Episode 10: Purpose and Depression
Today's is the first episode in the nine-part series "How Purpose Heals Depression," a series based on my book The Van Gogh Blues, which has just appeared in paperback. In this series we look at the relationships among creativity, meaning, and depression and answer some fundamental questions about why creative people like you and me have an extra measure of depression to deal with, the measure that arrives because of our existential concerns and because of the way that we experience meaning as challenging and problematic. In today's show we look at the fundamental relationship between making meaning and eliminating depression.
Today’s is the first episode in the nine-part series “How Purpose Heals Depression,” a series based on my book The Van Gogh Blues, which has just appeared in paperback. In this series we look at the relationships among creativity, meaning, and depression and answer some fundamental questions about why creative people like you and me have an extra measure of depression to deal with, the measure that arrives because of our existential concerns and because of the way that we experience meaning as challenging and problematic. In today’s show, called ‘Purpose and Depression,” we look at the fundamental relationship between making meaning and eliminating depression. Let’s begin!
I presume that you are a creative person or a would-be creative person who has experienced bouts of depression in the past, who may be depressed right now, or who knows that you have the seeds of depression growing in you. You may have tried psychotherapy or antidepressant drugs but you probably remain unconvinced that the answers you are looking for about the causes and management of your depression can be supplied by psychologists or medical doctors alone. If you are in this situation, this series is for you.
I want to provide you with what I believe is a new, more accurate picture of why creative individuals are prone to depression and then describe a plan for managing this creators’ depression. This plan is comprised of several core tasks that you can immediately implement in your life. Even if you avail yourself of therapy, antidepressant drugs, support groups, spiritual practices, or other treatments for your depression, I believe that you will still need to master the tasks I’m about to describe if you are going to deal effectively with your creators’ depression.
The cliche is that creativity and depression go hand-in-hand. Like many cliches, this one is absolutely true. But creators are not necessarily afflicted with some biological disease or psychological disorder that causes them to experience depression at the alarming rates that we see. They experience depression simply because they are caught up in a struggle to make life seem meaningful to them. People for whom meaning is no problem are less likely to experience depression. But for creators, losses of meaning and doubts about life’s meaningfulness are persistent problems and root causes--even the root causes--of their depression.
The psychiatrist Arnold Ludwig studied a thousand eminent twentieth-century figures. In The Price of Greatness: Resolving the Creativity and Madness Controversy he concluded that 77% of the poets in his sample, 54% of the fiction writers, 50% of the visual artists, and 46% of the composers had suffered from at least one significant depressive episode. By contrast, the rate for sports figures in his survey was 16%, military figures 5%, and explorers 0%. As high as these numbers are for creators, they are still low: I am certain that 100% of creative people will suffer from episodes of depression.
Why 100%? Because every creative person came out of the womb ready to interrogate life and determine for herself what life would mean, could mean, and should mean. Her gift or curse was that she was born ready to stubbornly doubt received wisdom and disbelieve that anyone but she was entitled to provide answers to her own meaning questions. Was she the only baby born on that day that way, with that gift or curse? No one can say. Nature vs. nurture questions are unanswerable, except in superficial ways. What is clear is that some people grow up doubting and questioning while the majority don’t. These meaning investigators are our creators and they are prone to meaning crises and consequent depression by virtue of the fact that they find meaning a problem and not a given.
The depression they experience may be entirely existential or it may be an add-on existential depression, added on to some already-existing biological or psychological depression. Again, we don’t know and can’t know what exactly is going on. We don’t even know what we mean by “biological depression” or “psychological depression.” Since there is so much that we do not know, you must take the following advice to heart: even if your depression is primarily rooted in meaning problems, that should not stop you from seeking medical treatment. I am arguing that existential depression is the primary depression that creative people experience, but that isn’t to say that you shouldn’t watch out for other culprits and causes. Antidepressant drugs work for many people, creators included, to reduce their experience of depression. Therefore it is important that you think about including them in your personal treatment plan for healing your depression.
But drugs are not the only answer and they are certainly not the complete answer. I have seen even serious depression lift after only one creativity coaching session. Over the course of twenty years of counseling and coaching creative clients, I have witnessed this recovery happen time and time again. It happens because a client recognizes that she has meaning problems to tackle. Simply by glimpsing the territory she must traverse, she regains hope, a renewed sense of purpose, and a clearer picture of what steps she must take in her creative life. Nor do these gains last for only a day or a week. I have heard from clients a year or two after a single session that something important happened that had not faded away.
The headline is that creators have trouble maintaining meaning. Creating is one of the ways they endeavor to maintain that meaning. In the act of creation they lay a veneer of meaning over meaninglessness and, sometimes, produce work that helps others maintain meaning too. This is why creating is such a crucial activity in the life of a creator: it is one of the ways, and often the most important way, that she manages to make life feel meaningful. Not creating is depressing, because she is not making meaning when she is not creating. Creating but falling short in her efforts is also depressing, because only insufficient meaning is produced if her products strike her as weak or shallow. Even creating well can be depressing, because of the lingering sense that what she is doing is only veneering meaninglessness.
These are some of the intricacies that we will examine in this series. What concerns us are how meaning comes and goes, how meaning can be made and maintained, and how creating and meaning-making are related. It is only by recognizing the preeminent place of “meaning-as-problem” in the lives of creators that their depression becomes understandable.
When you listen to how creative people characterize their depression you get important clues about the causes of their difficulties. Sometimes the clues are subtle and sometimes they stare you in the face. An example of the latter is the following, from Leo Tolstoi:
Five years ago a strange state of mind began to grow upon me: I had moments of perplexity, of a stoppage, as it were, of life, as if I did not know how I was to live or what I was to do. These stoppages of life always presented themselves to me with the same questions: ‘why?’ and ‘what for?’ These questions demanded an answer with greater and greater persistence and, like dots, grouped themselves into one black spot. Well, what if I should be more famous than Gogol, Pushkin, Shakespeare, Moliere--than all the writers in the world--well, and what then? I could find no reply. Such questions demand an immediate answer; without one it is impossible to live. Yet answer there was none. I felt that the ground on which I stood was crumbling, that there was nothing for me to stand on, that what I had been living for was nothing, that I had no reason for living. The truth was, life was meaningless.
The following is a subtler and even more interesting self-report. It is the suicide note left by the painter Ralph Barton:
Everyone who has known me and who hears of this will have a different hypothesis to offer to explain why I did it. Practically all of these hypotheses will be dramatic--and completely wrong. Any sane doctor knows that the reasons for suicide are invariably psycho-pathological. Difficulties in life merely precipitate the event--and the true suicide type manufactures his own difficulties. I have had few real difficulties. I have had, on the contrary, an exceptionally glamorous life--as lives go. And I have had more than my share of affection and appreciation. The most charming, intelligent, and important people I have known have liked me--and the list of my enemies is very flattering to me. I have always had excellent health. But, since my early childhood, I have suffered with a melancholia which, in the past five years, has begun to show signs of manic-depressive insanity. It has prevented my getting anything like the full value out of my talents, and, for the past three years, has made work a torture to do at all. It has made it impossible for me to enjoy the simple pleasures of life that seem to get other people through. I have run from wife to wife, from house to house, and from country to country, in a ridiculous effort to escape from myself. In doing so, I am very much afraid that I have spread a good deal of unhappiness among the people who have loved me.
There is meat for a whole textbook in Barton’s suicide note. But what should strike us as most important is the innocent phrase “as lives go” in the sentence “I have had, on the contrary, an exceptionally glamorous life--as lives go.” This phrase is the key to the matter. It is an ironic indictment of life itself, an understated announcement that the facts of existence could not be made to mean. Barton says that there are no reasons “outside of himself” that explain his depression; he asks that we do not search for any external circumstances that caused his malaise; no one and nothing did it to him. He supposes that the reasons for his depression must be psychological and constitutional. But he knows better.
If we carefully questioned Barton, eventually he would have admitted that he had been laid low by his inability to find and sustain meaning. This is the central issue that we are examining in this series. If Barton could have turned his life into a thing of meaning, he would have healed his depression and saved his life. Well, can creators manage to pull off this feat? Tune in next week as we continue our investigation.
That ends today’s show. Tune in next week for another episode in the “How Purpose Heals Depression” series. To learn more about this subject, please take a look at my book The Van Gogh Blues, which just appeared in paperback from New World Library. To subscribe to “your purpose-centered life,” please visit personallifemedia.com, where you’ll also find my blog. You can drop me an email at email@example.com; and I hope that you’ll visit my website to learn more about my books and services. That’s ericmaisel.com—(spelled out).
Thank you for listening!