Joy and Anguish

March 7, 2008 | 20 comments
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Should a psychologically healthy person be happy, cheerful, carefree? If you are not cheerful is there something wrong with you? Let’s see what Mormon scripture has to say.

America is the land of opportunity, where everything is possible, right? So if you aren’t satisfied with how your life is going, there’s only one person to blame. America is a country founded on the pursuit of happiness, and a lot of people in America, including Russell Goldman, seem to think that being depressed is some kind of sin. If someone who thinks people are supposed to be perpetually cheerful made up a conception of ultimate personal existence, maybe it would look something like the traditional theist conception of God. God lives in a constant state of perfect bliss, because he can do anything and needs nothing. That’s just what it means to be an American, right? Or at least what we’re all shooting for. Well, Mormon scripture teaches that this conception of God is a false notion, and this aspiration for human life is also a false one. Nietzsche said it represents a fantasy of denial of life, and that sounds about right to me. Theist or no, anyone who thinks being unhappy, frustrated, or otherwise psychologically distressed from time to time is unhealthy has a bizarre notion of mental health.

Bombs are falling in Darfur again today. The stock market took another dive. The war in Afghanistan has gotten worse. Congress has gotten almost nothing done for over a year. One in one hundred American men is in jail. A few weeks ago a colleague of mine died of brain cancer. Another colleague and friend is in the midst of a divorce. Luckily, it’s not me for the moment. Keeping food on the table and gas in the car is hard work for almost all of us. Another year there would be different problems, but plenty of them. We should enjoy the good as well, but anyone who doesn’t spend quite a few days each year upset or stressed or gloomy has checked out.

I’ve heard studies going this way and that way, and speculations about how many people are diagnosed and how many self-medicate, but suppose it were true that Mormons are depressed more often than others, and this contributes to higher rates of depression in Utah. Is this a sign of something wrong, or something right? Well, that depends on how often a psychologically healthy person should be depressed.

I suppose if anyone is psychologically healthy, God ought to be. How is God’s outlook? Moses 7 describes a vision Enoch has, and one of the things he sees is that the righteous city Zion is caught up into heaven. This is something to rejoice over. But then: “it came to pass that the God of heaven looked upon the residue of the people [who were not caught up into heaven], and he wept; and Enoch bore record of it, saying: How is it that the heavens weep, and shed forth their tears as the rain upon the mountains? And Enoch said unto the Lord: How is it that thou canst weep, seeing thou art holy, and from all eternity to all eternity?” (Moses 7:28-9)

Enoch doesn’t understand, so God shows him why: “And it came to pass that the Lord spake unto Enoch, and told Enoch all the doings of the children of men; wherefore Enoch knew, and looked upon their wickedness, and their misery, and wept and stretched forth his arms, and his heart swelled wide as eternity; and his bowels yearned; and all eternity shook.” (verse 41)

When Enoch sees things from God’s perspective, he doesn’t become blissful. Rather, his heart expands, and he feels sorrow and yearning more than he had ever felt before.

Later in the vision, Enoch also feels a fulness of joy: “the Lord showed Enoch all things, even unto the end of the world; and he saw the day of the righteous, the hour of their redemption, and received a fulness of joy” (verse 67). God’s plan has a happy ending. Does this do away with sorrow? No. God knows the end from the beginning, but when he looked upon the people who were not righteous, he wept.

Are there elements in Mormon culture that are psychologically unhealthy? I’m sure there are, just like there are in media culture, university culture, political culture . . . one wrong idea that appears in Mormon culture is the idea that we should be happy all the time. Mormons have their own reasons for deluding themselves that they should always be happy, no matter how many things go wrong or just plain are wrong, and this idea itself causes a fair bit of distress and psychological dysfunction. But another element of Mormon culture is that Mormons care deeply about a lot of things. Their hearts are expanded by this engagement with the people and events around them. Their capacity for joy is expanded, and so is their capacity for sorrow. God is perfect in his mind and his heart. He knows the end from the beginning. Does this mean he is not depressed at how much goes wrong here on Earth? No. Jesus was so distressed by the state of humanity that he bled from every pore. If Mormons are upset or depressed more often than average, maybe that is a sign of something right.

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20 Responses to Joy and Anguish

  1. Julie on March 7, 2008 at 10:35 pm

    Thank you for this thoughtful post. I feel it relates to something I have experienced personally. Sometimes the difficulty I find in living my life very close to the Spirit is that, for some reason, as much as it brings joy into my life it also brings with it sorrow. If I allow myself to become more numb and more desensitized the easier it is for me to walk through my daily life without having to “feel” as much. I find that when I have been living in a manner that is very close to the spirit, my sensitivity helps me do better at mourning with those that mourn and wanting to comfort those that stand in need of comfort….but that this is also a very painful process because I hurt for those around me (and in the world at large) who are hurting. The more sweetness I feel by being close to the Lord and feeling His love, the more I seem to realize the awful contrast and incredible suffering that is heaped upon the world’s inhabitants by evil and unrighteous dominion. It makes me want everyone’s suffering to end and it pains me to see people walking in darkness and hurting. Does this make sense? Has anyone else experienced this?

  2. Julie on March 7, 2008 at 10:38 pm

    Oh, and to add to my previous comment….I don’t think as members of the church we should be “happier” than anyone else or cheerful 24/7. We are all going to have our ups and downs and it gives me comfort when I read the scriptures and realize that many of the great prophets also experienced discouragement and inadequacies. I think we do a disservice in the church culture at times by acting like “if you are righteous and doing the right things, you will be happy” so if you are not happy, you must be doing something wrong. Life is tough….it is a test…and I haven’t met many people who don’t have a large burden to bear in some fashion. I think the gospel of Jesus Christ can give us hope and perspective….and the Spirit can bring us peace….but it doesn’t always take away the pain and difficulty of facing the trials of life.

  3. Michelle on March 7, 2008 at 10:41 pm

    A couple of good articles I’ve read dealing with this subject recently, specifically discussing the book Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy

    From NPR

    From The Chronicle of Higher Education

  4. Melinda on March 8, 2008 at 12:29 am

    I appreciate the ideas in this post. No one should be pressured to be cheerful all the time. It is normal to have down times. This post is not about clinical depression, but just the ordinary downs that come with mortality. Clinical depression is more than feeling sad about a death or divorce, or feeling anguish for the sins and sufferings of loved ones or distant ones. Saying that we should all expect to be depressed sometimes is true enough, but it reveals a misunderstanding of what it means to be clinically depressed.

    My own bout with clinical depression came on when my life was going quite well. I and my loved ones were in decent health, I had a good job, I was financially secure, good calling in the Church, good friends, no tragedies or traumas, and etc. I had no outside reason to be depressed, and yet I couldn’t stop thinking about hurting myself and how much everyone hated me, but no one hated me more than I hated myself. It affected every part of my life. I’ll spare you the details.

    This line in your post is where you signal that you are not talking about clinical depression: “Well, that depends on how often a psychologically healthy person should be depressed.” A clinically depressed person is not psychologically healthy. A psychologically healthy person can feel depressed and sad, but not have clinical depression. A person with clinical depression is in an entirely different situation than a psychologically healthy person who is going through a depressing period.

    I think people who conflate ordinary depressing life episodes with clinical depression contribute to the stigma of depression. After all, everyone gets down sometime, so why do I need medication while you don’t? It must be because I’m a weakling to be self-destructive even when my life is good, while you get through very hard times with nothing more than several days/weeks of ordinary sadness. (Obviously, you didn’t accuse me of anything; I’m putting words in your mouth to make a point, and I apologize for exaggerating what you said to the point of mis-construing it.)

    The problem may come because the word “depression” means both a medical diagnosis, and a bad day. If the medical diagnosis was called “acute emotional dysfunction with self-destructive ideation,” then no one would mistake it for the ordinary emotional distress that follows crummy life events.

    Do you see that psychologically healthy anguish is different from clinical depression? They’re apples and oranges. Clinical depression is not the ordinary sadness of mortal life. Now, if you’d like to argue that lots of Mormons mistake ordinary sadness for clinical depression, and take medication they don’t need, then go ahead and make the argument. That would be an interesting post to read.

  5. HeidiAnn on March 8, 2008 at 12:51 am

    For Enrichment night a few years ago, we had a member of our ward (a doctor) talk to us about depression, myths, facts, treatments, etc. He said that some of the reason that it seems that Utahns seemed to have a higher depression incidence is actually because they are also more likely to seek out treatment for depression. That thought came to me as I was reading your post, sorry for not really answering the question.

  6. mlu on March 8, 2008 at 2:32 am

    Depression seems to me quite a different thing than sorrow. I think there’s a lot of sorrow in living the gospel in this world.

    Depression of the will-sapping life-avoiding sort seems something else and not something particularly godly. Sometimes it is caused by sin, I think–a sort of stubborn petulance that denies sorrow and repentance and mopes instead. But some of it, maybe much of it, has organic causes that are treatable. I have no statistics–just experiences.

  7. AaronK on March 8, 2008 at 10:24 am

    Are there elements of Mormon culture that are unhealthy? Smart alecks will surely say guilt. Others might say making assumptions about each other, such as we all think alike, believe alike and vote alike. As someone who has always been frequently melancholy, I thank you for raising this issue. I don’t think I’m unhealthy. I think the unhealthy ones are all those who want to fix me or change me. But I kind of feel guilty about thinking that way. Help!

  8. Susan M on March 8, 2008 at 11:13 am

    “Is it only happiness you want?” — Husker Du

  9. Jack on March 8, 2008 at 11:40 am

    Ben,

    I think you’re right and (a little) wrong at the same time. It is part of our fundamental nature to want to be happy and so we’re going to try to be happy by whatever means–healthy or un. But we can’t really know happiness without knowing sorrow. And so the problem isn’t in “shooting for” bliss so much as it is in forgetting that pain is an unavoidable part of being human.

    The Gospel requires that we try to alleviate (or at least help shoulder) the burdens of others. By doing so we not only place ourselves in the position of sharing in the sorrow of others, but also of receiving joy in the knowledge that another is happier. God’s sorrow for his children stems (in part, at least) from his desire for them to be truly happy. And so, in all of this, happiness seems to be the goal we’re after. We just shouldn’t expect to find it without experiencing sorrow (though I wonder how much sorrow the folks in 4Nephi really experienced compared to us enlightened folks of the future).

  10. Jack on March 8, 2008 at 11:44 am

    Susan M,

    “Yes” is my answer. But if we unpack that little word we’ll probably find that it means we can’t be happy unless we know that others are happy too.

  11. R.W. Rasband on March 8, 2008 at 11:43 pm

    Here is something I always kind of intuited:

    BBC News–Is Depression Good For You?
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/7268496.stm

  12. Kathryn Lynard Soper on March 9, 2008 at 12:16 pm

    Melinda #4–

    Amen, and amen. Thank you.

  13. Ben H on March 9, 2008 at 6:53 pm

    Elijah wanted to die. Does that count as depression? Should he have just taken some pills? Nephi, Moroni, Alma, and others experienced something that sounds like depression. There were reasons for their experiences that did not simply reduce to physiological disfunction. As some have noted from reading my post, I am doubtful about the medicalization of melancholy, sorrow, depression, whatever you want to call it. Surely there are cases where what we are seeing is a mere physiological disfunction. However, if someone becomes depressed due to divorce, losing a job, or some other serious disappointment, there is more than physiology involved. Some of the articles linked are definitely looking in a similar direction. I particularly enjoyed the Chronicle piece. When someone feels bad, but we think he or she shouldn’t, and we try to fix things with positive psychology or drugs or whatever, how often are we just trying to ignore something deeper, perhaps something that we don’t spiritually understand? How often are we trying to mask something that actually needs to be addressed in another way? How often are we basically taking an aspirin to dull the pain when actually there is something else wrong that needs to be corrected?

  14. Kathryn Lynard Soper on March 9, 2008 at 10:17 pm

    Antidepressants have saved three lives in my family, figuratively and perhaps literally. Thank God.

    Ben, I would imagine that there are some users of antidepressant medication who could find relief through other avenues. But there are many who cannot. I think you should be cautious about dismissing the physiological aspect to depression. For some people, the chemical imbalances may indeed be caused by emotional/spiritual distress, rather than the other way around. But even some of these folks may need antidepressants to begin to benefit from emotional/spiritual therapy. It can be incredibly difficult, even impossible, to begin to heal if one’s chemisty is out of whack.

    In my case, self-doubt and fear caused by questions similar to yours above led to over a decade of unnecessary suffering. Over the past couple of years I’ve finally come to terms with my depression, which has a strong genetic component, just in time to be sane enough to get treatment for the two of my children who desperately need it. Before “just taking some pills,” these children (ages nine and twelve) “wanted to die,” as did I.

  15. DW on March 10, 2008 at 5:00 pm

    Ben,

    Loved the post as well as your comment (#13). As someone who specializes in theoretical and philosophical issues in psychology, I know that we need to do some deeper thinking about happiness, depression, and “the good life.”

    I would never say that antidepressants never have their place. And I have no reason to try to convince a particular person who I don’t even know that they shouldn’t take them. However, I would argue that the pharmacological treatment of mental disorders is mostly a sophisticated sham that is all about (a) making money and (b) helping psychology/psychiatry to establish itself as a credible medical practice. The notion that depression is ultimately a “chemical imbalance” is (a) a questionable assumption and (b) fails to ask if there could possibly be something that is more underlying — what CAUSES the chemical imbalance, we might ask? I do think there is a biological component to depression (as there is for everything), but that’s not the same as attributing some kind of efficient causal link to biology. I guarantee you that most of the people who specialize in this science have never even thought about any of this. Of course, none of this is to say that we shouldn’t take clinical depression seriously.

    I am so tired of Mormons saying that “happiness” is what is most important. This takes various subtle forms: “You can choose to be happy if you want to.” “Ultimately, God wants us to be happy.” “If you’re not happy, do something for someone else.” etc.

    Now, there is is (sort of) a scriptural foundation for this: “Wickedness never was happiness,” “the plan of happiness,” and “men are that they might have joy.” Joseph Smith also said, “Happiness is the object and design of our existence.”

    The problem, however, is that we don’t think very deeply about what might be meant by “happiness” or even “joy.” I think that for the most part it is thought of in individualistic and instrumental terms. That is, it is ultimately about individual happiness and everything we do should be for the means of obtaining that end. Because of this, I think we would be better off if we, for the most part, removed the word “happiness” from our doctrinal vocabularies. Otherwise, we can very easily fall into the trap of replacing “happiness” as our God. We might do well to think of being one with God as meaningful/important/fundamental/virtuous in its own right, and not simply because it “makes us happy.”

    There is a really good BYU Studies article about this by Brent Slife, in which he warns Christians of falling into the traps of the false idols of hedonism, moralism, and relativism: http://brentdslife.com/article/upload/religion/Family%20Values%20and%20Relationality.pdf

    I like to counter Mormon culture’s instrumental-happiness-reflex by responding these ways to the following questions (such as in Sunday School):

    What are the benefits of service? (As opposed to it making me happy) The most important benefit comes to the person who is served.
    Why do we have trials and sorrows? (As opposed to it making me happier in the end) It’s the type of life that God lives.

  16. Melinda on March 10, 2008 at 5:25 pm

    DW – “I am so tired of Mormons saying that “happiness” is what is most important.”

    You know, I didn’t like the name change from “plan of salvation” to “plan of happiness.” Salvation is so much more profound and long-term and religious. Happiness is what happens when you go to Disneyland.

    Here’s an interesting article about how medical science is just guessing at the chemical imbalances involved in depression. Sorry I don’t know how to make it a real link, so you’ll have to cut and paste it. http://online.wsj.com/public/article/SB113226807554400588.html?mod=todays_free_feature

  17. Ben H on March 10, 2008 at 7:02 pm

    Kathryn, perhaps I need to clarify better what I mean by medicalization. It’s not the use of drugs that I’m particularly skeptical of. It’s the assumption that feeling bad or sad or anxious or depressed is categorically the wrong way to feel. There are some things that happen to people that they should be anxious, sad, or depressed about. There are some things where this is the right response. We acknowledge this with what we call “grief”. We recognize that grieving is proper and healthy under certain circumstances. It seems to me that this model might call for application with regard to quite a few other “negative” (for lack of a better word) emotional states. There are cases where people feel bad for merely physiological reasons, and those need to be addressed physiologically, often including medication. It sounds like you and your children are in that category. Further, if someone experiences a traumatic event or situation to which the right, proper emotional response is to be depressed for weeks or months or whatever, she or he will need to cope in various ways to continue with the business of living. This sensible coping may include medication. But I don’t think that means those are the wrong emotions to have. We read that Christ experienced emotions that a mortal person cannot feel and remain alive. Were those the wrong emotions? Elijah wanted to die. It wasn’t because of something wrong with him. It was because of something wrong with the world he was living in. We need to retain the ability to locate the causes where they are.

  18. Jonovitch on March 10, 2008 at 7:12 pm

    Susan M (8), two points for citing Hüsker Dü.

    Jon

  19. Kathryn Lynard Soper on March 11, 2008 at 10:38 am

    Thanks for clarifying, Ben. I get what you’re saying now, and I agree.

  20. Brian Duffin on March 13, 2008 at 6:12 pm

    Thanks for the post. It was a good reminer to get a refill on my Wellbutrin.

    I could probably quote scripture, but I like how Denis Leary put it: “Life sucks, get a helmet.”