. I think it's very logical to think that, had he not been as obsessed with his work, he would have acheived less. It's pretty hard to prove this, though, since we don't have an alternate-universe Tesla to compare with who was on prozac.
posted by Afroblanco at 9:00 AM on January 17, 2008


I'm sick to shit of living in a culture that holds people to an unreasonable standard of "happiness" and "normalcy," and tells you if you don't live up to that, then you're sick and need to be on drugs.

Welcome to the Eisenhower era, and here's a pitcher of martinis to help get you through the day. When was it not ever thus?
posted by psmealey at 9:01 AM on January 17, 2008


Are you willing to accept the possibility that maybe they suffered, and then learned from their experiences, and then moved on?

Of course that was true in some cases, but I have some doubts that the majority of people were able to simply suck it up and move on. The expression "leading lives of quiet desperation" comes to mind. What I do not have is a device that tells me that society, as a whole, is overprescribed, and if it is, what the overall effect of that might be. And neither do you.

I have personally faced down long and deep bouts of depression, but not once has anyone ever forced me to get on drugs to resolve it, and if people told me "don't worry be happy" when I was in such a state, I invariably told them to fuck off.
posted by psmealey at 9:08 AM on January 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


Btw, being obsessed with work <> OCD. I fail to see how his scientific breakthroughs were directly caused or inspired by whatever would be considered a mental illness today.
posted by psmealey at 9:11 AM on January 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


jonp72 writes "Think of all the great artists we have lost to suicide."

I can't picture HST taking Prozac or his writing benefiting by it. When he killed himself, those close to him didn't seem very surprised. He had sort of planned it this way for a long time, and I think he was always determined to carry it out once he no longer found his creative outlet working for him. I can't imagine him going out any other way. He may have well been happier and more balanced if he had been medicated from a young age, but I don't think we'd have gonzo journalism if he were. He probably would have continued to be a sports writer.
posted by krinklyfig at 9:12 AM on January 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


BTW, although Hunter definitely had problems, he didn't really kill himself in a fit of despair. This was a determined act that he had planned for a long time, not out of depression, but because he didn't want to wither away. He had told several people as much.
posted by krinklyfig at 9:16 AM on January 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


psmealy - you cannot deny that some of the most significant figures in human history have been people who could easily be considered "imbalanced"; people who, had they grown up in modern America, may have been put on medication for their "problems."

True, we cannot say that they would have acted differently had they been medicated, but I certainly think it's possible. There's a reason why "imbalanced" people wind up having such a disproportionate effect on human history. They have different drives than the rest of us. Why is it so hard to believe that, were you to make them more normal, they would live more "normal" lives and achieve at a more "normal" level?

(PS, I think I should duck out of this thread for a while. It's becoming a bit too back-and-forth, and I feel like I'm monopolizing the conversation. I'll be back a little later.)
posted by Afroblanco at 9:18 AM on January 17, 2008


also - HST didn't just kill himself because of depression. Apparently he had some pretty serious hip problems that caused him a lot of pain.
posted by Afroblanco at 9:19 AM on January 17, 2008


Are you willing to accept the possibility that maybe they suffered, and then learned from their experiences, and then moved on?

There is nothing to learn from recurring, debilitating and inexplicable sadness. If you don't need Prozac, or other SSRIs, and you take them anyway, my doctor-provided understanding is that they don't make you "happier."
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 9:26 AM on January 17, 2008


Afroblanco writes "also - HST didn't just kill himself because of depression. Apparently he had some pretty serious hip problems that caused him a lot of pain."

Yeah, that's true as well. He complained more about that than anything.
posted by krinklyfig at 9:26 AM on January 17, 2008


Of course that was true in some cases, but I have some doubts that the majority of people were able to simply suck it up and move on.

if you speak to people who were born in the 30s, 20s, and older - my parents' and grandparents' generations - they'll tell you that's what the majority did - "we just coped" - perhaps they're wrong, but we weren't around at the time, so it's hard for us to know

The expression "leading lives of quiet desperation" comes to mind.

i think the major change is that people aren't as quiet about it

What I do not have is a device that tells me that society, as a whole, is overprescribed, and if it is, what the overall effect of that might be.

all i have to do is observe the number of people who share their prescriptions with their unprescribed friends because they're having a "rough time"
posted by pyramid termite at 9:35 AM on January 17, 2008


all i have to do is observe the number of people who share their prescriptions with their unprescribed friends because they're having a "rough time"

Seriously, that happens? SSRIs mostly don't work unless you've been on them for a month or more, and as such, produce little if any effect in recreational users. And as someone else mentioned above, if you're not actually suffering from depression, they won't do anything for you at all. Now, if you're talking about ADD meds like Adderall, different deal... which is why it's classified as a schedule II substance, you can get into some trouble for dispensing or taking it for other than prescribed medical reasons.
posted by psmealey at 10:06 AM on January 17, 2008


Did anyone else experience an urge to get out a red pen and edit that first paragraph right on the screen?
Ours are ominous times. We are on the verge of eroding away our ozone layer. Within decades we could face major oceanic flooding. We are close to annihilating hundreds of exquisite animal species. Soon our forests will be as bland as pavement. Moreover, we now find ourselves on the verge of a new cold war.
Maybe if this English teacher wasn't spending so much time being wistful he could put a bit of energy in to tightening his composition. I'm seriously hard pressed to read anything which begins with, "Ours are ominous times." IZZAT SO, LAWD BYRON?

Anyway. I skimmed some of the more turgid sections, so maybe I missed something, but I'm not sure what people are objecting to.

I agree with the sentiment that the author is misdiagnosing this ubiquitous happiness among Americans--we are a deeply unfulfilled people, in my experience.

Hm. Funny, because I thought that's what he was getting at.
My fears grow out of my suspicion that the predominant form of American happiness breeds blandness.
The key there is "predominant form," I think. I don't read this as a celebration of sadness so much as an exhortation to stay awake to the full range of human emotion. That the current somnambulism is orbiting around the elimination of (the external trappings of) sadness seems to be why he chose, as a rhetorical device, to emphasize the benefits of melancholia.

In fact I think it's because we in the West mostly refuse to enter in to a healthy relationship with sadness (and death, and anger, and fear - as well as sex, and love, and happiness, but that's another discussion) that those who do enter it often end up getting lost, unable to find their way or be guided back, with disastrous results. This wasn't, as some of the comments suggested, a paean for depression at all - and the fact some readers assumed it must be just, to me, proves his point.

I read this as a eulogy for emotion, for patience, for presence - for the public life of both true sadness and true happiness.

Thanks for the post.
posted by regicide is good for you at 10:21 AM on January 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


I think what bothered me most about this article was that it brought back painful memories of Elizabeth Wurtzel's horrible 1994 book.
posted by psmealey at 10:35 AM on January 17, 2008


Let's see if I understand the central position of Mr Wilson in that article: some of us (hopefully the talented ones) should suffer so that our descendents who go into the arts or join book clubs will have something to talk about. Riiiight.

Maybe we could apply a test for artistic talent prior to providing psychiatric treatments. If you're a depressed plumber, here's a pill, no problemo. But if you have an artistic or expressive bent, you will be referred to a consultant with a postgraduate degree in Fine Arts who will gently explain to you how your suffering is a gift, a conveyance for your talents, and that treating your condition would be tantamount to depriving the world of your potential masterpiece. The sort of talk you'd get from a pro-life counselling service if you were seeking an abortion.

Let's expand on this: anyone who applies to a postgraduate course in Arts or Lit and made the cut, should be offered the chance to receive extra creative "stimulus"... like TB or hepatitis, or a lengthy unjust imprisonment or persecution, rejection from a loved one, poverty and/or squalour, and so forth. Think of the work they'd produce!!

Given the choice between TB and posthumous fame, or having fat babies with Fanny Brawne and seeing his grandchildren, I wonder what he'd choose...
posted by Artful Codger at 10:48 AM on January 17, 2008


Afroblanco:Here's what I want to know - before prozac and self-help books, what did people do?
I don't suppose it proves anything, but American alcohol-related deaths and sucides have been declining since the FDA approved Prozac. There are surely other factors in play, too, but it's hardly a stretch to credit anti-depressants and a modern clinical attitude toward depression with at least part of those reductions.

But I also think its hard to make really solid comparisons between today and, say, 1950. Today an awful lot of first-worlders live relatively isolated, sedentary lives in artificial environments, to a degree that scarcely would have been possible just a generation or so ago. I don't doubt that depression is over-diagnosed (and antidepressants over-prescribed) today, but I also don't find it too hard to believe that there is indeed more of it now than there has generally been.
posted by Western Infidels at 10:55 AM on January 17, 2008


[last sentence of my post above: "he" = Keats. Sorry]

There's plenty of genuine sadness in a normal life. I don't know of any pill that will lessen the loss of a parent, or another loved one. And so forth.
posted by Artful Codger at 10:56 AM on January 17, 2008


Seriously, that happens?

not so much with your basic depression meds, but with other drugs, sure - the point i'm making is that i'm aware of social circles where friends share prescribed medicines to "help" them with a bad day

whether that's wise is another story, of course - and whether something like xanax, for instance, really would work for a "bad" day, doesn't seem to enter into it - these people aren't doctors or pharmacists, and then there's always the placebo effect

i've even seen some pills ground up to be put into joints and smoked

never underestimate the variety and creativity of the underground drug culture
posted by pyramid termite at 11:02 AM on January 17, 2008


I don't think all the people who commit suicide from depression would "praise melancholy," other than that it was their one ticket out of an existence too painful to endure.

But I do agree with aspects of the article, only I can't say I'll ever expect the United States to embrace melancholy - not when one of the most vital tenets of the Declaration of Independence is "[The right] to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
posted by Lillitatiana at 11:16 AM on January 17, 2008


You're all right. Especially those of you who disagree with one another. The thing about melancholia and depression is that they are personal, individual beasts. Even within one person, there is too much variation over a lifetime to accurately describe them as being simply this kind of beast or that kind of beast. The truth is that sometimes adversity strengthens us and inspires us, teaches us. And sometimes it crushes us. I know people who would surely kill themselves without these drugs. I also know people who refuse to take them for fear they would lose their edge. I know people who take so many freaking medications to counter their other medications that they can hardly remember what they needed them for in the first place. That each of these things is true in no way negates the other experiences. The real danger here is in over generalizing, judging others, and taking the subject so personally that we become overly entrenched in defense of our own choices. Depression is a highly complex and individual experience. Assuming that there is any one best way to approach it trivializes the subject needlessly.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 11:34 AM on January 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


never underestimate the variety and creativity of the underground drug culture

I never encountered that until 2001 when my band (all early to mid 30s) took a chance and hired a 23 year old drummer. This guy was unbelievable. Xanax for this, Prozac for that, Adderall for the other thing, recreational Viagra, Cipro on demand when anthrax scare broke out, Vicodine, Oxycodone, etc. He made us, who all indulged in ecstasy, psilocybin and LSD back in our own day, look like drug prudes. It was definitely an eye opener.
posted by psmealey at 11:36 AM on January 17, 2008


Here's to Hunter and Spalding, two of my heroes who didn't let me down even in death. An example for brave men everywhere.

Christ, what romantic, selfish bullshit. I won't comment on Thompson, as I know less of his circumstances, but Gray was in a very bad car accident in 2001, suffering a broken hip and a serious skull fracture, which led to severe depression and personality changes. He tried therapy and multiple anti-depressants, and was in a lot of pain, physical and emotional, and his suicide, after several attempts, was the result of this pain and confusion, leaving behind a family with young children, and you think he killed himself for his art? I'd label you sociopathic for your reductive view of other people, if I had any more warrant to do so, but instead I'll just call you selfish and ignorant. So take your bullshit lionization and suicide fetish and stick it up your ass.
posted by Snyder at 1:33 PM on January 17, 2008 [1 favorite]



What I don't get in these people who romanticize melancholia is how you think about death all the time and it somehow makes life deeper. All it does for me is make me want to curl up in a ball and not think. I am far more creative when hypomanic than when depressed.

What I also don't get is how you can prescribe melancholia for other people-- it's a middle class affectation. Most people have too much pain, not too little.

And what did people do before Prozac? Lots of opium, for one, and lots of alcohol and yeah, lots of taking your irritation out on others. Opioids are actually very effective antidepressants for some people-- but we demonize them.

The "good" drug/ "bad" drug thing is deeply problematic. I don't care if you take Prozac or heroin as long as it helps you rather than harms you.

Confusing addiction and dependence leads to all manner of idiotic policies that hurt people in pain and do nothing to help addiction.

It's not what drugs you take or don't take or what you feel or don't feel-- it's whether you live a humane and productive life. And happily, being humane and productive tends to produce genuine happiness.
posted by Maias at 2:11 PM on January 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


Besides, Batman wasn't happy. Who wants a happy Batman?

Well.....
posted by lumpenprole at 2:22 PM on January 17, 2008


Besides, Batman wasn't happy. Who wants a happy Batman?

Well.....


Also...

Yeah, just try not to smile.
posted by lekvar at 3:06 PM on January 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


Funnily enough, today I was looking up US state rankings in terms of mental health. Who are the happiest people in the United States? You might be surprised to find out. Who woulda thunk it?
posted by msali at 4:02 PM on January 17, 2008


I am not surprised at Hawaii being number two, but South Dakota as number one and New Jersey way up there?

And I'm *definitely* not surprised that Utah is dead last ;-)
posted by Maias at 5:02 PM on January 17, 2008


Melancholia I was painted (or was it engraved?) by Albrecht Durer.
posted by proj08 at 5:22 PM on January 17, 2008


Why am I not surprised that he is Hungarian?

Apparently, the Hungarians and the Finns have long had world-record breaking rates of depression and they are both descended from the same original group of people-- they split at some point and some wound up in Hungary, the others in Finland. This is why there are language similarities and perhaps a similar genetic susceptibility to depression.

I am half-Hungarian myself-- there is also apparently a propensity to mathematical ability and I've long wondered if there's any connection between the two...
posted by Maias at 11:35 AM on January 18, 2008


they split at some point and some wound up in Hungary, the others in Finland, and the rest in Estonia.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:16 PM on January 20, 2008


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