Embracing the Blues

The single-minded pursuit of happiness is blocking true bliss

Melancholy

image by Sara Tyson

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As recently as 50 years ago, Americans considered sadness a normal response to social circumstances: I am sad because something in the world is not right. The emotion was appreciated for its transformative quality. It could inspire resolve, help people patch up their lives, help them correct wrongs, and, in some cases, promote greater connection and community.

Today, for every tear shed there seems to be a self-help book enshrining our unalienable right to happiness. Doctors prescribe ever more antidepressants. We take ever more antidepressants. Then we argue hotly over whether society really is more depressed and why. Somewhere along the line we forgot that it’s the pursuit of and not the prize to which we’re entitled.

In Against Happiness (Sarah Crichton Books, 2008), Eric Wilson, an English professor at Wake Forest University, rails against America’s recent obsession with gladness and warns that, as scientists decode its origins and develop more drugs to maintain it, we’re at risk of annihilating melancholia. And he’d be sad to see it go.

In an excerpt from the book recently published by the Chronicle of Higher Education (Jan. 18, 2008), he argues that the definition of clinical depression has become so bloated that society is convinced the symptoms of normal sadness now represent psychological malfunction.

In The Loss of Sadness (Oxford University Press, 2007), behavioral researchers Allan V. Horwitz and Jerome C. Wakefield track the development of a diagnostic checklist for major depressive disorder (a.k.a. depression) in psychiatry’s bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In their effort to pin down symptoms of the condition, the manual writers produced a list that understandably includes things that also signal nonclinical sadness, such as “feels sad” or “appears tearful.” The problem, say Horwitz and Wakefield, is that the manual inadvertently pathologizes these symptoms, tucking run-of-the-mill blues under the umbrella of a disorder that requires medical intervention.

Consider, for instance, a patient who—just a few weeks after losing a family member—is experiencing apathy and a loss of appetite. These emotions could indicate depression, but they could just as easily be part of a natural grieving process. In the New Republic (Feb. 27, 2008), psychiatrist Sally Satel writes that now is the time to heed Horwitz and Wakefield’s “demand that we avoid pathologizing normal reactions to the vicissitudes of life. Normal reactions to timeless human heartache are not the same as mental disorders.”

These writers all take care not to conflate sadness with genuine depression, or otherwise trivialize major depressive disorder. They agree that people who are experiencing depression should seek treatment, as should those who are, as Satel puts it, “intensely sad” and want professional help. It’s just that with nonclinical sadness, there’s often a good reason for the season.

After a great loss or a profound disappointment, or when general dissatisfaction with life summons the blues, sadness serves as a powerful signal that something needs to change; it helps crystallize and prioritize a person’s values. It’s a true compass to what someone values the most—or valued, if that person, place, thing, or idea is no longer. To stop sadness from running its natural course is to avoid confronting its true origin, which could lead to even more misery down the road. Wilson even argues that melancholy inspires great art, although that seems the least pragmatic of reasons to embrace the mood.

Sadness doesn’t only prompt us to recognize that something has gone awry in our world; it helps the world recognize that there’s something going wrong inside of us. In this way, according to Horwitz and Wakefield, this time appearing in Greater Good magazine (Winter 2007–08), unhappiness serves an evolutionary purpose. Playing the blues can temper our enemies’ aggression, saving us from getting kicked when we’re down. And tears send a clear signal to others that we need help.

Conversely, treating legitimate sorrow as an aberration, or a weakness, leads to feelings of shame. It becomes something to hide away until it can be dealt with in private. In those cases, not only do we miss our chance to learn from the blues, we also prevent people from helping us. And that may be the greatest loss of all.