Life is difficult. This is how M Scott Peck begins The Road Less Travelled, one of the most successful books of all time. As he points out, this statement is one of the great, inescapable truths, which has been emphasized by philosophers since the time of Buddha. Hard work, losses, injustices, illness and poverty are among the problems that are part of our human condition. Despite these difficulties, however, the capacity of the human spirit to rise above such difficulties time and again has repeatedly been observed. Victor Frankl survived one of the greatest horrors of our modern era or, perhaps, of all time – the Holocaust – and went on to write his classic inspirational work, Man’s Search for Meaning in which he emphasized our capacity to find significance and value even in the most horrible of circumstances. He regarded such an ability to preserve a sense of purpose and meaning as essential to survival.
Depressed people lose their capacity to see meaning and significance in their lives. A religious person when depressed may feel cut off from God, a particularly distressing loss at a time when spiritual comfort may be most deeply needed. In such a spiritual void, the depressed person may naturally feel that there is very little purpose in living.
Related to our ability to find a sense of meaning and purpose in life is our capacity to enjoy ourselves and have fun. We can see this ability at play even in the midst of all sorts of difficulties. Poor people retain their ability to celebrate, as anyone can see who has walked through the impoverished neighbourhoods of some European town during the festival for a saint or at carnival time. Even very hard-working people take time out for recreation. When difficult times let up, even for a short interval, the ability to have fun pops up again like the crocuses that sprout their shoots and flowers after a long winter.
All of these normal abilities are the opposite of what we see in depression. Even in the midst of plenty – enough money, good physical health, supportive friends and family — the depressed person is unable to have a good time. This inability to enjoy life can come on insidiously and it may take a while to realize that you are not enjoying life as you used to. Sometimes this recognition is triggered by returning to a place you’ve been before or an activity you used to relish and realizing that you don’t have the same feelings or enthusiasm for it that you enjoyed before. Sometimes friends will ask you what the matter is. You just don’t seem to be enjoying yourself as you used to. Suddenly or gradually you realize that nothing feels like fun anymore. As one of my patients put it, depression is like an unwelcome guest that follows you around your house and just won’t go away. The formal clinical term for this state is anhedonia, which means the inability to experience pleasure. Life feels dreary. Sometimes this dreariness is experienced through the senses. Colours seem less bright than they did before. The world may look grey or dark where formerly it was full of vivid colours. Whatever it is that you may have loved -music, dancing, films – now feels like a drag. In this way, depression is like a thief that robs you of the joy of living. This is another reason not to delay in treating it and reclaiming the ability to experience joy once again.
If nothing seems like fun anymore and life seems dreary, and this has been going on for more than a few weeks, consider the possibility that you may be clinically depressed.