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Saturday, March 16, 2013
We’ve given up fun. So we have to take Prozac.
— Nina Wise, dance therapist
Disclaimer here: I know lots of people helped by antidepressants, whether for long-term chemical imbalance or to ease an acute short-term downer.
Meanwhile, many psychologists and doctors have been raising concerns about the growing population now taking these medications (1 in 10 Americans, including 4 percent of adolescents between ages 12 and 17), usually prescribed by general practitioners not trained in psychology and with no time to query into why a patient feels hopeless, worthless or disconsolate.
If medication restored any joie de vivre among most patients, it would be uplifting indeed. But a University of Pennsylvania study in 2010 indicated that while antidepressants did show benefits among the severely depressed, they generally had no effect on mild-to-moderate depression.
Meanwhile, only one-third of severely depressed Americans do take these medications, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This means yet another (non medicated) portion of the population is depressed. Factor in even more who will become depressed. It could be you, a spouse, parent, child, boss, colleague, student, friend.
That’s a lot of precious human time/life on the planet — and a wonder, mainly over the lack of wonder about it. The pharmaceutical industry has turned depression into big business. But shouldn’t someone be asking why Americans increasingly feel depressed?
Last fall, I described some Wendell Berry writings, in which he perceived our current lifestyle as one potent prescription for unhappiness. Why?
We no longer engage fully in life.
Instead, we’re cut off from reality, Berry writes. We’re disconnected from the land, wind and stars, wildlife and weather, creeks and roots, past and future, one another and, not least, our own interior life: the soul and creative genius that yearn to engage with this universe.
Years ago, I heard Nina Wise articulate similar concerns on a “New Dimensions” radio broadcast. Even back then (2004, before antidepressant use had grown even more common), she perceived that Americans had grown dispirited because we had forgotten how “to play.”
She meant heart-level, creative play, where humans could connect with life, one another and their own inner spirits.
In former ages, despite far fewer material comforts, humans would actively play — dance, paint, weave, carve, bake, sculpt, plant, potter, mend, sing, tell or enact stories, and constantly engage with the unpredictable and lively universe. Play — like life — was not something to purchase or download, but participate in.
Philosopher Alan Watts noted that humans play, by nature, because the universe we are made of is playful — not a predictable machine we should control.
Life’s constant element of surprise, Watts said, was the very adventure that made children shriek with glee in a game — the reason adults likewise played any sport or read books, ventured into the unknown or felt mysteriously drawn to the future. Who knew how things might go?
Reality itself was creative and always new, he pointed out — the very opposite of our Western-world obsession with security. The urge for uniformity, control and permanence countered nature, Watts figured. It led us to destroy, not enjoy, life.
But clearly, Americans do want to enjoy life. How-to-have-fun and how-to-feel-better have become big media themes — and booming industries!
That’s part of the problem, conservationist and anthropologist Jerry Moles of Roanoke wrote me.
Connecting “fun” to “happiness,” he said that Buddhists in Sri Lanka had taught him that “happiness isn’t to be sought after.”
He reasoned, “If it appears, then fine and dandy, but the true sense of being that should be sought is contentment.”
Cultivating the mind, an interior refuge that can radiate “loving kindness, compassion, altruistic joy and equanimity” to all other beings, he said, creates a far more stable contentment than do distractions, mindless entertainment and other trance-inducers — because awakening is charged with the circuitry of the universe. It opens to life, rather than trying to escape it.
Glenn Peters of Roanoke expressed similar insights, referencing America’s “Declaration of Independence.”
“I have felt for many years that this document contains a glaring error,” Peters regretted. “I firmly believe that if we ‘pursue happiness’ we are almost certainly doomed to fail.”
He quoted Samuel Adams: “If we are universally vicious and debauched in our manners, though the form of our Constitution carries the face of the most exalted freedom, we shall in reality be the most subject slaves.”
And “slaves to what?” Peters asked. “The endless pursuit of happiness.”
He added, “I think sometimes happiness is replaced by a great sadness when you observe what the American people are doing as we go blindly on our way, as we unthinkingly rape the Earth and ’most everything in it.”
His observations evoked, to my mind, the need for a more life-connected “re-creation” today. Other readers also addressed that topic in response to the last column’s question (“Are we having fun yet?”). We’ll hear from them, next time.
Liza Field’s column runs every other Saturday in Extra.
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