In any bestseller list you’re bound to find titles that sound familiar, the likes of The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck or The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck or Unfuck Yourself. I’m sure people are getting dizzy with the glut of titular ‘fuckedness’. These titles sound familiar because they’re supposed to; risk-aversion and repetition are the publishing industry’s heart of darkness.
Today’s powerhouse publishers comprise offices of marketing folk hard at work, engineering books from title to cover, riding the coattails of a preceding knockout bestseller. Of course, this is both their fault, and ours. We eat what we’re fed. We seek the familiar. The show goes on.
This generation’s pseudo-gurus have figured out that everyone is fighting a quiet, personal battle against things like sadness, procrastination, and self-betterment. But self-made adrenaline-apes like Tony Robbins, monks who sell their sports cars, and people who think about growing rich like the teenager who wishes hard for his beard to sprout, may very well find true wisdom by looking back, rather than ahead.
The wisdom of ancient, classical, and medieval times has stuck around because all other forms of today’s guidance originates from it.
In many cases, it merely ‘dumbs-down’ the advice of classical thinkers.
Many self-help or motivational books are nothing more than reiteration, contaminated by an uncomfortably capitalistic-edge, fixated on helping us become, in the words of Radiohead: “Fitter, happier; more productive”.
But writers and readers alike have always tried to seek answers for overcoming melancholy. There’s still no direct answer to what makes us sad. We are still searching, existentially and psychologically, to solve it, with melancholy (depression, in modern usage) appearing in infinite varieties, with almost as many causes and symptoms.
So what do we know about depression today? According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), more than 264 million people suffer from it across the planet. It is, however, in many ways a first-world affliction, with 76-82% of people living in low- to middle-income countries not receiving proper treatment due to lack of resources, training, and social stigma. And even though effective psychological and pharmaceutical treatments exist, the field continues to be plagued by inaccurate assessments and misdiagnosis, as well as the Russian roulette style of antidepressants.
"Many self-help or motivational books are nothing more than reiteration, contaminated by an uncomfortably capitalistic-edge."
In my search for answers, I found the writings of Robert Burton, a rogue English scholar writing during the 1600s. Years before the antidepressant, Burton wrote an encyclopaedic, 1,300 page book called The Anatomy of Melancholy, first published in 1621 and continually revised and expanded until the author hanged himself in his chambers at Christ Church Cathedral on 25 January, 1640.
To this day, modern medicine still cannot pinpoint what causes a depressive disorder. Its symptoms and origins are as wide-ranging as the people it affects: nearly one-in-five in Australia, according to the Black Dog Institute. Even the Australian Government’s Dept of Health signifies that depression can be caused by an interrelated series of factors, such as stress, genetics, biochemistry, temperament, and substance abuse.
But beyond the antidepressant and psychotherapy market, many of the lifestyle adjustments recommended by medical professionals were also recommended by Burton, who believed “there was no greater cause of melancholy than idleness” and “no greater cure than business.” He advised readers to fight against idleness by remedying bad diet, poor sleep patterns, exercising moderately, and avoiding from over-taking in alcohol. And although his logic was skewed, these common sense tips remain some of the most valuable habitual adjustments to combat melancholy.
Today, you’re more likely to hear the term ‘depression’ (short for major depressive disorder) instead of ‘melancholy’. This is because historically melancholia is an unscientific term – a pre-medicine phrase that translates literally to ‘the morbid condition of having too much black bile’. This disease was considered an imbalance of the body’s natural liquids, known as the humour theory, which thought we contained four humours: phlegm, blood, yellow bile, and black bile.
Writers have attempted to understand human sorrow since ancient times. One of the first to describe melancholy was Hippocrates, who included among its symptoms insomnia, loss of appetite, idleness (or apathy), agitation, and irritability. In 2013, modern scholar P Azzone remarked that back in 400BCE Hippocrates had successfully predicted six of the nine criteria we now use used in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V for short).
The DSM is used to diagnose major depressive disorder to this day, which are five (or more) of the following symptoms over a two-week period:
- Depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day;
- Markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities;
- Significant weight loss when not dieting or weight gain, or decrease or increase in appetite;
- Psychomotor agitation or retardation observable by others, not merely subjective feelings of restlessness or being slowed down;
- fatigue or loss of energy;
- feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt (which may be delusional);
- Diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness;
- Recurrent thoughts of death, recurrent suicidal ideation, or a suicide attempt or a specific plan for committing suicide.
The DSM-V marks ‘depressed’ mood as the first symptom of a depressive disorder, which may seem at first to be the classic error of using the word you’re trying to describe in its definition—but it’s not. Depression as a medical condition should not be mistaken for the everyday affliction of feeling depressed.
Burton described these two different conditions as melancholy ‘in disposition’ and melancholy ‘in habit.’ In disposition, melancholy is a fleeting mood. It’s transient. We all feel it at some point in our lives, usually after a legitimate cause for bereavement, death in the family, and so forth. This type of sadness is normal; it ‘comes and goes upon every small occasion of sorrow, need, sickness, trouble, fear, grief, passion’. It’s important to remember as we traverse life’s barbed paths, that from melancholy in disposition, no one is exempt. It is, in Burton’s words, ‘the character of mortality’.
One of the worst bad habits—in fact, Burton considers it the worst—is idleness. That may be so, but what we know for sure is that exercise, mental stimulation, business in both body and mind are all helpful in reducing symptoms of melancholy in our daily lives.
Insomnia, or conversely, over-sleeping, were also targeted by Burton as operatives of melancholy. A depressed person may very well sleep to prevent feeling their symptoms, or because of them, but over-sleeping, far from an antidote to sadness, can do as much harm to a person’s equilibrium as staying up all night.
Other habits he proclaimed to cause melancholy include binging on alcohol, eating too much or not enough at all, immoderate gaming and pleasures, lovesickness, bad diet, poor air quality (East Coast Aussies surely feel this sentiment acutely after the bushfire season we’ve had), breaking the law, lack of exercise, not confessing to a friend or companion, and so forth. Curiously, he predicted that depression can be genetic, although his belief was that the hereditary element of sorrow and fear was a product of imitation—that the child would mimic the father or mother.
"One of the worst bad habits—in fact, Burton considers it the worst—is idleness."
Some of his less-advised methods, however, include bloodletting (the opening of a vein with a sharp piece of wood to ‘bleed out’ the sickness), ingesting syrups of poppies, vomiting after meals, or exorcism. Contemporary readers may scoff at his references to witchcraft, demonology, and prayers to God and His saints, and I imagine most Aussies would want their money back if their shrink pulled out a Bible and crucifix and started evicting demons from their soul.
In the generation of hot takes, positive thinking dogma, and irreverent ‘slaps in the face’, maybe it’s time to return to the source instead. We do indeed live in a world with more and more information (and less and less meaning). It is therefore advised to take stock every once a while and to look backwards, rather than endlessly ahead. The Italian writer Italo Calvino claimed that the classical writers have stuck around because their books never finish saying what they have to say. By going backwards, he argued that it “tends to regulate the concerns of the moment to the status of background noise” and allowed readers to anchor ourselves by discovering the traces the classical thinkers have left upon our cultures.
The cult of the life coach has got one thing right, however: life is the most precious possession you have. No foul play there. The problem arises when self-proclaimed gurus reduce philosophy and psychology to cheaptalk platitudes, manufacturing their business from modern anxieties about life’s preciousness. And don’t be fooled. It is business. And business is good.
Am I the only one sick of these marching ants rising and falling from bestseller lists? Or the next Jane Doe’s hot take? Even my mate Robert Burton had something to say about this recent phenomena that has our generation by the throat. He claimed “a dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant may see further than the giant himself.”
Just don’t mistake the dwarf for the giant.