Depression is an odd thing. It is one of the most debilitating ‘diseases’ that mostly goes unseen.
A depressed person can appear normal and even someone in a severe depressive state can hide how bad it is. This is why suicides can surprise so many people, sometimes as if it came out of nowhere. Some depressives can hide their depression from their own awareness, burying themselves in work or distracting themselves with addiction.
It is also one of the least sexy of the mental illnesses. It’s not as fascinating as schizophrenia or multiple personal disorder. It only reaches the level of melodrama if depression is of the bipolar variety. But unipolar depression is actually rather boring. The only time it becomes romanticized is in the writings of famous authors, especially if they are alcoholics who kill themselves.
As for normal people, depression is more likely to increase one’s invisibility, because the depressive withdraws from the world, sometimes to the point of becoming unemployed or even homeless. The depressive, when pushed to the extreme, can become an isolated non-entity. The depressive rarely commits suicide in direct fashion (surprisingly difficult to achieve), instead preferring to slowly kill themselves through lack of taking care of their own basic needs. Sustaining bodily existence isn’t always a central concern for the severe depressive, whether or not they commit self-harm.
Still, for someone familiar with depression, there are some aspects of it that fascinate. The withdrawl from the world isn’t just social but also psychological. Experience loses meaning and emotion. The world can feel empty and lifeless. The sense of self shrinks, sometimes to the point of disappearing. At the lowest of low points, depression swallows the person whole. It can be a truly stark state of mind, everything cut down to its minimal essence, even the voice in one’s head gone silent and no outside voice able to reach into that silence.
As one person described it, “Because I had no self. No safe space inside. Just despair.” The self ultimately can’t function in isolation, as relationship is the lifeblood of our humanity. It is utter alienation, disconnection between self and other, and so disconnection within the self, an implosion of one’s existence: “Alienation—feelings of estrangement from some aspect of a person’s existence (nature, others, and self)—results in loneliness, emptiness, and despair and is the antithesis of Heidegger’s being-in-the-world.” One then inhabits a dead world.
This seems the opposite of something like schizophrenia. In schizophrenia there is a conflation of or blurring between self and world. Rather than loss of meaning, there is an explosion of meaning. Voices don’t stay contained to self or other. It’s true that schizophrenics can experience depressive symptoms. But I suspect it it is a far different kind of experience. Interestingly, treating schizophrenia can lead to depressive-like symptoms as side effects:
“Also, the antipsychotic medications used to treat schizophrenia may produce side effects which are very similar to depressive symptoms. These side effects may include limited spontaneity in the person’s speech and movements, restlessness, and a negative mood.”
This is what fascinates me, anyway. I don’t know schizophrenia on a personal level. But I do know depression. The problem of depression is the opposite of not knowing how to differentiate the real from the imaginary—the mundane reality feeling all too real to the point of being stifling, a sense of unavoidable and irresolvable actuality, just is. If anything, imagination gets shut down or submerged into the background. Some have argued that this is depressive realism, most specifically in terms of self-awareness and self-assessment, what is and has been, although the evidence is mixed. Even an optimism proponent like Martin Seligman, in The Optimistic Child (p. 296), discussed the merits of pessimism:
Supporting evidence for depressive realism can flooding in: Depressed people are accurate judges of how much skill they have, whereas non-depressed people think they are more skilful than others think them to be (80% of American men think they are in the top half of social skills). Non-depressed people remember more good events than actually happened and forget more of the bad events. Depressed people are accurate about both. Non-depressed people are lopsided about their beliefs about success and failure: if rewards occur – they claim the credit, the rewards will last and they’re good at everything; but if it was a failure, you did it to them, it’s going away quickly, and it was just this one little thing. Depressed people are even handed about success and failure.
The unipolar depressive has fewer extremes of emotional affect (i.e., emotional numbing and flattening) and so maybe fewer other extremes as well, which could express as ‘moderate’ (i.e., emotionally detached) views and opinions, the unipolar depressive simply not getting all that excited about and emotionally invested in externalities, a pervasive disinterest and indifference. This may have something to do with why political moderates are less happy than political extremists, the latter tending toward partisanship and dogmatism (the loyal followers and true believers). In turn, this might be why liberals are less happy than conservatives, as liberalism (specifically as liberal-mindedness) predisposes one to questioning the status quo, doubting social norms, challenging authority, and pushing boundaries.
In a world dominated by a status quo of extremists (extreme in attitude and demagoguery, not in breadth of political spectrum), the moderate liberal will be the least happy person around. Or is it the least happy will simply turn to moderate and liberal views, not out of ideological principle but just basic psychological bias? Either way, when extremists are in power, moderation becomes a radical act and so moderate in that case doesn’t mean centrist and mainstream. The problem, as always, is the loudmouthed and sometimes violent extremists get all the attention, and they are more zealously motivated to take power and enforce social norms. The moderate too often remains silent or is silenced, because to speak out is to become a target of extremists and those who will openly support moderation and defend moderates are unfortunately too few.
In this context, there is an insightful commentary about depression and autism, in the context of nerd identity:
“Communal belief – social reality – and the sacrednesses that it produces are precisely the powerful layers of distortion that we are likely to notice (and hence have a chance at seeing through). We are less able than normal humans to perceive social/sacredness reality in the first place, and to make matters worse, we are addicted to the insight rewards that come from trying to see through it even further. Autism is overrepresented in our community; depression, too. Autism is associated with a reduced ability to model other brains in the normal, social way; this failure carries even into modeling the mind of God, as autism is inversely linked to belief in God. The autistic person is more likely than the neurotypical to notice that social reality exists; we might say the autistic person gets a lucid dreaming reality check for the great social dream with every inscrutable (to him) human action he witnesses.
“Mild depression removes pleasurable feelings from everyday life; it interferes with a mechanism for sacredness-maintenance distinct from the theory of mind path autism blocks. Meaning is deconstructed in depression; social connection is weakened. Ideas and things that for normal individuals glow with significance appear to the depressed person as empty husks. The deceptive power of social and sacredness illusions is weakened for the depressed person (as are certain other healthy illusions, such as the illusion of control). This is not necessarily a victory for him, as self-deception is strongly related to happiness; the consolation of insight may not make up for the loss of sacredness in terms of individual happiness. The characteristic that distinguishes us is not necessarily a good thing. Our overdeveloped, grotesque insight reward seeking is likely maladaptive, and is probably not even doing our individual selves any good. Extremists – those most capable of perceiving social/sacred reality – are happiest.”
This relates to defensive pessimism. It isn’t just about an attitude but also behavior. Depending on the task and context, defensive pessimists can be as or more effective than strategic optimists. But it is true that optimists will be more successful specifically in fields where selling oneself is a priority to success. A pessimist will be honest and accurate in their self-appraisal, not always a recipe for success in a Social Darwinian (pseudo-)meritocracy.
As such, optimists are better able to make positive change from within the system. They have a less antagonistic relationship to the status quo and to the ruling authorities that maintain the status quo. They look on the bright side of the way things are, looking for opportunities to exploit rather than fundamental problems to explore. So, they are more likely to be successful in socially acceptable ways. They’re less likely to rock the boat.
Major changes that challenge the entire social order and dominant paradigm, however, would require a different kind of mindset. That is where depressive realism might have the advantage. Many radical and revolutionary thinkers were highly critical and often antagonistic. They saw what was wrong with the present, which motivated them to imagine alternatives.
This could explain someone like Thomas Paine—he came to be hated by so many, even as he was proven correct in his visions and fears of the fate of the United States. His critical attitude was too demanding and uncompromising. He cut right through the bullshit and so had a way of making many people feel uncomfortable and irritated. In common parlance, he was an asshole with a sharp tongue.
Nothing ever seemed to quite work out for Paine in his personal life, with much unhappiness from early on and into his old age, a failure by mainstream accounts. He was profoundly dissatisfied with the way the world was. This is what fueled his outrage and made him a visionary, not a mere optimist. But, oddly, I don’t think he ever wanted to be a radical—like John Dickinson who also was Quaker raised, Paine spent his life trying to moderate a world of destabilizing and often horrific extremes. Such moderation is rarely taken kindly and, by both extremes, is seen as extreme. Religious and atheists, reactionary right and Jacobin left— they all attacked him with equal fervor.
Depressive realism can shut down imagination. But not always. Sometimes depression opens up the vista of imagination by forcing one to question hidden biases and assumptions. It forces one to stand back, which allows the opportunity to see a greater view. Seeing reality in the present more clearly can lead one to see reality in entirely new ways.
Seeking the first kind of change will tend toward happiness. The second kind less likely so. But there is more to life than happiness.