Jonah Lehrer’s essay “Depression’s Upside” in the Feb. 28, 2010 New York Times Magazine raises many important questions about depression, and what, if anything, we can “learn” from suffering a bout of serious depression. Alas, the article obscures almost as much as it illuminates, and I fear that its net effect may be to perpetuate what I call “The Myth of Depression’s Upside.”
But first, let’s be clear: a “myth” is not the same thing as a lie. A myth is a transgenerational story we tell ourselves, which often has a grain of truth to it, and which usually serves some unifying function in our culture. It is a myth that George Washington threw a silver dollar across the Potomac River — there were no silver dollars at the time — but the story usefully reminds us, across many generations, that our first President was a powerful man capable of great accomplishments. No lie in that!
So, too, we have the myth of depression as a “clarifying force,” or as an “adaptive response to affliction” — notions being advanced by a number of psychologists, psychiatrists, and sociologists. Thus, Lehrer quotes psychiatrist Andy Thomson as saying, “…even if you are depressed for a few months, the depression might be worth it if it helps you better understand social relationships… Maybe you realize you need to be less rigid or more loving. Those are insights that can come out of depression, and they can be very valuable.”