Embracing the Blues

The single-minded pursuit of happiness is blocking true bliss

| May - June 2008

  • Melancholy

    image by Sara Tyson

  • Melancholy

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.”