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Cracking the Depression Code

Cracking the Depression Code

An Excerpt from Rethinking Depression by Eric Maisel

An American Lady butterfly against a cloud-fil...

Why is it that so many lottery winners, after a brief period of euphoria, become unhappier than they were before winning the lottery? This happens because there is no lottery to win with regard to life. If you were an alcoholic before you won the lottery, you are still an alcoholic — albeit with a better-stocked liquor cabinet. If you were a cranky, critical, angry young man with a hefty sense of grandiosity and no willingness to do any real work, you are still that narcissist — probably even more so. If you wanted to create symphonies, occasionally tried, but invariably bored yourself with your efforts, you could now hire a symphony orchestra to play your music — and bore a concert hall full of people. Where is the change or improvement in any of that? 

This is what many lottery winners experience. If you weren’t living an authentic life before you won the lottery, an influx of money will provide you with the perfect opportunity to live just as inauthentically, or even more inauthentically. If you haven’t created yourself in your own best image, if you haven’t demanded of yourself that you strive to understand what matters to you, if you haven’t aligned your thoughts and behaviors with your intentions, an influx of money is just an opportunity to further refrain from stepping up to the plate.

So is a regimen of antidepressants. Even if you believe that there is a “mental disorder” called “depression” and that certain treatments work to minimize it or “cure” it, you must agree that you will not have cured life once you have cured your depression. You might cure your depression and still not be able to conjure up a single reason to go to the office, your paycheck excepted, or a way to reconcile your mate’s protestations of loyalty with his affairs. Don’t your human challenges remain, even if you have cured your depression? And mustn’t you dream up solutions
for them?

Human beings experience unhappiness. The typical person experiences unhappiness not only for all the usual reasons — that his teeth sometimes ache, that his job is relentlessly stressful, that his family life is no white-picket-fence heaven, and so on — but also because, as a modern person, he can’t maintain the illusion that his place in the universe is particularly exalted. His life produces unhappiness, and his understanding of his place in the universe produces its own poignant unhappiness.

The former he is taught to call “depression,” and the latter, if he knows the lingo, he calls “existential depression.” Society’s widespread willingness to believe that the “mental disorder of depression” exists produces a new set of expectations. People have come to believe that unhappiness is an aberration and that if they are experiencing it they have somehow “caught something” almost embarrassing to catch, like an STD. Who should be unhappy nowadays, what with malls and television? So, rather than admit that they are unhappy, they opt to treat their feelings like a disease. This enormously pleases Big Doctor, who welcomes each “depressive” with open arms.

Big Doctor and his ideas are everywhere, providing tremendous cover for inauthenticity. David Karp argues in Speaking of Sadness: “A necessary condition for widespread depressive illness is a culturally induced readiness to view emotional pain as a disease requiring medical intervention. The grounds for interpreting pain as an abnormal medical condition have been largely established through the increasing incursion of medical and other therapeutic experts into literally every aspect of our lives.” Their fellow doctors, loath to rock the boat and point a finger, provide cover for their mental health brethren — they attend the same banquets, travel on the same junkets, and lend their moral support to the medicalization of sadness.

This new belief that life shouldn’t hurt, a belief fostered by Big Doctor at every turn, is very strange. It is very strange that, having been sexually molested as a child, you should somehow believe that you will not experience that harm as hurtful, injurious, even ruinous. Shame a child, scare a child, belittle a child, dismiss a child, lie to a child, and what do you imagine you will produce? Happiness? It is as if we have come to be surprised by our feelings of unhappiness, so surprised that we involuntarily exclaim, “Wow, something must be going on. This isn’t natural.”

Nothing could be more natural. What sort of creature do we think we are? A kind of wishful thinking has washed over the developed world that life has become simple and settled. Aside from the occasional economic downturn, natural disaster, and unfortunate “disorder,” modern life is like a good supermarket: abundant, orderly, unblemished, and brought to you with a smile. Your child would be as happy as a clam if only it weren’t for her pesky attention deficit disorder and childhood depression. Your mother would be a happy old lady if only she didn’t suffer from “nursing home syndrome” and “seasonal affective disorder.” If only we could shed the rough coat of this or that disorder, this new story goes, we would find ourselves wearing silk pajamas.

This is a false view of life. Life is a project. The moment they are born people are dropped into a world that makes many demands and certain allowances. Either you equip yourself to deal with human unhappiness and the rigors of living, or you will find yourself dealing with them in ways that make you even unhappier. One excellent way to deal with your life-as-project is the way that I’ve been describing: by following an existential program that focuses on your ability to create the psychological experience of meaning. If you happen not to like my program, create your own. It won’t suffice to do nothing.

Eric Maisel, PhD, is a licensed psychotherapist and the author of Rethinking Depression and numerous other titles including Mastering Creative Anxiety, Brainstorm, Coaching the Artist Within, and A Writer’s San Francisco. He blogs for Psychology Today and the Huffington Post and writes for Professional Artist Magazine. Visit him online at

Excerpted from the book Rethinking Depression ©2012 by Eric Maisel. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA.

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