Some thoughts on Jonah Lehrer’s article from The New York Times Magazine, February 25, 2010.
In his article on the possible evolutionary purpose of sadness, Jonah Lehrer, a talented writer and knowledgeable scientists confuses an adaptive mechanism –the capacity for greater focus that the rumination of depression may afford – with a therapeutic one. Even more important, he does not address the causes of depression and, in accordance with his emphasis on enhanced problem solving, limits his discussion of therapeutic efforts to cognitive change.
Work with many hundreds of depressed people in my psychiatric practice and tens of thousands more in war, post-war and disaster situations around the world gives me a very different perspective and leads me to different conclusions. So many of us are depressed because we are living at variance with both our genetic programming and our need for meaning and purpose. We are affected so dramatically by losses of relationships, jobs, etc. because we are not sustained by the adequate social support that is a hallmark of traditional societies. We are subject to an unprecedented level of stress and overstimulation in our environment, to toxic food, and sedentary ways of living that are anathema to our evolutionary development and detrimental to our mood. Many of us lack a sense of purpose in our lives, a connection to something greater than ourselves that gives human life meaning, and can give us hope in difficult times.
The symptoms of depression – both the rumination on what went wrong and why that Lehrer focuses on, and the lethargy, hopelessness, decreased interest in sex and food that go along with it – are best understood and responded to not as an evolutionary advantage but as a wake-up call. They let us know that it is time to address the conditions that are creating the imbalances in our lives; to use food and exercise, meditation and imagination to improve our biology and enlarge our perspective, and to reach out to others—therapists, clergy, family and friends—who can help us. The true purpose and challenge of our depression is to wake us up to what is wrong in the way we live, to point us toward ways to become more fully human.