I recently read this from Thomas Armstrong’s Neurodiversity: Discovering the extraordinary gifts of Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, and Other Brain Differences (pg. 100, 105-7). Admittedly there is some risk of justifying a depressed outlook (Armstrong is a self-described depressive); yet most of what he writes agrees with my own experience.
“Among the Coast Salish group of Native Americans in British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon, according to anthropologist Terry O Nell, 75 percent of the community identified themselves as being depressed. However, they had integrated the experience of depression into their own self-identity as a people. Writing about the Salish, anthropologist Richard Grinker notes, ‘The way to deal with the depression, the Salish people believe, is by transforming one’s sadness into compassion for others. It doesn’t get rid of the depression, but it does make the depressed individuals more useful members of their families and communities. The Salish think that depressed people—that is, the most “real Indians”—are the best guides for their community.’ Similarly, anthropologist Gananeth Obeyesekere suggests that the Buddhists of Sri Lanka see symptoms of hopelessness, meaninglessness, and sorrow as part of a recognized philosophy of life, not as a disorder.
“Research actually supports the idea that people who are depressed see the world more realistically than those who are not depressed. Psychologists have recruited groups of mildly depressed and nondepressed individuals and sat them in front of a light bulb and a button. When the subject pressed the button, the light bulb either came on or did not. In truth, the button didn’t control the light bulb at all, but individuals in the nondepressed group were more likely to think they were in charge of events and had control over the lighting of the bulb, while those in the depressed group were more realistic in their evaluation of events.
“Depressed people, although sadder, appear to be wiser than nondepressed individuals. . . . As Jungian psychologist James Hillman points out, ‘Sometimes I think there’s an underlying depression in the culture. . . . It makes me think that if you’re not depressed, you’re abnormal because the soul knows about the trees that are destroyed, the buildings that are destroyed, the ugliness that is spreading, the chaos of the culture in many ways . . . and somehow if you’re not in mourning for what’s going on in the world, you’re cut off from the soul of the world. So in that sense I would think an underlying depression is a kind of adaptation to the reality of the world.’ . . . Hillman is suggesting here that the conditions of today’s world should evoke perhaps a sense of mournful empathy and that depression in our times cannot be untangled from the atrocities that occur in the name of civilization.
“Emely Gut states, ‘In a competitive, industrial, technocratic, and combative society as ours, it is an unacceptable thought that the depressed affect causing us to slow down and withdraw into ourselves could be useful and necessary to our personal development and to our adaptation to change. In business and industry, in military service, and in public education, where human activity is conducted in keeping with rigid time schedules, only physical disability is—grudgingly—tolerated as an excuse for deserting one’s desk, one’s machine, or one’s platoon during working hours.’
“The experience of depression, then, could represent a certain kind of revolt against core American values, a protest against as busy society, where the individual is bargaining for some time off to look at life and its complex problems and find a way to cope with it all. There is research from the field of evolutionary psychology indicating that this may be why depression evolved in the first place. Evolutionary psychologists suggest that depression may have initially developed as a way of dealing with extraordinary levels of goal frustration: an inability to hunt, difficulty in obtaining the mate of one’s choice, insufficient help with child care, or other prehistoric tasks. Depression served, first of all, to put the brakes on so that some time could be given to searching out possible solutions (this may be the function of rumination in depression). In some cases, unrealistic goals needed to be abandoned.”