Thursday, June 14, 2007


My wife and I were talking, this evening. We do that on occasion. Somehow we got onto the topic of the overwhelming number of people on anti-depressant meds. It got me to thinking: Is it bad medicine, i.e. are doctors just over-diagnosing Depression and doling out pills like candy in an effort to make us all Happy People? Or could it be that, societally, we truly are increasingly depressed?

While I think there is likely much of the former, I also think that the latter is very true. Somehow we, and I mean in Western Society at large - not just the Orthodox Community - are increasingly unhappy in our lives. We've lost sight of the ideal expressed in Pirkei Avot (Ch. 4, Mishna 1) that says, "Eizeh hu ashir? Ha'same'ach b'chelko" - "Who is wealthy? He who is happy with what he has."

I've been thinking about that a lot lately. At first, I didn't really appreciate the wisdom of those words. To me, they seemed to be anti-ambition: "Why can't you just be happy with what you have?" This never really satisfied me as a child, or as an adult. So I just chalked it up as one of those pithy sayings you see sometimes, that sound good but aren't really very useful.

Lately, though, I've taken another view on it. My wife and I have been working very hard on improving ourselves, personally and financially. So, we've been reading books and listening to books-on-tape (well, CD's really.) Among them are things like Napoleon Hill's "Think and Grow Rich" and "The Secret," by Rhonda Byrne. Both books are very similar in many ways, speaking of the importance of a positive attitude, and of giving charity. (Ayn Rand is doing backflips in her grave.)

One of the concepts that both those books, and others we've read, suggest is that the starting point for everything else they're trying to teach is Gratitude. That's the foundation, without which you really can't get anywhere.

Now I don't know about you, but that wouldn't have been my thought. I would have said something like, Organization or Creative Thinking or Persistence, etc. So I had to think about that for awhile, and have concluded that it's true.

Gratitude is the appreciation of what you already have. It doesn't mean you don't want more, but it does mean that your life won't be governed by what you don't have. If that's your focus, you'll never be happy - because there will always be something you don't have, and you'll be consumed by your wanting of it. You'll convince yourself that, if you just had that thing, you would be happy. And so, even if you inherited Bill Gates' fortune, you wouldn't be happy.

On the other hand, if you appreciate what you do have, you'll always be happy. You can focus on increasing material wealth, if that's your bent, or anything else you want to work on, and you will be happy. Once you've accomplished that, then you're ready to use the positive energy or Law of Attraction or good karma or whatever you want to call it, to your benefit.

So that's what I now believe Chaza"l meant in Pirkei Avot. Be grateful, and the rest will come.

But today we're continually fed a stream of negativity. Gasoline prices are going up. The war in Iraq. Bush is bad. Global warming is going to kill us all in 15 minutes. I mean, when was the last time you saw a happy story on the news? Alright, I don't mean the ones they play at the very end, showing the duck who's learned how to rollerblade or the kid who saved a puppy trapped in a meat grinder. I mean a real newsworthy story about something good. Almost never. And we're bombarded by media all day, every day.

No wonder we're all depressed!

The trick seems to be in getting back to gratitude. I'm working on that. So thanks for reading this post.


Ezzie said...

All nice and good, but what about those who truly suffer from depression? To some extent, all this is patronizing - plus, to some extent, it becomes merely "just have gratitude and appreciation and you won't be depressed anymore. No?

The Half-Heretic said...

Actually, what I'm suggesting is that the majority of folks who are depressed actually are Depressed. Hell, I am, and I take meds for it!

My question is more about what leads so many of us along that road?

Clearly, for some people, it's a straight-up chemical imbalance. Nothing anyone could do would change that. But for others, and I think it's probably the majority, the road to real depression is (and I'll admit - I'm conjecturing) the lack of a sense of goodness in our lives. We don't feel good about ourselves because we're always looking at what the other guy's got. "Ooh - he's got a new BMW, and I'm still driving this beat up piece of junk." "Look at the new addition the Schwartzes are putting on their house. Wish I could do that."

Those negative thoughts can lead to real and serious feelings of self-devaluation. Worthlessness. And those, in turn, lead to Depression and sometimes worse things (e.g. drug/alcohol abuse, food abuse, people (including self) abuse, suicide). These aren't imagined things - they're too real.

But I think that learning to appreciate what you have and having gratitude to God and the people around you, for what you do have - not in a deprecating way ("Well, at least I have my kids..."), but in a real appreciative way - can open all sorts of possibilities.

But that doesn't mean it's easy to do. "I guess it's good that I even have a car," isn't what I'm talking about. It's more like, "My car is great. It does exactly what I need it to do, and it's paid-for." If you think about that for a second, I think you'll find that your mind won't go that way very easily.

If our society were less focused on what we don't have, we'd be happier - and probably less medicated - people.

So I don't think it's patronizing. I'm setting a positive goal for myself: to learn to appreciate the good that I have in my life, and use that as a springboard to move onward and upward.

Ezzie said...

All right, I hear. I don't think it was as clear from the post itself...

Actually, what I'm suggesting is that the majority of folks who are depressed actually are Depressed. Hell, I am, and I take meds for it!

I know, and I know you think the first part, which is why I was surprised! :)

Jewish Atheist said...

I agree with the general idea of gratitude being helpful, but there are books which are much better than the two you mention, which are pretty hand-wavy and unscientific. The best self-help book I've come across, and which has empirical data behind it, is Feeling Good, by David Burns. Also interesting are the books by Martin Seligman. His books aren't self-help so much as information about happiness and how it works. He provides links to some empirical data about certain kinds of gratitude exercises which really work.

(I take an SSRI for dysthymia, myself.)

triLcat said...

Interesting things you say. I suspect, though, that if your depression isn't straight-up chemical, the medications won't do much. I know for me, the big differences between meds and no medication were: 1. I could be just happy without a specific reason when on meds. 2. I didn't burst into tears with every tiny frustration when on meds.

Now, I'm in my 9th month, my hormones are a mess, and I'm more depressed than I've been in years... and the meds are either not working or they just aren't enough... fun fun.

Wanna Saab said...

OK, here's a a real newsworthy story about something good. They're getting ready to hang Chemical Ali.

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