A Talk with Eric Maisel about Rethinking Depression
By Eric Maisel
The first section of your book focuses on debunking depression as a “mental illness,” which is not to say that sadness and unhappiness cannot be debilitating. Can you briefly describe the main thrust of your argument?
What I hope to demonstrate is that there is something profoundly wrong with the way we name and treat certain human phenomena. When we call something a “mental disease” or a “mental disorder” we imply a great deal about its origins, its treatment, its intractability, and its locus of control. The mental health industry has its reasons for calling life’s challenges “disorders,” but we have few good reasons to collude with them. I ask that readers who do feel depressed seek help. I hope that this book aids people in understanding what help to ask for from professionals and what help we should realize they can’t possibly offer us.
If there is no “mental disorder of depression,” why are millions of people convinced that “depression” exists?
As soon as you employ the interesting linguistic tactic of calling every unwanted aspect of life abnormal, you are on the road to pathologizing everyday life. By making every unwanted experience a piece of pathology, it becomes possible to knit together disorders that have the look but not the reality of medical illness. This is what has happened in our “medicalize everything” culture. In fact, the word depression has virtually replaced unhappiness in our internal vocabularies. We feel sad but we call ourselves depressed. Having unconsciously made this linguistic switch, when we look for help we naturally turn to a “depression expert.” We look to a pill, a therapist, a social worker, or a pastoral counselor — even if we’re sad because we’re having trouble paying the bills, because our career is not taking off, or because our relationship is on the skids. That is, even if our sadness is rooted in our circumstances, social forces cause us to name that sadness “depression” and to look for “help with our depression.” People have been trained to call their sadness “depression” by the many forces acting upon them, from the mental health industry to mass culture to advertising.
If there is no “mental disorder of depression” but only human sadness mislabeled as “depression,” what are your thoughts about antidepressants and psychotherapy?
Chemicals have effects and they can alter a human being’s experience of life. Chemicals can affect how your mind works. Chemicals can affect how you sleep. Chemicals can alter your moods. That a chemical called an antidepressant can change your mood in no way constitutes proof that you have a mental disorder called depression. All that it proves is that chemicals can have an effect on mood. There is a fundamental difference between taking a drug because it is the appropriate treatment for a medical illness and taking a drug because it can have an effect. This core distinction is regularly obscured in the world of treating depression. Psychotherapy, too, can help remediate sadness for the simple reason that talking about your problems can help reduce your experience of distress. Psychotherapy works, when it works, because the right kind of talk can help reduce a person’s experience of unhappiness. To put it simply, chemicals have effects and you may want those effects; talk can help and you may want that help. Antidepressants and psychotherapy can help not because they are the “treatment for the mental disorder of depression” but because chemical have effects and talk can help.
Why is recognizing the role of unhappiness in our lives an important feature of “rethinking depression”?
To acknowledge the reality of unhappiness is not to assert the centrality of unhappiness. In fact, it is just the opposite. By taking the common human experience of unhappiness out of the shadows and acknowledging its existence, we begin to reduce its power. At first it is nothing but painful to say, “I am profoundly unhappy.” The words cut to the quick. They seem to come with a life sentence and allow no room for anything sweet or hopeful. But the gloom can lift. It may lift of its own accord — or it may lift because you have a strong existential program in place whereby you pay more attention to your intentions than to your mood. One decision that an existentially aware person makes is to focus on making meaning rather than on monitoring moods.
What does your Existential Program offer people who are hoping to shed the mental illness label of depression?
I ask that people take as much control as possible of their thoughts, their attitudes, their moods, their behaviors, and their very orientation toward life and turn their innate freedom into a virtue and a blessing. Even if people decide to take antidepressants or engage in psychotherapy to get help with their unhappiness, they will still have to find ways of dealing with their meaning needs, the shadows of their personality, their consciousness of mortality, and the facts of existence. This book offers guidance in all of those areas.
How does following your Existential Program make it possible for people to take control of their lives?
Living authentically means organizing your life around your answers to three fundamental questions. The first is, “What matters to you?” The second is, “Are your thoughts aligned with what matters to you?” The third is, “Are your behaviors aligned with what matters to you?” You begin by removing the protective blinders that human beings put in place to avoid noticing the many painful facts of existence, including painful facts about their personality shortfalls. You decide to understand “what meaning means” to you so that you can proceed to lead your life in ways that feel personally meaningful. You choose to take responsibility for your thoughts and your actions and to lead life instrumentally. You accept and embrace the fact that you are the final arbiter of your life’s meaning. With this approach to life, each day is a project requiring existential engineering skills as you bridge your way from one meaningful experience to the next. By accepting the realities of life and by asserting that you are the sole arbiter of the meaning in your life, you provide yourself sure footing as you actively make meaning.
So much of what you propose is dependent on people accepting responsibility for their own life’s meaning. How does one arrive at such a definition?
Nothing is more important than meaning, and nothing is so little investigated. I encourage people to understand and embrace the fact that meaning — what we value, how we construe our life purposes, what we make of the facts of existence — is a completely subjective affair. Not only is meaning subjective; meanings are bound to shift and change. Once we accept this view, meaning is always available to us. It is waiting for us. All we need to do is think and act in ways that tease it out of its latency. What we are teasing out is a certain psychological experience. Things do not have meaning; human beings experience meaning. Some activities, such as service, ethical action, and self-actualization, and some states of being, such as contentment, appreciation, and intimacy, are regularly experienced as meaningful. A list of these meaning opportunities make for an excellent “meaning menu” to peruse as we decide where we want invest our human capital. But they are not intrinsically meaningful. They are only meaningful when they are experienced as meaningful.
Once people have accepted responsibility for creating their own meaning, can they then also allow themselves “meaning vacations?”
Yes! Meaning is subjective; it shifts and changes. Another of its singular features is that it isn’t always needed! This is a wonderful fact of human existence. We do not need the psychological experience of meaningfulness all the time. Meaning is a necessity, but in the way that we need water and not in the way that we need oxygen. We need oxygen all the time, but we can store water and do not need to drink it every split second. We can go for hours without drinking and not experience a “hydration deficit.” Meaning is like that: we can follow a meaningful experience with a meaning vacation and not suffer any existential distress. It is a mental mistake, one of the most unfortunate ones that we can make, to believe that we need meaning all the time. If we do, then we’ll pine for it when it’s absent and feel as if life is a cheat. Over time, this pining is bound to turn into chronic unhappiness.
How does being one’s own meaning-maker affect how one approaches important decisions about life?
You weigh your actions against a vision you have of the person you would like to be, the person it would make you proudest to be; you take action; you learn from your experience to what extent you guessed right; and you make use of what you’ve learned as you weigh your next decision. We can give this a shorthand name: the principle of personal pride. We use the principle of personal pride to make our meaning. This may be the beautiful, imperfect, harrowing way — the way of making meaning.
You devote a chapter filled with exercises that highlight the perplexing nature of living a value-based life. What are you most hoping we will come to understand from your discussion of values?
First, that it is no straightforward matter knowing what to value! One sort of answer is the following: we coordinate our wants, needs, and values by holding to a life-purpose vision. That vision, arising from the conclusions we draw about life, becomes a reminder that every want, need, and value is up for grabs and can only be embraced or rejected according to whether or not it supports the ideal we’ve created for ourselves.
How do you suggest people go about creating a life-purpose vision?
You might start by creating a life-purpose sentence or statement. In one great gulp you take into account the values you want to uphold, the dreams and goals you have for yourself, and the vision you have for comporting yourself in the world, and then you spend whatever time it takes turning that unwieldy, contradictory material into a coherent statement that reflects your core sentiments about your life. Your life-purpose vision is the inner template by which you measure life, and it remains that measure until you revise it. When you agree to commit to making meaning you agree to participate in a lifetime adventure. As you live you gain new information about what you intend to value and what you want your life to mean.
Why in your view do we need to rethink our relationship with “mood”?
It is one of the universe’s ironic little jokes that human beings check in with themselves about their mood at exactly the moment when their mood might be at its lowest. Rarely do we check in on our mood when we are having a good time or working hard on something engrossing. At those moments it goes without saying how we are feeling — just fine — and so we don’t bother to announce our good mood to ourselves. We wait until we aren’t occupied and aren’t actively making meaning to check in. How brilliant is that? Not only do we take the temperature of our mood far too often — we have created a monster out of the word. Our current construction of the word mood gives unhappiness more of a central position in our lives than it ought to command. Unhappiness is a reality, but mood is a construct — and a tyrant. When we recognize these two important truths — that we can pay less attention to our moods and more attention to our intentions and that experiencing no mood or a neutral mood is perfectly acceptable — we rid ourselves of a mind-set that keeps us primed for unhappiness.
Why do you suggest that people adopt new vocabulary that communicates to themselves and other the meaning realities of their lives?
Without such a vocabulary, we can’t identify what is actually going on in our life. If something disturbing is happening and we can’t identify it as a meaning crisis, how will we handle it? We may misidentify it as a “depression” or a “work problem” or a “relationship issue” and head ourselves in the wrong direction, toward antidepressants, a stimulant, a nap, or somewhere else that fails to serve us. If we possess the language to call it a meaning crisis, then we know what to do: we know to make new meaning, reinvest meaning, and so on. Introducing a new vocabulary of meaning into our life is a tactic we employ to create fertile ground for meaning.
Why is a “morning meaning practice” so important?
The essence of this morning meaning practice is deciding how, where, and when you want to make meaning today. You might decide to invest two hours working on your new business or your current novel, an hour with your son in the afternoon after school, and an hour meeting with a new client. For the time that you spend running errands or watching television, you mentally pencil in “no meaning pressure” and allow yourself to relax. The goals are twofold: to pencil in enough meaning so that the day feels meaningful and to remind oneself that the ordinariness of the rest of the day is acceptable.
What guidance do you have for people experiencing what you describe as a meaning crisis?
Meaning crises cause profound unhappiness. When meaning leaks out of our life and our subjective psychological experience is no longer positive, we are obliged to restore meaning, or we will find ourselves bored, unhappy, or worse — in despair. I write extensively about possible options when a meaning crisis occurs, but I believe that one can handle the inevitable meaning crises that arise in a sensible, systematic way, by asking and trying to answer these questions: Do you want to deny what’s up? Do you want to buck up? Do you want to engage in some hopeful reframing? Do you want to make small, strategic changes, seize some new meaning opportunities, or make a huge change? By asking and answering these questions you begin to get a grip on the situation.
Why is embracing responsibility for making one’s own life meaning so liberating and such an antidote to depression?
As you become expert at existential self-care you begin to understand the extent to which you create meaning and the extent to which meaning is a deep, inexhaustible wellspring and an infinitely renewable resource. You can invest the increments of time that rise up before you with appropriate meaning: there is always another meaning available. You make it; it comes out of you; it is new each day; it is infinitely variable. You arise each morning and make your next meaning decision. When you arm yourself with your intentions and act this bravely your unhappiness can’t linger.