It is in our nature to seek pleasure and avoid suffering. The worlds of mental health and spirituality converge around this desire: for a life which brings peace, passion, and meaningful work. Depression is painful and sometimes dangerous, and so we try to banish it, and replenish ourselves with something better. Happiness, we call it. Any problem with that?
Some recent cross-cultural research on emotion has asked a strange and provocative question. Does happiness cancel depression? Psychologist Janxin Leu, at the University of Washington, has found that it depends on your culture: European Americans say yes. Asians say no. For Asians, the study found surprisingly little connection between intense positive feelings, and reduced symptoms of depression. Dr Leu explores how Buddhist teachings shape the Asian psyche. Yin and yang are forever entwined, and happiness always contains the seeds of suffering, just as suffering contains the seeds of happiness. Asians expect a little suffering in the midst of happiness. If you resist, expecting that therapy, or medicine, or that special someone, will end your depression for good because you’re happy now, your suffering will eventually be worse. Leu’s research is reported in Medill Reports on April 28, in a piece called The Buddha factor: positive thinking not so powerful, and in Time Magazine on May 4, in an article called Why Happiness Isn’t Always Good. Both pieces offer an oversimplified explanation of a recent movement in American mental health called “positive psychology,” which focuses on enhancing the emotions that lead to thriving, creativity and personal satisfaction, to supplement the work of healing depression. Neither Prozac nor embracing hope can offer immunity from pain. But instead of a failure or a cosmic torment, perhaps that is a strange gift.
We yearn for peace, and yet our life journey will take us at some point through disappointment and loss. If suffering comes to us all, then what kind of healing response can offer nurture and comfort, without numbing us to personal transformation? The eastern practice of mindfulness meditation supports us in letting go of what we cannot hold onto, and attachments that keep us stuck; it encourages gentle attentiveness to whatever comes, neither hiding nor clinging. Even moments of depression may have something to show us about ourselves, that we would have otherwise overlooked. Interestingly, this view is echoed within western psychology as well. Thomas Moore, a Jungian therapist, in his book Care of the Soul (1994) includes a chapter called Gifts of Depression. Depression, without question, requires healing; but he invites us to experience our sadness first, before we pathologize it, and whisk it away. Moore points out that depression gives us a sense of having lived through something difficult, and that awareness gives us strength. He thinks that depression is the process of natural weathering of life that makes us deeper and more thoughtful as we age, if we do not assume that every day is supposed to be fun. Therapy was never meant to be a polyurethane coating against life’s adversities.
Perhaps the seeds of adversity within our moments of hope and gratitude, keep us from settling for easy answers. If we blot out all traces of depression, we can overlook the whispered invitation to seek our deepest selves, the people we are becoming. The art is in the balance: just enough depression. As much joy as possible.