Lincoln’s Great Depression
When Abraham Lincoln came to the stage of the 1860 state Republican convention in Decatur, Illinois, the crowd roared in approval. Men threw hats and canes into the air, shaking the hall so much that the awning over the stage collapsed; according to an early account, “the roof was literally cheered off the building.” Fifty-one years old, Lincoln was at the peak of his political career, with momentum that would soon sweep him to the nomination of the national party and then to the White House.
Yet to the convention audience Lincoln didn’t seem euphoric, or triumphant, or even pleased. On the contrary, said a man named Johnson, observing from the convention floor, “I then thought him one of the most diffident and worst plagued men I ever saw.”
The next day the convention closed. The crowds dispersed, leaving behind cigar stubs and handbills and the smells of sweat and whiskey. Later the lieutenant governor of Illinois, William J. Bross, walked the floor. He saw Lincoln sitting alone at the end of the hall, his head bowed, his gangly arms bent at the elbows, his hands pressed to his face. As Bross approached, Lincoln noticed him and said, “I’m not very well.”
Lincoln’s look at that moment—the classic image of gloom—was familiar to everyone who knew him well. Such spells were just one thread in a curious fabric of behavior and thought that his friends called his “melancholy.” He often wept in public and recited maudlin poetry. He told jokes and stories at odd times—he needed the laughs, he said, for his survival. As a young man he talked more than once of suicide, and as he grew older he said he saw the world as hard and grim, full of misery, made that way by fate and the forces of God. “No element of Mr. Lincoln’s character,” declared his colleague Henry Whitney, “was so marked, obvious and ingrained as his mysterious and profound melancholy.” His law partner William Herndon said, “His melancholy dripped from him as he walked.”
In 1998 I chanced upon a reference to Lincoln’s melancholy in a sociologist’s essay on suicide. I was intrigued enough to investigate the subject and discovered an exciting movement in the field of Lincoln studies. Actually, it was a rediscovery of very old terrain. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Lincoln’s melancholy was widely accepted by students of his life, based as the subject was on countless reminiscences by people who knew him. But in the 1940s professional historians—taking what they regarded as a “scientific” approach to the study of the past—began to reject personal memories in favor of “hard” evidence. Their wildly inconsistent application of the rule suggests that they really wanted to toss out evidence they found distasteful. Still, the effect was profound and long-lasting.
Then, in the late 1980s and the 1990s, an emerging group of scholars began, independent of one another, to look anew at original accounts of Lincoln by the men and women who knew him. These historians, including Douglas Wilson, Rodney Davis, Michael Burlingame, and Allen Guelzo, had come of age in an era when the major oral histories of Lincoln were treated, as Davis has described it, “like nuclear waste.” But they found to their surprise that such sources were more like rich mines that had been sealed off. They reassessed some accounts, dug up others that had been long forgotten, and began to publish these findings, many for the first time, in lavishly annotated volumes. This work felicitously coincided—post—Richard Nixon—with popular demand for frank portraits of public figures’ private lives. Today the combination of basic materials and cultural mood allows us a surprising, and bracing, new view of Abraham Lincoln—one that has a great deal in common with the view of him held by his closest friends and colleagues.
Lincoln did suffer from what we now call depression, as modern clinicians, using the standard diagnostic criteria, uniformly agree. But this diagnosis is only the beginning of a story about how Lincoln wrestled with mental demons, and where it led him. Diagnosis, after all, seeks to assess a patient at just a moment in time, with the aim of treatment. But Lincoln’s melancholy is part of a whole life story; exploring it can help us see that life more clearly, and discern its lessons. In a sense, what needs “treatment” is our own narrow ideas—of depression as an exclusively medical ailment that must be, and will be, squashed; of therapy as a thing dispensed only by professionals and measured only by a reduction of pain; and finally, of mental trials as a flaw in character and a disqualification for leadership.
Throughout its three major stages—which I call fear, engagement, and transcendence—Lincoln’s melancholy upends such views. With Lincoln we have a man whose depression spurred him, painfully, to examine the core of his soul; whose hard work to stay alive helped him develop crucial skills and capacities, even as his depression lingered hauntingly; and whose inimitable character took great strength from the piercing insights of depression, the creative responses to it, and a spirit of humble determination forged over decades of deep suffering and earnest longing.
The word appears in an age-old definition of melancholia: “fear and sadness without cause.” To be more precise we could say “without apparent cause,” or “disproportionate to apparent cause.” Although this story is about melancholy throughout, the first part illustrates its dark heart, the querulous, dissatisfied, doubting experience often marked by periods of withdrawal and sometimes by utter collapse. With Lincoln it’s instructive to see how he collapsed, but even more so to see how his collapses led him to a signal moment of self-understanding.
By 1835 Lincoln had lived for four years in New Salem, a village in central Illinois that backed up to a bluff over the Sangamon River. Twenty-six years old, he had made many friends there. That summer an epidemic of what doctors called “bilious fever”—typhoid, probably—spread through the area. Among those severely afflicted were Lincoln’s friends the Rutledges. One of New Salem’s founding families, they had run a tavern and boardinghouse where Lincoln stayed and took meals when he first arrived. He became friendly with Ann Rutledge, a bright, pretty young woman with golden hair and large blue eyes. In August of 1835 she took sick. Visiting her at her family’s farm, Lincoln seemed deeply distressed, which made people wonder whether the two had a romantic, and not just a friendly, bond. After Lincoln’s death such speculation would froth over into a messy controversy—one that cannot be, and need not be, resolved. Regardless of how he felt about Rutledge while she was alive, her sickness and death drew Lincoln to his emotional edge. Around the time of her burial a rainstorm, accompanied by unseasonable cold, shoved him over. “As to the condition of Lincoln’s Mind after the death of Miss R.,” Henry McHenry, a farmer in the area, recalled, “after that Event he seemed quite changed. he seemed Retired. & loved Solitude. he seemed wraped in profound thought. indifferent. to transpiring Events, had but Little to say, but would take his gun and wander off in the woods by him self, away from the association of even those he most esteemed, this gloom seemed to deepen for some time, so as to give anxiety to his friends in regard to his Mind.”
Indeed, the villagers’ anxiety was intense, both for Lincoln’s immediate safety and for his long-term mental health. Lincoln “told Me that he felt like Committing Suicide often,” remembered Mentor Graham, a schoolteacher, and his neighbors mobilized to keep him safe. One friend recalled, “Mr Lincolns friends … were Compelled to keep watch and ward over Mr Lincoln, he being from the sudden shock somewhat temporarily deranged. We watched during storms—fogs—damp gloomy weather … for fear of an accident.” Some villagers worried that he’d end up insane. After several weeks an older couple in the area took him into their home. Bowling Green, the large, merry justice of the peace, and his wife, Nancy, took care of Lincoln for a week or two. When he had improved somewhat, they let him go, but he was, Mrs. Green said, “quite melancholy for months.”
Was Lincoln’s melancholy a “clinical depression”? Yes—as far as that concept goes. Certainly his condition in the summer of 1835 matches what the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders labels a major depressive episode. Such an episode is characterized by depressed mood, a marked decrease in pleasure, or both, for at least two weeks, and symptoms such as agitation, fatigue, feelings of worthlessness, and thoughts of death or suicide. Five and a half years later, in the winter of 1840—1841, Lincoln broke down again, and together these episodes suffice for modern clinicians to make an assessment of recurrent major depression.
Such labels can help us begin to reckon with Lincoln. Most basically, “clinical depression” means it was serious, no mere case of the blues. Someone who has had two episodes of major depression has a 70 percent chance of experiencing a third. And someone who’s had three episodes has a 90 percent chance of having a fourth. Indeed, it became clear in Lincoln’s late twenties that he had more than a passing condition. Robert L. Wilson, who was elected to the Illinois state legislature with Lincoln in 1836, found him amiable and fun-loving. But one day Lincoln told him something surprising. Lincoln said “that although he appeared to enjoy life rapturously, Still he was the victim of terrible melancholly,” Wilson recalled. “He Sought company, and indulged in fun and hilarity without restraint, or Stint as to time[.] Still when by himself, he told me that he was so overcome with mental depression, that he never dare carry a knife in his pocket.”
Yet as we learn about Lincoln, a fixation on modern categories should not distract us from the actual events of his life and the frameworks that he and his contemporaries applied to his condition. In his late twenties Lincoln was developing a distinct reputation as a depressive. At the same time, he was scrambling up the ladder of success, emerging as a leader of the Illinois Whig Party and a savvy, self-educated young lawyer. Today this juxtaposition may seem surprising, but in the nineteenth-century conception of melancholy, genius and gloom were often part of the same overall picture. True, a person with a melancholy temperament had been fated with an awful burden—but also, in Lord Byron’s phrase, with a “fearful gift.” The burden was a sadness and despair that could tip into a state of disease. But the gift was a capacity for depth and wisdom.
Both sides of melancholy are evident in a poem on suicide that Lincoln apparently wrote in his twenties. Discussed by his contemporaries but long undiscovered, the poem, unsigned, recently came to light through the efforts of the scholar Richard Lawrence Miller, who was aided by old records that have been made newly available. Without an original manuscript or a letter in which ownership is claimed, no unsigned piece can be attributed definitively to an author. But the evidence points strongly to Lincoln. The poem was published in the year cited by Lincoln’s closest friend, Joshua Speed, and its syntax, tone, meter, and other qualities are characteristic of Lincoln.
The poem ran in the August 25, 1838, issue of the Sangamo Journal. under the title “The Suicide’s Soliloquy.” At the top a note explains that the lines of verse were found “near the bones” of an apparent suicide in a deep forest by the Sangamon River. The conceit, in other words, is that this is a suicide note. As the poem begins, the anguished narrator announces his intention.
Here, where the lonely hooting owl
Sends forth his midnight moans,
Fierce wolves shall o’er my carcase growl,
Or buzzards pick my bones.
No fellow-man shall learn my fate,
Or where my ashes lie;
Unless by beasts drawn round their bait,
Or by the ravens’ cry.
Yes! I’ve resolved the deed to do,
And this the place to do it:
This heart I’ll rush a dagger through
Though I in hell should rue it!
Often understood as an emotional condition, depression is to those who experience it characterized largely by its cognitive patterns. The novelist William Styron has likened his depression to a storm in his brain, punctuated by thunderclaps of thought—self-critical, fearful, despairing. Lincoln clearly knew these mental strains (he wrote once of “that intensity of thought, which will some times wear the sweetest idea thread-bare and turn it to the bitterness of death”); he knew how, oppressed by the clamor, people often become hopeless, and seek the most drastic solution.
To ease me of this power to think ,
That through my bosom raves,
I’ll headlong leap from hell’s high brink
And wallow in its waves.
This poem illustrates the complex quality of Lincoln’s melancholy in his late twenties. He articulated a sense of himself as degraded and humiliated but also, somehow, as special and grand. And though the character in the poem in the end chooses death by the dagger, the author—using his tool, the pen—showed an impulse toward an artful life. Lincoln’s poem expressed both his connection with a morbid state of mind and, to some extent, a mastery over it. But the mastery would be short-lived.
Like the first, Lincoln’s second breakdown came after a long period of intense work. In 1835 he had been studying law; in the winter of 1840—1841 he was trying to keep the debt-ridden State of Illinois from collapsing (and his political career with it). On top of this came a profound personal stress. The precipitating causes are hard to identify precisely, in part because cause and effect in depressive episodes can be hard to separate. Ordinarily we insist on a narrative line: factor x led to reaction y. But in a depressive crisis we might feel bad because something has gone awry. Or we might make things go awry because we feel so bad. Or both.
For Lincoln in this winter many things were awry. Even as he faced the possibility that his political career was sunk, it seemed likely that he was inextricably bound to a woman he didn’t love (Mary Todd) and that Joshua Speed was going to either move away to Kentucky or stay in Illinois and marry Matilda Edwards, the young woman whom Lincoln said he really wanted but could not even approach, because of his bond with Todd. Then came a stretch of intensely cold weather, which, Lincoln later wrote, “my experience clearly proves to be verry severe on defective nerves.” Once again he began to speak openly about his misery, hopelessness, and thoughts of suicide—alarming his friends. “Lincoln went Crazy,” Speed recalled. “—had to remove razors from his room—take away all Knives and other such dangerous things—&—it was terrible.”
In January of 1841 Lincoln submitted himself to the care of a medical doctor, spending several hours a day with Dr. Anson Henry, whom he called “necessary to my existence.” Although few details of the treatment are extant, he probably went through what a prominent physician of the time called “the desolating tortures of officious medication.” When he emerged, on January 20, he was “reduced and emaciated in appearance,” wrote a young lawyer in town named James Conkling. On January 23 Lincoln wrote to his law partner in Washington: “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth. Whether I shall ever be better I can not tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.”
This spare, direct letter captures the core of depression as forcefully as the Gettysburg Address would distill the essence of the American experiment. It tells what depression is like: to feel not only miserable but the most miserable; to feel a strange, muted sense of awful power; to believe plainly that either the misery must end or life will—and yet to fear the misery will not end. The fact that Lincoln spoke thus, not to a counselor or a dear friend but to his law partner, indicates how relentlessly he insisted on acknowledging his fears. Through his late twenties and early thirties he drove deeper and deeper into them, hovering over what, according to Albert Camus, is the only serious question human beings have to deal with. He asked whether he could live, whether he could face life’s misery.
Finally he decided that he must. Speed recorded the dramatic exchange that began when he came to Lincoln and told him he would die unless he rallied. Lincoln replied that he could kill himself, that he was not afraid to die. Yet, he said, he had an “irrepressible desire” to accomplish something while he lived. He wanted to connect his name with the great events of his generation, and “so impress himself upon them as to link his name with something that would redound to the interest of his fellow man.” This was no mere wish, Lincoln said, but what he “desired to live for.”
In his middle years Lincoln turned from the question of whether he could live to how he would live. Building bridges out from his tortured self, he engaged with the psychological culture of his time, investigating who he was, how he might change, and what he must endure. Having seen what he wished to live for, Lincoln suffered at the prospect that he might never achieve it. Even so, he worked diligently to improve himself, developing self-understanding, discipline, and strategies for succor that would become the foundation of his character.
The melancholy did not go away during this period but, rather, took a new form. Beginning in his mid-thirties Lincoln began to fall into what a law clerk called his “blue spells.” A decade later the cast of his face and body when in repose suggested deep, abiding gloom to nearly all who crossed his path. In his memoirs the Illinois lawyer Henry C. Whitney recounted an afternoon at court in Bloomington, Illinois: “I was sitting with John T. Stuart”—Lincoln’s first law partner—”while a case was being tried, and our conversation was, at the moment, about Lincoln, when Stuart remarked that he was a hopeless victim of melancholy. I expressed surprise, to which Stuart replied; ‘Look at him, now.'” Whitney turned and saw Lincoln sitting by himself in a corner, “wrapped in abstraction and gloom.” Whitney watched him for a while. “It appeared,” he wrote, “as if he was pursuing in his mind some specific, sad subject, regularly and systematically through various sinuosities, and his sad face would assume, at times, deeper phases of grief: but no relief came from dark and despairing melancholy, till he was roused by the breaking up of court, when he emerged from his cave of gloom and came back, like one awakened from sleep, to the world in which he lived, again.”
In one sense these spells indicate Lincoln’s melancholy. But they may also represent a response to it—the visible end of Lincoln’s effort to contain his dark feelings and thoughts, to wrestle privately with his moods until they passed or lightened. “With depression,” writes the psychologist David B. Cohen, “recovery may be a matter of shifting from protest to more effective ways of mastering helplessness.” Lincoln was effective, to a point. He worked well and consistently at his law practice, always rousing himself from gloom for work. He and Mary Lincoln (whom he had wed in 1842) had four boys. He was elected to a term in the United States Congress. Yet his reaction to this honor—he wrote, “Though I am very grateful to our friends, for having done it, [it] has not pleased me as much as I expected”—suggested that through booms and busts, Lincoln continued to see life as hard.
Indeed, he developed a philosophical melancholy. “He felt very strongly,” said his friend Joseph Gillespie, “that there was more of discomfort than real happiness in human existence under the most favorable circumstances and the general current of his reflections was in that channel.” Once a girl named Rosa Haggard, the daughter of a hotel proprietor in Winchester, Illinois, asked Lincoln to sign her autograph album. Lincoln took the book and wrote,
You are young, and I am older;
You are hopeful, I am not—
Enjoy life, ere it grows colder—
Pluck the roses ere they rot.
At a time when newspapers were stuffed with ads for substances to cure all manner of ailments, it wouldn’t have been unusual for Lincoln to seek help at a pharmacy. He had a charge account at the Corneau and Diller drugstore, at 122 South Sixth Street in Springfield, where he bought a number of medications, including opiates, camphor, and sarsaparilla. On one occasion he bought fifty cents’ worth of cocaine, and he sometimes took the “blue mass”—a mercury pill that was believed to clear the body of black bile.
To whatever extent Lincoln used medicines, his essential view of melancholy discounted the possibility of transformation by an external agent. He believed that his suffering proceeded inexorably from his constitution—that, in a phrase he used in connection with a friend, he was “naturally of a nervous temperament.” Through no fault of his own, he believed, he suffered more than others.
Some strategies in response were apparent. As noted, work was a first refuge; he advised a friend, “I think if I were you, in case my mind were not exactly right, I would avoid being idle .” When he was off duty, two things gave him most relief. He told stories and jokes, studiously gathering new material from talented peers and printed sources. And he gave vent to his melancholy by reading, reciting, and composing poetry that dwelled on themes of death, despair, and human futility. Yet, somewhat in the way that insulin allows diabetics to function without eliminating the root problem, this strategy gave Lincoln relief without taking away his need for it.
Consider his favorite poem, which he began to recite often in his mid-thirties. It was in one sense, as a colleague observed, “a reflex in poetic form of the deep melancholy of his soul,” and in another a way to manage that melancholy. One story of his recitations comes from Lois Newhall, a member of the Newhall Family troupe of singers. During an Illinois tour in the late 1840s the troupe encountered Lincoln and two colleagues, who were traveling the same circuit giving political speeches. They ended up spending eight days together, and on their last they sat up late singing songs.
As the night wore down, Lincoln’s colleagues started pressing him to sing. Lincoln was embarrassed and demurred, but he finally said, “I’ll tell you what I’ll do for you. You girls have been so kind singing for us. I’ll repeat to you my favorite poem.” Leaning against the doorjamb, which looked small behind his lanky frame, and with his eyes half closed, Lincoln recited from memory.
O[h] why should the spirit of mortal be proud!
Like a swift, fleeting meteor—a fast-flying cloud—
A flash of the lightning—a break of the wave—
He passeth from life to his rest in the grave.
The leaves of the oak and the willow shall fade,
Be scattered around, and together be laid;
And the young and the old, and the low and the high
Shall molder to dust and together shall lie.
Lincoln first came across the poem in the early 1830s. Then, in 1845, he saw it in a newspaper, cut it out, and committed it to memory. He didn’t know who wrote it, because it had been published without attribution. He repeated the lines so often that people suspected they were his own. “Beyond all question, I am not the author,” he wrote. “I would give all I am worth, and go in debt, to be able to write so fine a piece as I think that is.” When he was president Lincoln learned that the poem had been written by William Knox, a Scotsman who died in 1825.
The last two verses of the poem were Lincoln’s favorites.
Yea! Hope and despondency, pleasure and pain,
Are mingled together in sun-shine and rain;
And the smile and the tear, and the song and the dirge,
Still follow each other, like surge upon surge.
‘Tis the wink of an eye, ’tis the draught of a breath,
From the blossoms of health, to the paleness of death.
From the gilded saloon, to the bier and the shroud
Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud!
When Lincoln finished, the room was still. “I know that for myself,” Lois Newhall recalled, “I was so impressed with the poem that I felt more like crying than talking.” She asked, “Mr. Lincoln, who wrote that?” He told her he didn’t know, but that if she liked, he would write out a copy of the poem for her. She was eating pancakes the next morning when she felt something behind her. A great big hand came around her left side and covered hers. Then, with his other hand, Lincoln laid a long piece of blue paper beside her.
In his mid-forties the dark soil of Lincoln’s melancholy began to yield fruit. When he threw himself into the fight against the extension of slavery, the same qualities that had long brought him so much trouble played a defining role. The suffering he had endured lent him clarity and conviction, creative skills in the face of adversity, and a faithful humility that helped him guide the nation through its greatest peril.
clarity. Some people, William Herndon observed, see the world “ornamented with beauty, life, and action; and hence more or less false and inexact.” Lincoln, on the other hand, “crushed the unreal, the inexact, the hollow, and the sham”—Everything came to him in its precise shape and color.” Such keen vision often brought Lincoln pain; being able to look troubling reality straight in the eye also proved a great strength.
The hunch of old Romantic poets—that gloom coexists with potential for insight—has been bolstered by modern research. In an influential 1979 experiment two psychologists, Lyn Abramson and Lauren Alloy, set up a game in their lab, putting subjects in front of a console with lights and a button, with instructions to make a particular light flash as often as possible. Afterward, asked how much control they had had, “normal,” or nondepressed, subjects gave answers that hinged on their success in the game. If they did well, they tended to say they’d had plenty of control; if they did poorly, very little. In other words, these subjects took credit for good scores and deflected the blame for poor scores.
But the depressed subjects saw things differently. Whether or not they had done well, they tended to believe that they’d had no control. And they were correct: the “game” was a fiction, the lights largely unaffected by the participants’ efforts.
According to the dominant model of depression, these findings made no sense. How could a mental disease characterized by errors in thinking confer advantages in perception? Abramson and Alloy pointed to a phenomenon called “depressive realism,” or the “sadder but wiser” effect. Though psychiatry had long equated mental health with clear thinking, it turns out that happiness is often characterized by muddy inaccuracies. “Much research suggests,” Alloy has written, “that when they are not depressed, people are highly vulnerable to illusions, including unrealistic optimism, overestimation of themselves, and an exaggerated sense of their capacity to control events. The same research indicates that depressed people’s perceptions and judgments are often less biased.”
Of course, whether such “less biased” judgments are appreciated depends on the circumstances. Take a man who goes to a picnic, notices only ants and grass stains, and ignores the baskets full of bread and wine. We would call him a pessimist—usually pejoratively. But suppose a danger arises, and the same man proclaims it. In this instance he is surely more valuable than the optimist who sits dreamily admiring the daisies.
In 1850s America an old conflict over slavery began to take on a new intensity, and in 1854 Lincoln joined the fight. That year Senator Stephen A. Douglas engineered the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, which had prohibited slavery in a large swath of the Northwest, and laid down a policy of “popular sovereignty,” which delegated slavery policy to local voters. To Lincoln the new policy was a Trojan horse, an ostensibly benign measure that in fact would stealthily spread slavery through the nation. He thought the conflict must be engaged. “Slavery,” he said, “is founded in the selfishness of man’s nature—opposition to it, is his love of justice. These principles are an eternal antagonism; and when brought into collision so fiercely, as slavery extension brings them, shocks, and throes, and convulsions must ceaselessly follow.”
In Douglas, whom he battled repeatedly through the 1850s, Lincoln faced a preternatural optimist, who really thought that moral and practical choices about slavery could be put off forever. In October of 1854, in a preview of their epic debates four summers later, Lincoln squared off against him in Springfield, Illinois. The physical contrast between the two men underlined their temperamental differences. Douglas stood five feet four inches, a foot shorter than Lincoln, and seemed packed with charisma. He had penetrating eyes and dark hair that he styled in a pompadour. Lincoln was not just tall and gaunt but a truly odd physical specimen, with cartoonishly long arms and legs; he looked as if he wore stilts under his trousers. He spoke with a kind of high-piping voice, but at the pace of a Kentucky drawl. Before he rose to speak, he looked, wrote a reporter named Horace White, “so overspread with sadness that I thought that Shakespeare’s melancholy Jacques had been translated from the forest of Arden to the capital of Illinois.”
The melancholy mattered because his observers could sense the depth of feeling that infused Lincoln’s oratory. Others could hit all the right notes and spark thunderous applause, but Lincoln’s eloquence “produced conviction in others because of the conviction of the speaker himself,” White explained. “His listeners felt that he believed every word he said, and that, like Martin Luther, he would go to the stake rather than abate one jot or tittle of it.”
Opposing the extension of slavery on moral grounds but conceding its existence as a practical necessity, Lincoln found himself in an unenviable spot. To supporters of slavery he was a dangerous radical, to abolitionists an equivocating hack. His political party, the Whigs, was dying off, and a new organization—which eventually took shape as the Republicans—had to be built from scratch out of divergent groups. But Lincoln stayed his course with an argument that reached the primary force of narrative. The United States, he said, had been founded with a great idea and a grave imperfection. The idea was liberty as the natural right of all people. The flaw—the “cancer” in the nation’s body—was the gross violation of liberty by human slavery. The Founders had recognized the evil, Lincoln said, and sought to restrict it, with the aim of its gradual abolition. The spirit of the Declaration of Independence, with its linchpin statement that “all men are created equal,” was meant to be realized, to the greatest extent possible, by each succeeding generation. “They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society,” Lincoln said, “which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for … even though never perfectly attained.”
This political vision drew power from personal experience. For Lincoln had long applied the same principle to his own life: that is, continuing struggle to realize an ideal, knowing that it could never be perfectly attained. Individuals, he had learned from his own “severe experience,” could succeed in “the great struggle of life” only by enduring failures and plodding on with a vision of improvement. This attitude sustained Lincoln through his ignominious defeats in the 1850s (he twice lost bids for the U.S. Senate), and it braced him for the trials that lay ahead. Prepared for defeat, and even for humiliation, he insisted on seeing the truth of both his personal circumstances and the national condition. And where the optimists of his time would fail, he would succeed, envisioning and articulating a durable idea of free society.
creativity. On February 25, 1860, Lincoln stepped off a train in Jersey City, New Jersey. He claimed his trunk, made his way to a crowded pier, and caught a ferry to Manhattan Island, where in two days he would deliver a speech in the Cooper Union’s Great Hall. It was the chance of his career—an audience before the lords of finance and culture in the nation’s media capital. But when Lincoln arrived on the island and called on a Republican colleague, he wore a “woe-begone look” on his face and carried a dour message: he said he feared he’d made a mistake in coming to New York and that he had to hole up and work on his speech. “Otherwise he was sure he would make a failure.”
Lincoln’s literary prowess is as well appreciated as any aspect of his life; like so many of his rhetorical efforts, his stand at Cooper Union would be a triumph. On February 27 more than 1,500 people filed into the Great Hall. As soon as Lincoln began to speak they were engrossed, and by his closing line—”Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it”—they were spellbound. “No man ever before made such an impression on his first appeal to a New York audience,” said the next day’s New York Tribune .
Yet Lincoln afterward seemed impervious to the praise. “No man in all New York,” said Charles Nott, a young Republican who escorted him back to his hotel, “appeared that night more simple, more unassuming, more modest, more unpretentious, more conscious of his own defects.” Nott saw Lincoln as a “sad and lonely man.”
The link between mental illness and creativity is supported by a bevy of historical examples—Charles Darwin, Emily Dickinson, Benjamin Disraeli, and William T. Sherman, among many others from Lincoln’s time alone, suffered from mood disorders—and a wealth of modern research. Many studies have found higher rates of mood disorders among artists, and the qualities associated with art among the tendencies of mentally disordered minds. But the dynamic is a curious one. As the psychologist and scholar Kay Redfield Jamison has written, “There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that, compared to ‘normal’ individuals, artists, writers, and creative people in general, are both psychologically ‘sicker’—that is, they score higher on a wide variety of measures of psychopathology—and psychologically healthier (for example, they show quite elevated scores on measures of self-confidence and ego strength).”
With Lincoln sadness did not just coexist with strength—these qualities ran together. Just as death supports new life in a healthy ecosystem, Lincoln’s self-negation fueled his peculiar confidence. His despair lay under a distinct hope; his overwhelming melancholy fed into a supple creative power, which allowed him not merely to see the truth of his circumstances but to express it in a stirring, meaningful way. The events in New York help illustrate the basic progression: Wariness and doubt led Lincoln into a kind of personal crisis, from which he turned to work. Afterward he largely turned aside acclaim to return to wariness and doubt, and the cycle began again.
After Lincoln’s election as president in November of 1860, the troughs of despair became deeper, and the need for creative response became all the more intense. Now his internal questions of self-worth and his abstract feelings of obligation were leavened by direct responsibility for the nation in a crisis of secession, which led soon after his inauguration to war. The trouble fell hard on him. The burdens of his office were so great, he said, “that, could I have anticipated them, I would not have believed it possible to survive.”
Observing Lincoln in an hour of trial, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote that he was unsteady but strong, like a wire cable that sways in storms but holds fast. In this metaphor we can see how Lincoln’s weakness connected to a special kind of strength. In 1862, amid one of many military calamities, Senator O. H. Browning came to the White House. The president was in his library, writing, and had left instructions that he was not to be disturbed. Browning went in anyway and found the president looking terrible—”weary, care-worn, and troubled.” Browning wrote in his diary, “I remarked that I felt concerned about him—regretted that troubles crowded so heavily upon him, and feared his health was suffering.” Lincoln took his friend’s hand and said, with a deep cadence of sadness, “Browning I must die sometime.” “He looked very sad,” Browning wrote. “We parted I believe both of us with tears in our eyes.” A clinician reading this passage could easily identify mental pathology in a man who looked haggard and distressed and volunteered morbid thoughts. However, one crucial detail upsets such a simple picture: Browning found Lincoln writing —doing the work that not only helped steer his nation through its immediate struggle but also became a compass for future generations.
humility. Throughout his life Lincoln’s response to suffering—for all the success it brought him—led to greater suffering still. When as a young man he stepped back from the brink of suicide, deciding that he must live to do some meaningful work, this sense of purpose sustained him; but it also led him into a wilderness of doubt and dismay, as he asked, with vexation, what work he would do and how he would do it. This pattern was repeated in the 1850s, when his work against the extension of slavery gave him a sense of purpose but also fueled a nagging sense of failure. Then, finally, political success led him to the White House, where he was tested as few had been before.
Lincoln responded with both humility and determination. The humility came from a sense that whatever ship carried him on life’s rough waters, he was not the captain but merely a subject of the divine force—call it fate or God or the “Almighty Architect” of existence. The determination came from a sense that however humble his station, Lincoln was no idle passenger but a sailor on deck with a job to do. In his strange combination of profound deference to divine authority and a willful exercise of his own meager power, Lincoln achieved transcendent wisdom.
Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Lincoln’s dressmaker, once told of watching the president drag himself into the room where she was fitting the First Lady. “His step was slow and heavy, and his face sad,” Keckley recalled. “Like a tired child he threw himself upon a sofa, and shaded his eyes with his hands. He was a complete picture of dejection.” He had just returned from the War Department, he said, where the news was “dark, dark everywhere.” Lincoln then took a small Bible from a stand near the sofa and began to read. “A quarter of an hour passed,” Keckley remembered, “and on glancing at the sofa the face of the president seemed more cheerful. The dejected look was gone; in fact, the countenance was lighted up with new resolution and hope.” Wanting to see what he was reading, Keckley pretended she had dropped something and went behind where Lincoln was sitting so that she could look over his shoulder. It was the Book of Job.
Throughout history a glance to the divine has often been the first and last impulse of suffering people. “Man is born broken,” the playwright Eugene O’Neill wrote. “He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue!” Today the connection between spiritual and psychological well-being is often passed over by psychologists and psychiatrists, who consider their work a branch of secular medicine and science. But for most of Lincoln’s lifetime scientists assumed there was some relationship between mental and spiritual life.
Lincoln, too, connected his mental well-being to divine forces. As a young man he saw how religion could ameliorate life’s blows, even as he found the consolation of faith elusive. An infidel—a dissenter from orthodox Christianity—he resisted popular dogma. But many of history’s greatest believers have also been its fiercest doubters. Lincoln charted his own theological course to a living vision of how frail, imperfect mortals could turn their suffering selves to the service of something greater and find solace—not in any personal satisfaction or glory but in dutiful mission.
An original theological thinker, Lincoln discounted the idea, common among evangelicals, that sin could be wiped out through confession or repentance. Rather, he believed, as William Herndon explained, “that God could not forgive; that punishment has to follow the sin.” This view fitted with both the stern, unforgiving God of Calvinism, with which Lincoln had been raised, and the mechanistic notion of a universe governed by fixed laws. But unlike the Calvinists, who disclaimed any possibility of grace for human beings not chosen for that fate, Lincoln did see a chance of improvement. And unlike some fatalists, who renounced any claim to a moral order, Lincoln saw how man’s reason could discern purpose even in the movement of a vast machine that grinds and cuts and mashes all who interfere with it. Just as a child learns to pull his hand from a fire, people can learn when they are doing something that is not in accord with the wider, unseen order. To Lincoln, Herndon explained, “suffering was medicinal & educational.” In other words, it could be an agent of growth.
In The Varieties of Religious Experience. William James writes of “sick souls” who turn from a sense of wrongness to a power greater than they. Lincoln showed the simple wisdom of this, as the burden of his work as president brought home a visceral and fundamental connection with something greater than he. He repeatedly called himself an “instrument” of a larger power—which he sometimes identified as the people of the United States, and other times as God—and said that he had been charged with “so vast, and so sacred a trust” that “he felt that he had no moral right to shrink; nor even to count the chances of his own life, in what might follow.” When friends said they feared his assassination, he said, “God’s will be done. I am in His hands.”
The griefs of his presidency furthered this humble sense. He lost friends and colleagues to the war, and in February of 1862 he lost his eleven-year-old son, Willie. In this vulnerable period Lincoln was influenced by the Reverend Phineas D. Gurley, whose Presbyterian church he attended (but never joined). In his eulogy for Willie, Gurley preached that “in the hour of trial” one must look to “Him who sees the end from the beginning and doeth all things well.” With confidence in God, Gurley said, “our sorrows will be sanctified and made a blessing to our souls, and by and by we shall have occasion to say with blended gratitude and rejoicing, ‘It is good for us that we have been afflicted.'” Lincoln asked Gurley to write out a copy of the eulogy. He would hold to this idea as if it were a life raft.
Yet Lincoln never used God to duck responsibility. Every day presented scores of decisions—on personnel, on policy, on the movement of troops and the direction of executive departments. So much of what today is delegated to political staffs and civil servants then required a direct decision from the president. He controlled patronage, from the envoy to China to the postmaster in St. Louis. His desk was piled high with court-martial cases to review and military dispatches to monitor. In all his choices he had to rely on his own judgment in accordance with law, custom, prudence, and compassion. As much as his attention focused on an unseen realm, Lincoln’s emphasis remained strictly on the material world of cause and effect. “These are not … the days of miracles,” he said, “and I suppose it will be granted that I am not to expect a direct revelation.” Lincoln did not expect God to take him by the hand. On the contrary, he said, “I must study the plain physical facts of the case, ascertain what is possible and learn what appears to be wise and right.”
Lincoln’s peculiar vision of the sacred led him to defy the conventions of his day. For centuries settlers in the New World had assured themselves that they were special in God’s eyes. They were a “City upon a Hill,” in John Winthrop’s phrase, decidedly chosen, like the Israelites of old. Lincoln turned this on its head when he said, “I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people, for perpetuating the object of that great struggle.” The country, Lincoln said, was almost chosen. Out of that phrase emerged a crucial strain of Lincoln’s thinking. As others invoked the favor of God in both the North and the South, Lincoln opened a space between mortal works and divine intention. Among his papers, after his death, his secretaries found this undated statement that has come to be known as the “Meditation on the Divine Will.”
The will of God prevails—In great contests
each party claims to act in accordence with
the will of God. Both may be, and one
must be wrong. God can not be for. and
against the same thing at the same time.
In the present civil war it is quite possible
that God’s purpose is something different from
the purpose of either party—and yet the human
instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of
the best adaptation to effect this
After this first passage the handwriting grows shakier; the words practically tremble with the thoughts they express. First Lincoln crossed out the last word he had written.
His purpose. I am
almost ready to say this is probably true—that
God wills this contest, and wills that it shall
not end yet—By his mere quiet power, on the minds
of the now contestants, He could have either saved
or destroyed the Union without a human contest—
Yet the contest began—And having begun
He could give the final victory to either side
any day—Yet the contest proceeds—
Lincoln’s clarity came in part from his uncertainty. It is hard to overestimate just how unusual this was, and how risky and unpopular his views often were. Most religious thinkers of the time, the historian of religion Mark Noll explains, not only assumed God’s favor but assumed that they could read his will.
“How was it,” Noll asks, “that this man who never joined a church and who read only a little theology could, on occasion, give expression to profound theological interpretations of the War between the States?” Viewing Lincoln through the lens of his melancholy, we see one cogent explanation: he was always inclined to look at the full truth of a situation, assessing both what could be known and what remained in doubt. When faced with uncertainty he had the patience, endurance, and vigor to stay in that place of tension, and the courage to be alone.
As his presidency wore on, his burden grew heavier and heavier, sometimes seeming to threaten Lincoln’s sanity. The war consumed a nation, dividing not only the two opposing sections but, increasingly, the northern states of the Union. Emancipation became a reality, which only inflamed the conflict. Lincoln became increasingly isolated. But he continued to turn from his suffering to the lessons it gave him. Throughout his term he faced the prospect of humiliating defeat, but he continued to work for just victory.
Many popular philosophies propose that suffering can be beaten simply, quickly, and clearly. Popular biographies often express the same view. Many writers, faced with the unhappiness of a heroic figure, make sure to find some crucible in which that bad feeling is melted into something new. “Biographies tend conventionally to be structured as crisis-and-recovery narratives,” the critic Louis Menand writes, “in which the subject undergoes a period of disillusionment or adversity, and then has a ‘breakthrough’ or arrives at a ‘turning point’ before going on to achieve whatever sort of greatness obtains.” Lincoln’s melancholy doesn’t lend itself to such a narrative. No point exists after which the melancholy dissolved—not in January of 1841; not during his middle age; and not at his political resurgence, beginning in 1854. Whatever greatness Lincoln achieved cannot be explained as a triumph over personal suffering. Rather, it must be accounted an outgrowth of the same system that produced that suffering. This is a story not of transformation but of integration. Lincoln didn’t do great work because he solved the problem of his melancholy; the problem of his melancholy was all the more fuel for the fire of his great work.
No, Not Gary Johnson
The Libertarian candidate puts a likable face on a deeply troubling economic policy.
On September 30, the Chicago Tribune awarded its presidential endorsement to the Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, a political cypher who is polling around 8 percent in national polls, which would translate to about 10 million votes in November. Johnson’s support is particularly high among young people. According to a recent George Washington University Battleground poll. Johnson draws 18 percent of Millennials, nearly as much as Donald Trump (26 percent) and more than a third of Hillary Clinton’s support (46 percent).
Johnson’s chief advantage in this election is the possession of a surname that isn’t Trump or Clinton. The two major parties are now led by the two most unpopular major-party candidates in modern history. The cases against Clinton and Trump are well known, but the case for Johnson requires, well, a case for Johnson. And on this score, the third-party candidate has done little to distinguish himself—and quite enough to establish that, at least in this contest, America’s third-party lockout doesn’t deserve its historic breakthrough in five weeks.
How to Email
An etiquette update: Brevity is the highest virtue.
I recently cut the amount of time I spent on email by almost half, and I think a lot of people could do the same.
I’m sure my approach has made some people hate me, because I come off curt. But if everyone thought about email in the same way, what I’m suggesting wouldn’t be rude. Here are the basic guidelines that are working for me and, so, I propose for all of the world to adopt immediately:
Best? Cheers? Thanks?
None of the above. You can write your name if it feels too naked or abrupt not to have something down there. But it shouldn’t, and it wouldn’t if it were the norm.
Don’t waste time considering if “Dear,” or “Hey” or “[name]!” is appropriate. Just get right into it. Write the recipient’s name if you must. But most people already know their names. Like they already know your name.
The Many Scandals of Donald Trump: A Cheat Sheet
New York’s attorney general has ordered the Trump Foundation to quit raising money, saying it is violating state law by doing so.
The problem with telling people to follow the money is they just might take you up on it. Donald Trump’s campaign has adopted that mantra in reference to the Clinton Foundation, but it applies to him in uncomfortable ways, too.
On Friday, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman sent a letter to the Donald J. Trump Foundation. instructing it that its fundraising was in violation of the law and that it must stop immediately. Last week, The Washington Post reported that the foundation did not have the requisite permission and oversight to raise more than $25,000. Despite lacking the legal right to do so, the charity has brought in millions of dollars in donations over the years.
In a statement. Trump campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks questioned the motives of Schneiderman, a Democrat, but said the foundation would cease fundraising.
Which Republicans Oppose Donald Trump? A Cheat Sheet
Old Clinton adversary Michael Chertoff has decided to support her, while Michael Reagan is having third thoughts about Trump.
If you’d said in May 2015 that both Michael Chertoff and Michael Reagan would come out strong against the Republican nominee in October 2016, you’d have been laughed out of the room.
But you also would have gotten the last laugh. On Monday, Chertoff, a veteran Republican who served as secretary of homeland security under George W. Bush, announced he is endorsing Hillary Clinton for the presidency.
“Trump’s sense of loyalties are misplaced,” he told Eli Lake. “Some of our NATO allies sent troops overseas, at the same time he is defending Russia and trying to dismiss what is widely acknowledged to be Russian intrusions into the databases of our political parties and political figures.”
Clinton has been courting Republican national-security figures like Chertoff, but his defection is notable not only because of his long history in the GOP. Back in the 1990s, Chertoff was the lead Republican counsel who led the Whitewater investigation, the first of (now) many inquiries into Hillary Clinton over the decades. She didn’t forget: While in the Senate, she voted against his appointment to lead a division of the Department of Justice, and again against his nomination as a federal judge—the only nay. Now, bygones are bygones.
Clinton and Trump Are Shuffling the Electoral Map
Democrats are increasingly looking toward Sunbelt states rather than Rustbelt states for victory in 2016 and beyond. Not long ago that would have been unthinkable.
In the campaign’s final weeks, Hillary Clinton’s position now looks stronger in Florida than in Ohio; in Virginia than in Wisconsin; and in Colorado and even North Carolina than in Iowa.
In other news, the sun today rose in the West.
With Trump advancing in Rustbelt states dominated by older and blue-collar whites and struggling in Sunbelt states that contain more younger, college-educated and minority voters, these starkly polarized patterns of support are reconfiguring the Electoral College map by accelerating long-developing trends rooted in changing demography and shifting partisan allegiance. From the mid-1960s through the early part of this century, this pattern of relatively greater strength for Clinton in the Sunbelt than Rustbelt would have been unrecognizable to Democratic strategists. Now, The 2016 race is explosively fast-forwarding changes in the campaign map that many political professionals had expected to unfold more gradually over the next decade.
Alcohol as Escape From Perfectionism
Perfect has been the way to be for several generations of women. I don’t remember my grandmothers suffering from this syndrome: women who raised families during the Depression, who baked and gardened and read well; who were fundamentally happy, and felt no pressure to look like stick figures. But those Mad Men years took their toll.
Racing in from a long day at the office, an evening of cooking and homework ahead, my first instinct is to go to the fridge or the cupboard and pop a cork. It soothes the transition from day to night. Chopping, dicing, sipping wine: It’s a common modern ritual.
For years it was me at the cutting board, a glass of chilled white at my side. And for years this habit was harmless—or it seemed that way. My house wine was Santa Margherita, a pale straw-blond Italian pinot grigio. There was always a bottle in my fridge, and I’d often pour a second glass before dinner, with seeming impunity.
Rethinking Child Discipline
In his new parenting book, the child psychologist Ross Greene outlines his environmentally focused method for remedying misbehavior.
Many adult assumptions and practices related to children take for granted that when kids misbehave, the reason is that they’re not sufficiently motivated to follow the rules. The solution, therefore, seems obvious: Ramp up the incentives or consequences tied to the desired behavior.
The child psychologist Ross Greene upends this conventional wisdom. He disputes the notion that, as he puts it, “Kids do well if they wanna.” Instead, he maintains: “Kids do well if they can.” When adults see a misbehaving child, they should, he suggests, look for a problem in the environment or with the child’s skills that is thwarting the expected behavior. This simple but dramatic shift in mindset underpins the discipline model that he developed in child psychiatric wards, moved into the juvenile-justice system, and implemented in schools. In each setting, his model dramatically reduced both discipline problems and punishments for the most challenging children and adolescents.
Millennials’ Political Views Don’t Make Any Sense
That's not a harsh assessment. It's just a fair description.
Millennial politics is simple, really. Young people support big government, unless it costs any more money. They’re for smaller government, unless budget cuts scratch a program they’ve heard of. They’d like Washington to fix everything, just so long as it doesn’t run anything.
That’s all from a new Reason Foundation poll surveying 2,000 young adults between the ages of 18 and 29. Millennials’ political views are, at best, in a stage of constant metamorphosis and, at worst, “totally incoherent ,” as Dylan Matthews puts it.
It’s not just the Reason Foundation. In March, Pew came out with a similar survey of Millennial attitudes that offered another smorgasbord of paradoxes :
- Millennials hate the political parties more than everyone else, but they have the highest opinion of Congress.
- Young people are the most likely to be single parents and the least likely to approve of single parenthood.
- Young people voted overwhelmingly for Obama when he promised universal health care, but they oppose his universal health care law as much as the rest of the country. even though they still pledge high support for universal health care. (Like other groups, but more so: They seem allergic to the term Obamacare .)
Which Should Americans Be Angrier About: Trump or the Tax Code?
The candidate’s 1995 returns reveal both a flawed system and a man skilled at exploiting it.
It’s possible that Donald Trump didn’t pay federal income taxes for nearly two decades. That’s the major takeaway of the portions of Trump’s tax returns recently leaked to The New York Times. The documents show that in 1995, Trump reported a nearly $1 billion loss from his businesses—a loss large enough to have potentially allowed him to earn an average of $50 million a year, tax-free, for 18 years.
Trump’s massive 1995 loss likely comes from a combination of factors: hard times at his casinos in New Jersey, a failed airline business, and the need to unload some real-estate holdings at prices lower than what he purchased them for. In 1992, Bloomberg chronicled the dire straits of Trump’s empire, characterizing it like this: “The name is a punchline now, associated with the worst of 1980s extravagance, egomania, and greed. Once, the world marveled at the scope and mastery of Trump’s megabuck deals. Today, he’s widely regarded as a washed-up real estate mogul who has been stripped of his once lustrous possessions.”
No Touching: The Countries That Dislike Physical Contact the Most
A study suggests you should hug a Finn, but not a Brit.
Do you greet a stranger by kissing them on the cheek or giving them a firm handshake? In the largest study ever quantifying where people were comfortable being touched and by whom, 1,300 men and women were asked the same question. The results suggest that when greeting most people, you’re better off with a handshake.
The participants, from Finland, France, Italy, Russia, and the U.K. detailed where strangers, family members, friends, and romantic partners were allowed to touch them. Researchers from the University of Oxford and Finland’s Aalto University then combined the results to create a so-called “heat map.”
‘Don’t Sneak': A Father’s Command to His Gay Son in the 1950s
In a StoryCorps animation, Patrick Haggerty remembers the remarkable advice he got from his dairy farmer dad.
How Well-Meaning, Intelligent People End Up in a Cult
EnlightenNext was an organization that promised spiritual awakening. Instead, it turned into a complicated, often-sinister community.
How an Editor Stays at Inbox Zero
A few simple rules could help you spend less time answering emails.
The Great Depression
A Short History of the Great Depression
By Nick Taylor, the author of “American-Made” (2008), a history of the Works Progress Administration.
The Great Depression was a worldwide economic crisis that in the United States was marked by widespread unemployment, near halts in industrial production and construction, and an 89 percent decline in stock prices. It was preceded by the so-called New Era, a time of low unemployment when general prosperity masked vast disparities in income.
The start of the Depression is usually pegged to the stock market crash of “Black Tuesday,” Oct. 29, 1929, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell almost 23 percent and the market lost between $8 billion and $9 billion in value. But it was just one in a series of losses during a time of extreme market volatility that exposed those who had bought stocks “on margin” — with borrowed money.
The stock market continued to decline despite brief rallies. Unemployment rose and wages fell for those who continued to work. The use of credit for the purchase of homes, cars, furniture and household appliances resulted in foreclosures and repossessions. As consumers lost buying power industrial production fell, businesses failed, and more workers lost their jobs. Farmers were caught in a depression of their own that had extended through much of the 1920s. This was caused by the collapse of food prices with the loss of export markets after World War I and years of drought that were marked by huge dust storms that blackened skies at noon and scoured the land of topsoil. As city dwellers lost their homes, farmers also lost their land and equipment to foreclosure.
President Herbert Hoover, a Republican and former Commerce secretary, believed the government should monitor the economy and encourage counter-cyclical spending to ease downturns, but not directly intervene. As the jobless population grew, he resisted calls from Congress, governors, and mayors to combat unemployment by financing public service jobs. He encouraged the creation of such jobs, but said it was up to state and local governments to pay for them. He also believed that relieving the suffering of the unemployed was solely up to local governments and private charities.
By 1932 the unemployment rate had soared past 20 percent. Thousands of banks and businesses had failed. Millions were homeless. Men (and women) returned home from fruitless job hunts to find their dwellings padlocked and their possessions and families turned into the street. Many drifted from town to town looking for non-existent jobs. Many more lived at the edges of cities in makeshift shantytowns their residents derisively called Hoovervilles. People foraged in dumps and garbage cans for food.
The presidential campaign of 1932 was run against the backdrop of the Depression. Franklin Delano Roosevelt won the Democratic nomination and campaigned on a platform of attention to “the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.” Hoover continued to insist it was not the government’s job to address the growing social crisis. Roosevelt won in a landslide. He took office on March 4, 1933, with the declaration that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Roosevelt faced a banking crisis and unemployment that had reached 24.9 percent. Thirteen to 15 million workers had no jobs. Banks regained their equilibrium after Roosevelt persuaded Congress to declare a nationwide bank holiday. He offered and Congress passed a series of emergency measures that came to characterize his promise of a “new deal for the American people.” The legislative tally of the new administration’s first hundred days reformed banking and the stock market; insured private bank deposits; protected home mortgages; sought to stabilize industrial and agricultural production; created a program to build large public works and another to build hydroelectric dams to bring power to the rural South; brought federal relief to millions, and sent thousands of young men into the national parks and forests to plant trees and control erosion.
The parks and forests program, called the Civilian Conservation Corps, was the first so-called work relief program that provided federally funded jobs. Roosevelt later created a large-scale temporary jobs program during the winter of 1933–34. The Civil Works Administration employed more than four million men and women at jobs from building and repairing roads and bridges, parks, playgrounds and public buildings to creating art. Unemployment, however, persisted at high levels. That led the administration to create a permanent jobs program, the Works Progress Administration. The W.P.A. began in 1935 and would last until 1943, employing 8.5 million people and spending $11 billion as it transformed the national infrastructure, made clothing for the poor, and created landmark programs in art, music, theater and writing. To accommodate unions that were growing stronger at the time, the W.P.A. at first paid building trades workers “prevailing wages” but shortened their hours so as not to compete with private employers.
Roosevelt’s efforts to assert government control over the economy were frustrated by Supreme Court rulings that overturned key pieces of legislation. In response, Roosevelt made the misstep of trying to “pack” the Supreme Court with additional justices. Congress rejected this 1937 proposal and turned against further New Deal measures, but not before the Social Security Act creating old-age pensions went into effect.
Brightening economic prospects were dashed in 1937 by a deep recession that lasted from that fall through most of 1938. The new downturn rolled back gains in industrial production and employment, prolonged the Depression and caused Roosevelt to increase the work relief rolls of the W.P.A. to their highest level ever.
Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939 brought declarations of war from France and England, launching the Second World War. Japan had invaded China two years earlier. These escalating wars turned national attention to defense. Roosevelt, who had been re-elected in 1936, sought to rebuild a military infrastructure that had been neglected after World War I. Work on army camps and roads and airfields became a new focus of the WPA as private employment still lagged pre-depression levels. But as the war in Europe intensified with France surrendering to Germany and England fighting on, ramped-up military production began to reduce the persistent unemployment that was the main face of the depression. Jobless workers were absorbed as trainees for defense jobs and then by the draft that went into effect in 1940, when Roosevelt was elected to a third term. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 that brought the United States into World War II sent America’s factories into full production and absorbed all available workers.
Despite the New Deal’s many measures and their alleviation of the worst effects of the Great Depression, it was the humming factories that supplied the American war effort that finally brought the Depression to a close. And it was not until 1954 that the stock market regained its pre-Depression levels.
The New York Times
By JONAH LEHRER
February 25, 2010
The Victorians had many names for depression, and Charles Darwin used them all. There were his “fits” brought on by “excitements,” “flurries” leading to an “uncomfortable palpitation of the heart” and “air fatigues” that triggered his “head symptoms.” In one particularly pitiful letter, written to a specialist in “psychological medicine,” he confessed to “extreme spasmodic daily and nightly flatulence” and “hysterical crying” whenever Emma, his devoted wife, left him alone.
While there has been endless speculation about Darwin’s mysterious ailment — his symptoms have been attributed to everything from lactose intolerance to Chagas disease — Darwin himself was most troubled by his recurring mental problems. His depression left him “not able to do anything one day out of three,” choking on his “bitter mortification.” He despaired of the weakness of mind that ran in his family. “The ‘race is for the strong,’ ” Darwin wrote. “I shall probably do little more but be content to admire the strides others made in Science.”
Darwin, of course, was wrong; his recurring fits didn’t prevent him from succeeding in science. Instead, the pain may actually have accelerated the pace of his research, allowing him to withdraw from the world and concentrate entirely on his work. His letters are filled with references to the salvation of study, which allowed him to temporarily escape his gloomy moods. “Work is the only thing which makes life endurable to me,” Darwin wrote and later remarked that it was his “sole enjoyment in life.”
For Darwin, depression was a clarifying force, focusing the mind on its most essential problems. In his autobiography, he speculated on the purpose of such misery; his evolutionary theory was shadowed by his own life story. “Pain or suffering of any kind,” he wrote, “if long continued, causes depression and lessens the power of action, yet it is well adapted to make a creature guard itself against any great or sudden evil.” And so sorrow was explained away, because pleasure was not enough. Sometimes, Darwin wrote, it is the sadness that informs as it “leads an animal to pursue that course of action which is most beneficial.” The darkness was a kind of light.
The mystery of depression is not that it exists — the mind, like the flesh, is prone to malfunction. Instead, the paradox of depression has long been its prevalence. While most mental illnesses are extremely rare — schizophrenia, for example, is seen in less than 1 percent of the population — depression is everywhere, as inescapable as the common cold. Every year, approximately 7 percent of us will be afflicted to some degree by the awful mental state that William Styron described as a “gray drizzle of horror. a storm of murk.” Obsessed with our pain, we will retreat from everything. We will stop eating, unless we start eating too much. Sex will lose its appeal; sleep will become a frustrating pursuit. We will always be tired, even though we will do less and less. We will think a lot about death.
The persistence of this affliction — and the fact that it seemed to be heritable — posed a serious challenge to Darwin’s new evolutionary theory. If depression was a disorder, then evolution had made a tragic mistake, allowing an illness that impedes reproduction — it leads people to stop having sex and consider suicide — to spread throughout the population. For some unknown reason, the modern human mind is tilted toward sadness and, as we’ve now come to think, needs drugs to rescue itself.
The alternative, of course, is that depression has a secret purpose and our medical interventions are making a bad situation even worse. Like a fever that helps the immune system fight off infection — increased body temperature sends white blood cells into overdrive — depression might be an unpleasant yet adaptive response to affliction. Maybe Darwin was right. We suffer — we suffer terribly — but we don’t suffer in vain.
ANDY THOMSON IS a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia. He has a scruffy gray beard and steep cheekbones. When Thomson talks, he tends to close his eyes, as if he needs to concentrate on what he’s saying. But mostly what he does is listen: For the last 32 years, Thomson has been tending to his private practice in Charlottesville. “I tend to get the real hard cases,” Thomson told me recently. “A lot of the people I see have already tried multiple treatments. They arrive without much hope.” On one of the days I spent with Thomson earlier this winter, he checked his phone constantly for e-mail updates. A patient of his on “welfare watch” who was required to check in with him regularly had not done so, and Thomson was worried. “I’ve never gotten used to treating patients in mental pain,” he said. “Maybe it’s because every story is unique. You see one case of iron-deficiency anemia, you’ve seen them all. But the people who walk into my office are all hurting for a different reason.”
In the late 1990s, Thomson became interested in evolutionary psychology, which tries to explain the features of the human mind in terms of natural selection. The starting premise of the field is that the brain has a vast evolutionary history, and that this history shapes human nature. We are not a blank slate but a byproduct of imperfect adaptations, stuck with a mind that was designed to meet the needs of Pleistocene hunter-gatherers on the African savanna. While the specifics of evolutionary psychology remain controversial — it’s never easy proving theories about the distant past — its underlying assumption is largely accepted by mainstream scientists. There is no longer much debate over whether evolution sculptured the fleshy machine inside our head. Instead, researchers have moved on to new questions like when and how this sculpturing happened and which of our mental traits are adaptations and which are accidents.
In 2004, Thomson met Paul Andrews, an evolutionary psychologist at Virginia Commonwealth University, who had long been interested in the depression paradox — why a disorder that’s so costly is also so common. Andrews has long dark brown hair and an aquiline nose. Before he begins to talk, he often writes down an outline of his answer on scratch paper. “This is a very delicate subject,” he says. “I don’t want to say something reckless.”
Andrews and Thomson struck up an extended conversation on the evolutionary roots of depression. They began by focusing on the thought process that defines the disorder, which is known as rumination. (The verb is derived from the Latin word for “chewed over,” which describes the act of digestion in cattle, in which they swallow, regurgitate and then rechew their food.) In recent decades, psychiatry has come to see rumination as a dangerous mental habit, because it leads people to fixate on their flaws and problems, thus extending their negative moods. Consider “The Depressed Person,” a short story by David Foster Wallace, which chronicles a consciousness in the grip of the ruminative cycle. (Wallace struggled with severe depression for years before committing suicide in 2008.) The story is a long lament, a portrait of a mind hating itself, filled with sentences like this: “What terms might be used to describe such a solipsistic, self-consumed, bottomless emotional vacuum and sponge as she now appeared to herself to be?” The dark thoughts of “The Depressed Person” soon grow tedious and trying, but that’s precisely Wallace’s point. There is nothing profound about depressive rumination. There is just a recursive loop of woe.
The bleakness of this thought process helps explain why, according to the Yale psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, people with “ruminative tendencies” are more likely to become depressed. They’re also more likely to become unnerved by stressful events: for instance, Nolen-Hoeksema found that residents of San Francisco who self-identified as ruminators showed significantly more depressive symptoms after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. And then there are the cognitive deficits. Because rumination hijacks the stream of consciousness — we become exquisitely attentive to our pain — numerous studies have found that depressed subjects struggle to think about anything else, just like Wallace’s character. The end result is poor performance on tests for memory and executive function, especially when the task involves lots of information. (These deficits disappear when test subjects are first distracted from their depression and thus better able to focus on the exercise.) Such research has reinforced the view that rumination is a useless kind of pessimism, a perfect waste of mental energy.
That, at least, was the scientific consensus when Andrews and Thomson began exploring the depression paradox. Their evolutionary perspective, however — they see the mind as a fine-tuned machine that is not prone to pointless programming bugs — led them to wonder if rumination had a purpose. They started with the observation that rumination was often a response to a specific psychological blow, like the death of a loved one or the loss of a job. (Darwin was plunged into a debilitating grief after his 10-year-old daughter, Annie, died following a bout of scarlet fever.) Although the D.S.M. manual, the diagnostic bible for psychiatrists, does not take such stressors into account when diagnosing depressive disorder — the exception is grief caused by bereavement, as long as the grief doesn’t last longer than two months — it’s clear that the problems of everyday life play a huge role in causing mental illness. “Of course, rumination is unpleasant,” Andrews says. “But it’s usually a response to something real, a real setback. It didn’t seem right that the brain would go haywire just when we need it most.”
Imagine, for instance, a depression triggered by a bitter divorce. The ruminations might take the form of regret (“I should have been a better spouse”), recurring counterfactuals (“What if I hadn’t had my affair?”) and anxiety about the future (“How will the kids deal with it? Can I afford my alimony payments?”). While such thoughts reinforce the depression — that’s why therapists try to stop the ruminative cycle — Andrews and Thomson wondered if they might also help people prepare for bachelorhood or allow people to learn from their mistakes. “I started thinking about how, even if you are depressed for a few months, the depression might be worth it if it helps you better understand social relationships,” Andrews says. “Maybe you realize you need to be less rigid or more loving. Those are insights that can come out of depression, and they can be very valuable.”
This radical idea — the scientists were suggesting that depressive disorder came with a net mental benefit — has a long intellectual history. Aristotle was there first, stating in the fourth century B.C. “that all men who have attained excellence in philosophy, in poetry, in art and in politics, even Socrates and Plato, had a melancholic habitus; indeed some suffered even from melancholic disease.” This belief was revived during the Renaissance, leading Milton to exclaim, in his poem “Il Penseroso”: “Hail divinest Melancholy/Whose saintly visage is too bright/To hit the sense of human sight.” The Romantic poets took the veneration of sadness to its logical extreme and described suffering as a prerequisite for the literary life. As Keats wrote, “Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?”
But Andrews and Thomson weren’t interested in ancient aphorisms or poetic apologias. Their daunting challenge was to show how rumination might lead to improved outcomes, especially when it comes to solving life’s most difficult dilemmas. Their first speculations focused on the core features of depression, like the inability of depressed subjects to experience pleasure or their lack of interest in food, sex and social interactions. According to Andrews and Thomson, these awful symptoms came with a productive side effect, because they reduced the possibility of becoming distracted from the pressing problem.
The capacity for intense focus, they note, relies in large part on a brain area called the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC), which is located a few inches behind the forehead. While this area has been associated with a wide variety of mental talents, like conceptual knowledge and verb conjugation, it seems to be especially important for maintaining attention. Experiments show that neurons in the VLPFC must fire continuously to keep us on task so that we don’t become sidetracked by irrelevant information. Furthermore, deficits in the VLPFC have been associated with attention-deficit disorder.
Several studies found an increase in brain activity (as measured indirectly by blood flow) in the VLPFC of depressed patients. Most recently, a paper to be published next month by neuroscientists in China found a spike in “functional connectivity” between the lateral prefrontal cortex and other parts of the brain in depressed patients, with more severe depressions leading to more prefrontal activity. One explanation for this finding is that the hyperactive VLPFC underlies rumination, allowing people to stay focused on their problem. (Andrews and Thomson argue that this relentless fixation also explains the cognitive deficits of depressed subjects, as they are too busy thinking about their real-life problems to bother with an artificial lab exercise; their VLPFC can’t be bothered to care.) Human attention is a scarce resource — the neural effects of depression make sure the resource is efficiently allocated.
But the reliance on the VLPFC doesn’t just lead us to fixate on our depressing situation; it also leads to an extremely analytical style of thinking. That’s because rumination is largely rooted in working memory, a kind of mental scratchpad that allows us to “work” with all the information stuck in consciousness. When people rely on working memory — and it doesn’t matter if they’re doing long division or contemplating a relationship gone wrong — they tend to think in a more deliberate fashion, breaking down their complex problems into their simpler parts.
The bad news is that this deliberate thought process is slow, tiresome and prone to distraction; the prefrontal cortex soon grows exhausted and gives out. Andrews and Thomson see depression as a way of bolstering our feeble analytical skills, making it easier to pay continuous attention to a difficult dilemma. The downcast mood and activation of the VLPFC are part of a “coordinated system” that, Andrews and Thomson say, exists “for the specific purpose of effectively analyzing the complex life problem that triggered the depression.” If depression didn’t exist — if we didn’t react to stress and trauma with endless ruminations — then we would be less likely to solve our predicaments. Wisdom isn’t cheap, and we pay for it with pain.
Consider a young professor on tenure track who was treated by Thomson. The patient was having difficulties with his academic department. “This guy was used to success coming easy, but now it wasn’t,” Thomson says. “I made it clear that I thought he’d need some time to figure out his next step. His problem was like a splinter, and the pain wouldn’t go away until the splinter was removed.” Should the patient leave the department? Should he leave academia? Or should he try to resolve the disagreement? Over the next several weeks, Thomson helped the patient analyze his situation and carefully think through the alternatives. “We took it one variable at a time,” Thomson says. “And it eventually became clear to him that the departmental issues couldn’t be fixed. He needed to leave. Once he came to that conclusion, he started feeling better.”
The publication of Andrews and Thomson’s 36,000-word paper in the July 2009 issue of Psychological Review had a polarizing effect on the field. While some researchers, like Jerome Wakefield, a professor at New York University who specializes in the conceptual foundations of clinical theory, greeted the paper as “an extremely important first step toward the re-evaluation of depression,” other psychiatrists regarded it as little more than irresponsible speculation, a justification for human suffering. Peter Kramer, a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University, describes the paper as “a ladder with a series of weak rungs.” Kramer has long defended the use of antidepressants — his landmark work, “Listening to Prozac,” chronicled the profound improvements of patients taking the drugs — and criticized those who romanticized depression, which he compares to the glamorization of tuberculosis in the late 19th century. In a series of e-mail messages to me, Kramer suggested that Andrews and Thomson neglect the variants of depression that don’t fit their evolutionary theory. “This study says nothing about chronic depression and the sort of self-hating, paralyzing, hopeless, circular rumination it inspires,” Kramer wrote. And what about post-stroke depression? Late-life depression? Extreme depressive condition? Kramer argues that there’s a clear category difference between a healthy response to social stressors and the response of people with depressive disorder. “Depression is not really like sadness,” Kramer has written. “It’s more an oppressive flattening of feeling.”
Even scientists who are sympathetic to what Andrews and Thomson call the “analytic-rumination hypothesis” remain critical of its details. Ed Hagen, an anthropologist at Washington State University who is working on a book with Andrews, says that while the analytic-rumination hypothesis has persuaded him that some depressive symptoms might improve problem-solving skills, he remains unconvinced that it is a sufficient explanation for depression. “Individuals with major depression often don’t groom, bathe and sometimes don’t even use the toilet,” Hagen says. They also significantly “reduce investment in child care,” which could have detrimental effects on the survival of offspring. The steep fitness costs of these behaviors, Hagen says, would not be offset by “more uninterrupted time to think.”
Other scientists, including Randolph Nesse at the University of Michigan, say that complex psychiatric disorders like depression rarely have simple evolutionary explanations. In fact, the analytic-rumination hypothesis is merely the latest attempt to explain the prevalence of depression. There is, for example, the “plea for help” theory, which suggests that depression is a way of eliciting assistance from loved ones. There’s also the “signal of defeat” hypothesis, which argues that feelings of despair after a loss in social status help prevent unnecessary attacks; we’re too busy sulking to fight back. And then there’s “depressive realism”: several studies have found that people with depression have a more accurate view of reality and are better at predicting future outcomes. While each of these speculations has scientific support, none are sufficient to explain an illness that afflicts so many people. The moral, Nesse says, is that sadness, like happiness, has many functions.
Although Nesse says he admires the analytic-rumination hypothesis, he adds that it fails to capture the heterogeneity of depressive disorder. Andrews and Thomson compare depression to a fever helping to fight off infection, but Nesse says a more accurate metaphor is chronic pain, which can arise for innumerable reasons. “Sometimes, the pain is going to have an organic source,” he says. “Maybe you’ve slipped a disc or pinched a nerve, in which case you’ve got to solve that underlying problem. But much of the time there is no origin for the pain. The pain itself is the dysfunction.”
Andrews and Thomson respond to such criticisms by acknowledging that depression is a vast continuum, a catch-all term for a spectrum of symptoms. While the analytic-rumination hypothesis might explain those patients reacting to an “acute stressor,” it can’t account for those whose suffering has no discernible cause or whose sadness refuses to lift for years at a time. “To say that depression can be useful doesn’t mean it’s always going to be useful,” Thomson says. “Sometimes, the symptoms can spiral out of control. The problem, though, is that as a society, we’ve come to see depression as something that must always be avoided or medicated away. We’ve been so eager to remove the stigma from depression that we’ve ended up stigmatizing sadness.”
For Thomson, this new theory of depression has directly affected his medical practice. “That’s the litmus test for me,” he says. “Do these ideas help me treat my patients better?” In recent years, Thomson has cut back on antidepressant prescriptions, because, he says, he now believes that the drugs can sometimes interfere with genuine recovery, making it harder for people to resolve their social dilemmas. “I remember one patient who came in and said she needed to reduce her dosage,” he says. “I asked her if the antidepressants were working, and she said something I’ll never forget. ‘Yes, they’re working great,’ she told me. ‘I feel so much better. But I’m still married to the same alcoholic son of a bitch. It’s just now he’s tolerable.’ ”
The point is the woman was depressed for a reason; her pain was about something. While the drugs made her feel better, no real progress was ever made. Thomson’s skepticism about antidepressants is bolstered by recent studies questioning their benefits, at least for patients with moderate depression. Consider a 2005 paper led by Steven Hollon, a psychologist at Vanderbilt University: he found that people on antidepressants had a 76 percent chance of relapse within a year when the drugs were discontinued. In contrast, patients given a form of cognitive talk therapy had a relapse rate of 31 percent. And Hollon’s data aren’t unusual: several studies found that patients treated with medication were approximately twice as likely to relapse as patients treated with cognitive behavior therapy. “The high relapse rate suggests that the drugs aren’t really solving anything,” Thomson says. “In fact, they seem to be interfering with the solution, so that patients are discouraged from dealing with their problems. We end up having to keep people on the drugs forever. It was as if these people have a bodily infection, and modern psychiatry is just treating their fever.”
Thomson describes a college student who was referred to his practice. “It was clear that this patient was in a lot of pain,” Thomson says. “He couldn’t sleep, couldn’t study. He had some family issues” — his parents were recently divorced — “and his father was exerting a tremendous amount of pressure on him to go to graduate school. Because he’s got a family history of depression, the standard of care would be to put him on drugs right away. And a few years ago, that’s what I would have done.”
Instead, Thomson was determined to help the student solve his problem. “What you’re trying to do is speed along the rumination process,” Thomson says. “Once you show people the dilemma they need to solve, they almost always start feeling better.” He cites as evidence a recent study that found “expressive writing” — asking depressed subjects to write essays about their feelings — led to significantly shorter depressive episodes. The reason, Thomson suggests, is that writing is a form of thinking, which enhances our natural problem-solving abilities. “This doesn’t mean there’s some miracle cure,” he says. “In most cases, the recovery period is going to be long and difficult. And that’s what I told this young student. I said: ‘I know you’re hurting. I know these problems seem impossible. But they’re not. And I can help you solve them.’ ”
IT’S TOO SOON to judge the analytic-rumination hypothesis. Nobody knows if depression is an adaptation or if Andrews and Thomson have merely spun another “Just So” story, a clever evolutionary tale that lacks direct evidence. Nevertheless, their speculation is part of a larger scientific re-evaluation of negative moods, which have long been seen as emotional states to avoid. The dismissal of sadness and its synonyms is perhaps best exemplified by the rise of positive psychology, a scientific field devoted to the pursuit of happiness. In recent years, a number of positive psychologists have written popular self-help books, like “The How of Happiness” and “Authentic Happiness,” that try to outline the scientific principles behind “lasting fulfillment” and “getting the life we want.”
The new research on negative moods, however, suggests that sadness comes with its own set of benefits and that even our most unpleasant feelings serve an important purpose. Joe Forgas, a social psychologist at the University of New South Wales in Australia, has repeatedly demonstrated in experiments that negative moods lead to better decisions in complex situations. The reason, Forgas suggests, is rooted in the intertwined nature of mood and cognition: sadness promotes “information-processing strategies best suited to dealing with more-demanding situations.” This helps explain why test subjects who are melancholy — Forgas induces the mood with a short film about death and cancer — are better at judging the accuracy of rumors and recalling past events; they’re also much less likely to stereotype strangers.
Last year Forgas ventured beyond the lab and began conducting studies in a small stationery store in suburban Sydney, Australia. The experiment itself was simple: Forgas placed a variety of trinkets, like toy soldiers, plastic animals and miniature cars, near the checkout counter. As shoppers exited, Forgas tested their memory, asking them to list as many of the items as possible. To control for the effect of mood, Forgas conducted the survey on gray, rainy days — he accentuated the weather by playing Verdi’s “Requiem” — and on sunny days, using a soundtrack of Gilbert and Sullivan. The results were clear: shoppers in the “low mood” condition remembered nearly four times as many of the trinkets. The wet weather made them sad, and their sadness made them more aware and attentive.
The enhancement of these mental skills might also explain the striking correlation between creative production and depressive disorders. In a survey led by the neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen, 30 writers from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop were interviewed about their mental history. Eighty percent of the writers met the formal diagnostic criteria for some form of depression. A similar theme emerged from biographical studies of British writers and artists by Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, who found that successful individuals were eight times as likely as people in the general population to suffer from major depressive illness.
Why is mental illness so closely associated with creativity? Andreasen argues that depression is intertwined with a “cognitive style” that makes people more likely to produce successful works of art. In the creative process, Andreasen says, “one of the most important qualities is persistence.” Based on the Iowa sample, Andreasen found that “successful writers are like prizefighters who keep on getting hit but won’t go down. They’ll stick with it until it’s right.” While Andreasen acknowledges the burden of mental illness — she quotes Robert Lowell on depression not being a “gift of the Muse” and describes his reliance on lithium to escape the pain — she argues that many forms of creativity benefit from the relentless focus it makes possible. “Unfortunately, this type of thinking is often inseparable from the suffering,” she says. “If you’re at the cutting edge, then you’re going to bleed.”
And then there’s the virtue of self-loathing, which is one of the symptoms of depression. When people are stuck in the ruminative spiral, their achievements become invisible; the mind is only interested in what has gone wrong. While this condition is typically linked to withdrawal and silence — people become unwilling to communicate — there’s some suggestive evidence that states of unhappiness can actually improve our expressive abilities. Forgas said he has found that sadness correlates with clearer and more compelling sentences, and that negative moods “promote a more concrete, accommodative and ultimately more successful communication style.” Because we’re more critical of what we’re writing, we produce more refined prose, the sentences polished by our angst. As Roland Barthes observed, “A creative writer is one for whom writing is a problem.”
This line of research led Andrews to conduct his own experiment, as he sought to better understand the link between negative mood and improved analytical abilities. He gave 115 undergraduates an abstract-reasoning test known as Raven’s Progressive Matrices, which requires subjects to identify a missing segment in a larger pattern. (Performance on the task strongly predicts general intelligence.) The first thing Andrews found was that nondepressed students showed an increase in “depressed affect” after taking the test. In other words, the mere presence of a challenging problem — even an abstract puzzle — induced a kind of attentive trance, which led to feelings of sadness. It doesn’t matter if we’re working on a mathematical equation or working through a broken heart: the anatomy of focus is inseparable from the anatomy of melancholy. This suggests that depressive disorder is an extreme form of an ordinary thought process, part of the dismal machinery that draws us toward our problems, like a magnet to metal.
But is that closeness effective? Does the despondency help us solve anything? Andrews found a significant correlation between depressed affect and individual performance on the intelligence test, at least once the subjects were distracted from their pain: lower moods were associated with higher scores. “The results were clear,” Andrews says. “Depressed affect made people think better.” The challenge, of course, is persuading people to accept their misery, to embrace the tonic of despair. To say that depression has a purpose or that sadness makes us smarter says nothing about its awfulness. A fever, after all, might have benefits, but we still take pills to make it go away. This is the paradox of evolution: even if our pain is useful, the urge to escape from the pain remains the most powerful instinct of all.
Correction: March 14, 2010
An article on Feb. 28 about the benefits of depression misstated the name of a university in Australia where studies have been done on the subject. It is the University of New South Wales, not South Wales.