Note: This article is one in a series of articles about the philosophy of existentialism and how it can be applied to our lives. Here are all the articles in the series:
Existentialism and Anxiety
Existentialism and Depression (You’re reading this right now)
More articles to come…
Depression in the United States
Before I dive deeper into how existentialist philosophy can help with depression, let’s take a look at some facts about depression within the United States. In this case, I’m going to be looking at major depression.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, major depression is one of the most common mental disorders within the United States.
An estimated 16.2 million adults (6.7% of U.S. adults) have had at least one major depressive episode. Major depression was most prevalent among the younger crowd, with 10.9% of people aged 18–25 experiencing at least one major depressive episode. About one in eight Americans take antidepressants.
Of course, these are only the reported cases. The actual instances of depression might be much higher than reported, as people could be too embarrassed to mention that they suffer from depression. Particularly men face this issue, in which there is significant societal pressure for men to act stoic in the face of suffering.
In any case, the evidence is rather clear: depression is a massive issue within the United States. So what is there to do about it?
Kierkegaard’s Thoughts On Depression
Existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard has written quite extensively on the topic of depression. Kierkegaard may have gotten much of his inspiration for his writing as a result of his depression, and Kierkegaard also believed that depression was the cause for beautiful works of art.
In Either/Or Kierkegaard writes:
“What is a poet? An unhappy person who conceals profound anguish in his heart but whose lips are so formed that as sighs and cries pass over them they sound like beautiful music. It is with him as with the poor wretches in Phalaris’s bronze bull, who were slowly tortured over a slow fire; their screams could not reach the tyrant’s ears to terrify him; to him they sounded like sweet music”
On the deleterious effect that depression has on people, Kierkegaard writes that depression “has robbed us of the courage to command, the courage to obey, the power to act, the confidence to hope.”
Kierkegaard clearly lists the massively negative effects that depression can have on people. When a person is depressed, it becomes difficult for them to have the courage and ability to act, and many of the person’s thoughts are clouded by negativity. The idea of being a leader or following what others tell us to do is practically out of the question.
Kierkegaard experienced repeated instances of depressive episodes during his lifetime. In his book Either/Or, Kierkegaard writes, “Depression is the most faithful mistress I have known — no wonder, then, that I return the love.”
What Kierkegaard is really trying to show here is how some people allow themselves to be defined by their depression — eventually, their depression is the majority of their identity.
My Experience With Depression
I have experience with depression. About a year ago while attending university, I experienced a bout of inexplicable depression for a few weeks. During that time-frame, it was difficult for me to study and even eat. I decided to attend gym and run on the treadmill for an hour every day. After about a month, the feeling of depression vanished as inexplicably as it arose. But those few weeks felt like hell.
I write about my experience with depression for several reasons.
First, to show that I actually have experience with this and am not simply writing about depression as though it is some abstract concept to me that only other people experience.
Secondly, I think there’s this tendency in social media for (particularly young) entrepreneurs to give a false impression of their lives, where they’re constantly “crushing it” 24/7, driving exotic cars and traveling to exotic locations, and making massive amounts of money from passive income. Entrepreneurship and working on creating/building a business isn’t anywhere near as glamorous or flattering as it’s usually portrayed in social media. I wish more people knew that.
Why did I experience depression? I’m still not entirely sure. Kierkegaard addresses this issue of not understanding where depression comes from, and in Either/Or he writes:
“There is something unexplainable in depression. A person with a sorrow or a worry knows why he sorrows or worries. If a depressed person is asked what the reason is, what it is that weighs on him, he will answer: I do not know; I cannot explain it. Therein lies the limitlessness of depression.”
Dealing With Depression
We might not have much choice in how we feel at a given time, but we do have control over and responsibility for the way we relate ourselves to those feelings.
One of the main issues is how many people deal with sadness and depression. In “The Loss of Sadness”, authors Allan Horwitz and Jerome Wakefield contend that with the medicalization of just about everything, we have arrived at treating ordinary sadness as if it were a depressive illness.
Sometimes sadness is the proper response to events, such as sadness over the death of a loved one or having somebody you care about leave you. Being sad doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. It just means you’re human.
Kierkegaard believed that depression develops into despair — into a spiritual malady — only when we allow ourselves be defined by depression. If you allow yourself to be defined and swallowed by depression, you give up on your moral and spiritual aspirations. That is despair, not depression. You should be wary of despair, not depression.
Tim Farrington once wrote, “It is…in the embrace of our own perceived futility that real freedom comes.”
Sometimes, the best that we can do is simply surrender ourselves to what we perceive as futile and march onward. And that’s better than nothing