Jeremy's Weblog

I recently graduated from Harvard Law School. This is my weblog. It tries to be funny. E-mail me if you like it. For an index of what's lurking in the archives, sorted by category, click here.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

From a thoroughly engaging article in this week's NY Times Magazine about the recent surge in "mild depression" in Japan, coinciding with the introduction of antidepressants and pharmaceutical marketing:

For 1,500 years of Japanese history, Buddhism has encouraged the acceptance of sadness and discouraged the pursuit of happiness -- a fundamental distinction between Western and Eastern attitudes. The first of Buddhism's four central precepts is: suffering exists. Because sickness and death are inevitable, resisting them brings more misery, not less. "Nature shows us that life is sadness, that everything dies or ends," Hayao Kawai, a clinical psychologist who is now Japan's commissioner of cultural affairs, said. "Our mythology repeats that; we do not have stories where anyone lives happily ever after." Happiness is nearly always fleeting in Japanese art and literature. That bittersweet aesthetic, known as aware, prizes melancholy as a sign of sensitivity.

This traditional way of thinking about suffering helps to explain why mild depression was never considered a disease. "Melancholia, sensitivity, fragility -- these are not negative things in a Japanese context," Tooru Takahashi, a psychiatrist who worked for Japan's National Institute of Mental Health for 30 years, explained. "It never occurred to us that we should try to remove them, because it never occurred to us that they were bad."

I think it's a very interesting article. It poses, but does not answer, this question: is getting rid of sadness a good thing? It sort of dances around the question very carefully, but it's a curious question to think about. I've read that Billy Joel credits his songwriting in large part to bouts of depression. There's something about negative feelings -- sadness, anger, pain -- that does seem to help the brain "create" stuff. Create art. Or so it seems. This is not what the article is about, but it's what it gets me thinking about. So does society gain if we "solve" everyone's negative feelings with drugs? Do the people whose problems are solved even themselves benefit? And are the highs less high if the lows are less low? Are we willing, as individuals and as a society, to trade higher highs for less-low lows? Does occasional melancholy make us stronger as individuals -- more sensitive, more feeling, more compassionate? Beats me, obviously. But interesting stuff.

EDIT: I don't mean to blur the line between normal sadness and real depression and other real, treatable problems that interfere with functioning. I don't at all mean to suggest that maybe people shouldn't get help for real problems and that it's bad to give people medication that helps them. What I had in mind was people taking Ritalin just to "focus better" even though they're pretty much normal to begin with. Stuff like that.